I went with my wife to the early afternoon show of American Sniper in Rome, Georgia. yesterday. We were very lucky to get seats (and, for once, we were early). At the film’s end, everyone departed with the kind of hushed (I mean absolutely silent) reverence that is higher praise than applause. I had heard this was happening, but it is still something you have to experience for yourself.
Did the audience exaggerate the greatness of the film to fill some therapeutic need, as some critics say? No. It deserves to be ranked among the great pieces of American poetry. Was it an accurate portrayal of the life of the man Chris Kyle? Well, I do not really know. But it was not meant to be a biopic.
The film gives us the heroic—but, of course, far less than perfect—life of the protector. His father tells him that there are three kinds of people: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. The sheepdog’s purpose is to protect sheep from wolves. That means, of course, using your natural aggressiveness, strength, and acquired skill to protect your own from those who threaten them.
The criticism of the heroic protector, from the time of Homer, Plato, and so forth until now, is that he privileges those he knows and loves over those he does not. The response is, surely, that he might exaggerate the evil or savagery of the enemy, but he is not wrong to think that his own are worthy of his love and devotion. Those who complacently make that criticism, typically, use it to exempt themselves from the duty and nobility. So when some bozo critic at the Rolling Stone (surely, at this point, the country’s most pathetic publication) said that the film was almost too stupid to criticize, he was savaged in his thread by those who knew he was not in a position to know what he was talking about.
Did serving in the Navy SEALS make Kyle better or worse as a human being? Well, before that he was a wandering cowboy living for the weekend and with little respect for himself. His almost fantastically demanding service not only showed him what he was capable of as a warrior, but also oriented him toward being a loyal and loving husband and father. One of the most striking features of the movie is the protector’s unwavering love and loyalty. The same goes for his wonderful wife. Our fighting men’s doing multiple—too many—tours in Iraq was the cause of the destruction of many an American family—but not in this case. Still, the film shows us the toll war takes on relational life, even in the best case. Kyle’s reentry into the ordinary life of peaceful protection of his own was really tough—and, of course, it was in many cases impossible. His wife spent lots and lots of time alone with the kids; she was often alone in spirit even when he was home on leave.
His dedication is to “God, country, and family.” But that extends readily to protecting his “brother” warriors in the Marines, and his protection of them is increasingly detached from the war’s murky and shifting larger strategic objectives. There is a lot of talk about whether the film is pro-war or anti-war, just as it is criticized for not focusing on how our political and military leaders failed our warriors by mucking the war up or choosing the war at all. The film is not about the war, but about a warrior. It is pretty much always the case that our political and military leaders have not been worthy of our best protectors. It also remains the case that Kyle is not wrong to believe that his is the greatest country on earth, and that all war morphs in the direction of warriors being mainly concerned about protecting each other and getting back home (concerns that obviously conflict).
Well, here is the most important thing. Bradley Cooper’s performance was just dead-on. He bulked up for the role. Not only that, he spent meticulous months perfecting every mannerism of an ordinary “manly man” from Texas (meaning the South). His “look” and accent are perfect. Most Southerners cannot help but say “I know that guy.” Especially impressive are his manners; his ”yes sir” was especially reinforced, but not learned through his military training. Equally impressive is that he is a casually or “naturally” witty guy who is obviously not only strong and skillful but quick on his feet in every way. He is the “citizen soldier” of country music, but that, of course, does not mean he is some Spartan or relationally marginalized warrior from one of Eastwood’s earlier films. He has some of the heritage or manners and morals of the Southern aristocrat about him. This is, in fact, a very Southern movie and resonates especially in that region that gives us a quite disproportionate percentage of our warriors. It is easy to say that since the days of the Confederacy ordinary Southerners have been suckers, but that kind of thinking is the height of ingratitude.
I will even say that the poet Mr. Eastwood knows he is making a big contribution to the very important project of presenting us the democratized Southern Stoic gentleman relevant for our times. Kyle knows who he is and so knows what he should do as a responsible, relational man in every situation. Well, he actually falls short of that, but only because the psychological cost of being a legendary sniper sometimes overwhelms his reason and paralyzes his love. He hardly ever loses his head or neglects his responsibility in battle.
I have to stop, but one more point on the Stoic front: Kyle is not much of a Christian. He carries a Bible with him but apparently never opens it. He does not pray, as far as I can remember. That does not mean that his skillfully protective personal love should not inspire our reverence.
The takeaway: We will, in fact, always need protectors (sheepdogs), and more than ever our SEALS, Marines, and other special forces serve us in a most countercultural and secretive way. They are sure not out for the glory these days. So we should all be grateful that Eastwood has aroused our gratitude or given us an antidote to our creeping and often creepy libertarianism.
Now, some critics have been offended by the implication that most people are “sheep.” That image, which has a long history, was not used by Kyle himself, but by his not-so-loving father. Certainly Kyle did not view his tough and self-reliant wife as some domestic animal. It is true that some of our professional soldiers who comment on the film are taking that image too literally. But that is almost understandable, given we have abandoned the “republican” view that all citizens are responsible for the defense of their country.