Failed Connections in American Sniper

Here’s another Sniper think piece. I know, just what you wanted! It seems that talk of the film will not rest, much to the chagrin of most of the American public. Understandably so, as the Iraq War has been the most controversial issue in America since 9/11, and one that won’t go away. Nor should it.

Based on a biography of the same title, the story of American Sniper follows the life of cowboy turned war patriot, Chris Kyle. This character is played by Bradley Cooper, who plays a masterful performance.

Directed by Clint Eastwood, the rest of the film portrays the grim horrors of Kyle’s life at war and the resulting strain put on his wife and two children. The twenty minute back story of his life leading up to his first tour of duty is a bit disjointed, compacting too much important character information into too little of a time frame. Its main fault lies in its weak foundation, of Kyle and his wife meeting, falling in love and getting married in too short of a time span, making it hard to digest the mass of events that just occurred.

As the movie progresses and his combat experience increases, the film focuses more and more on Kyle (and his subdued, almost robotic military persona), while shifting away from the home lives of his wife and children.

To see Kyle progress through these combat scenes is gripping–to a point. He becomes more and more of an enigmatic character as these scenes progress, amplifying the realities that come with one’s status as a war hero. Kyle’s incessant need to return to combat drives the film’s coverage of four tours of duty. Some of these combat scenes are shocking and naturally interesting to an audience who has never had to experience such atrocities. As these tours continue, though, it feels like that intensity continues to wane, losing the shock and adrenaline that had once pumped the scenes along. Additionally, it still remains almost entirely dedicated to Kyle’s journey. What is supposed to complement the tension of these scenes is the interspersion of calls with his wife, reminding the audience of what awaits back home.

Our lack of emotional sympathy and understanding for his wife and for their relationship make the tension and scenic pace hard to find. She often asks the obvious and naturally vexing questions to her absent husband, wondering aloud why he has a cold desire to continue to go to war; to the great chance of being killed and of missing the lives of his wife and kids in the process. Kyle remains impenetrable in any sort of response. This impenetrability is one of the main focal points of the film, and rightfully so, as war can affect soldiers in ways we will never understand.

But just as important is the way that war can affect loved ones back home.

For most of the film, his wife remains out of the picture. When she does appear, she’s only with Kyle or talking on the phone with Kyle, asking those tough questions. We aren’t able to see her at home interacting with the kids, with friends or family. And, again, when we see her in times of pain, it’s only when Kyle is present in the scene. This lopsidedness does not allow us the opportunity to explore her as a character or to feel her daily struggle (even though we see much of Kyle’s). This is apparent to the audience when they are reunited after the war, when Kyle reconnects with the family he had lost for so long.

You can see the relief in the way that he acts with his wife and children around the home. As a viewer, I’m not able to feel that relief of re-connection myself. It seems as if the movie tries to pick up the broken pieces without realizing that we never recognized them in the first place. I never figured out who his wife was and how she coped. I never got a sense of who they were as a married couple. And I never saw her interaction in the story as more than a sideshow from Kyle’s war story. If we had been able to understand these things, we would be able to really feel his return back to a loving wife, children and normalcy. In turn, we might have been able to better understand the strain of separation that loved ones have to endure during war, and the true joy they both feel if things become right again.

This is especially important for an audience that remains largely removed from that strain.  We’re already several generations removed from Vietnam, the last time much of the American public was able to identify with this sort of pain. These days it’s on a much smaller level and the day-to-day over there seems less threatening to our daily lives. This makes it easier to turn our heads away.

Of course, these are hypotheticals that I present. Eastwood decided to mainly focus on the man that was Kyle. From his perspective, we are added to the sure confusion he must have felt during and after the war in many ways, including the way he viewed his wife and children. That shouldn’t mean that the audience should be subjected to a limited point of view, as it restricts and clouds our focus on the entire picture.

That narrow perspective transformed this important issue into one that resonated dully. To me, this relationship was the most pertinent in the film, one that could have allowed an American public to better realize the detrimental effects that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars had on countless families. Instead, we are left to wonder how military families cope and manage throughout the entire process, and how our country can try to make things better.

Feel free to wonder aloud in the comments below.

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