American Sniper and white guilt

I took my girlfriend to American Sniper because I had to write a dumb review for class. She wanted to go to the Imitation Game, but I was late picking her up so I bought tickets to American Sniper without knowing much about it before going in.

There’s a lot of gunfire.

And as the title suggests, this is an American movie. The Oscar-nominated film takes place during the Iraq War and is “based on the true story” of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the most lethal sniper in American history. The movie tells his tale: his rivalry with an enemy sniper, his guilt for the men he couldn’t save, the war from his eyes, and ultimately his struggle with PTSD.

While Bradley Cooper was giving a stirring performance (somehow reflecting the deadened exterior of someone with PTSD while emoting the painful internal battle), next to me was my girlfriend, someone who grew up in Iraq during the war.

While excessive gunfire can sometimes overwhelm me, my girlfriend seemed fine. Ho-hum. That was a theme throughout the night. I watched two-dimensional Iraqi characters get shot over and over. I turned to her with a sort of horrified-white-guilt worry in my face expecting some sort of emotional response from her.


Why would it? The screen is two-dimensional too. She’s not fazed by this stuff anymore. Even if this movie is not terribly sympathetic to Middle Eastern people.

Clint Eastwood directs American Sniper. He’s the man who made his name by playing “The Man with No Name” in those beautiful spaghetti Western movies. But part of the beauty of those films is the portrayal of good vs. evil. White hats vs. black hats in a grey landscape. The good, the bad, and the ugly. The question I had to ask is whether American Sniper follows in those dusty footsteps and whether those narratives are still acceptable. Is it too recent? How do you separate the art from the politics? The archetypes from the stereotypes?

From what I took from the movie, Chris Kyle didn’t make any Iraqi friends over there. The only significant relationship he does have with a Middle Easterner is with this enemy sniper, who is mostly silent throughout. The two never meet; Chris Kyle just wants to beat him. Is this OK?

What I’ve come to is, yes.

This movie isn’t journalism: it’s a story based on the true account of one man. That man had biases and was not fair, balanced or perfect. But I think it is still OK to call him a hero. He didn’t go over to kill Muslims. He went over because he thought his country needed him and he wanted to protect it from radical extremists. Not Muslims.

Is it the filmmaker’s responsibility to fix those biases? Yes, in some regards, but not by altering what this story actually is: the good-hearted American realizing what the reality of the Iraq War is. Many of Kyle’s fellow soldiers articulate nihilistic views of the war that Kyle struggles to push pass. The movie doesn’t present the Iraq War as noble, just Kyle’s intentions.

What about my guilt and worry?

My girlfriend thought the movie was pretty good. She corrected their Arabic and told me the enemy sniper was hot. She doesn’t gauge how people see her by a movie. And besides, if people think Muslims are the enemy from watching American Sniper, they probably came into the theatre that way.


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