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American Sniper


On Friday night I went to Reading Cinemas in Wellington to finally watch director Clint Eastwood’s latest offering, American Sniper. To my mind American Sniper is no simple jingoistic hero worship movie.   I do not agree it is simply too dumb to criticise as one American reviewer put it for the perceived diminution of broader questions of politics.  

The film has generated much conversation and controversy for its portrayal of Chris Kyle, a US navy seal who made at least 160 confirmed kills during his multiple tours of duty to Iraq in the invasion of that country by US and other national forces (it is based on a book written by Kyle and Jim Defelice and Scott McEwen). I can’t comment on comparisons with the book and the real life Chris Kyle so I will solely comment on the film itself and the ideas expressed therein. A significant part of the controversy has been the recently concluded trial of Eddie Ray Routh, a traumatised US soldier Kyle tried to help rehabilitate, who in turn shot Kyle and fellow soldier Chad Littlefield at a gun range. Routh was found guilty of murder. The film covers how Chris Kyle saw the war as a response to the 9/11 attacks and an expansion of his moral duty to protect and the real impact of post traumatic stress disorder of combat soldiers.

The great protector’s film reviewer Graeme Tucket has already noted Kyle’s sense of moral duty absorbed as a child after his Sunday school teacher father tells him “there are three types of people in the world; the sheep, the wolves and the sheepdogs”. This sermon comes after the preceding scene shows Kyle’s younger brother beaten by a schoolyard bully before Kyle grabs the boy off his brother and metes out swift retribution.

When 9/11 occurs, Kyle enlists to begin the harsh training needed to be a navy seal, this is an expansion of his role as protector of the weak against the wolves who threaten them. Kyle earns the moniker “the legend” after his kills start to mount up but I never got the sense in the film that he kills with any relish rather he does so out of duty and his broader responsibility as a protector.

Post traumatic stress disorder

To Kyle he serves for the greater good. In this sense he appears to epitomise the soldiers of whom Lord Tennyson wrote in the charge of the light brigade, “theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die”. Yet perhaps the most powerful aspect in the film is the fragility of the psyche as we see Kyle gradually grow more distant and estranged from his wife when he returns from each more arduous tour of duty (others bear much less well than Kyle who did recover psychologically). Kyle regularly witnesses fellow soldiers shot and blown to pieces and in one important moment an expression of doubt by a fellow soldier as to whether there is any redeeming moral purpose to their war. Kyle constantly suppresses his doubt yet he struggles to leave behind his Iraq experience when he is back stateside and his moral duty as protector boils over at a barbeque when he takes his belt off in order to deal to a dog merely playing with one of his children.

It wasn’t until the Vietnam war when the US started to really acknowledge the stressful impact and psychological damage done to soldiers from a war experience and I learn not until 1980 that the American Psychiatric Association added PTSD to its textbook on diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.


Understandably, American Sniper has stoked controversy surrounding its at times glamorous depiction of killing and American political battle grounds around gun control, and the Iraq war itself, but to me the film shows the damage both physically and psychologically done by war and a war in particular of such ambiguous and doubtful purpose. This is especially so when juxtaposed with Kyle’s early stage clarity of moral purpose as a sheep dog with doubt expressed by those around him, his attempts to suppress any doubt and struggles to leave the conflict behind. I do not think this is a film which is too defined by blood lust and I found it extremely thought provoking. This is highly recommended.


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