American Sniper- What do we learn from the film?

As headlines like ArtsBeat’s pronounce “American Sniper Continues to Rout Box Office Competition,” a thoughtful person must step back from this sudden phenomenon and consider: what am I looking to learn from this movie? Indeed, the movie can serve as a valuable focal point for national discussion about war and its impact. As a mental health professional who works with veterans and who did not serve in the military, I looked to American Sniper—as I do all war movies— as an opportunity to learn what I can about combat conditions and the soldier experience. I have found that some films can be a solid point of reference for my discussions with veterans about their actual experience. Veterans typically impress me with the discipline, devotion and courage it took to serve in a combat zone but I am just as interested in their revelations of the psychological cost that came with those actions. That balance is what I want from a war film.

Sadly, my local Cinemark theater biased the viewers before the film began. All six preview trailers were adrenaline-pumping, gun-wielding, shoot ‘em up films featuring such plots as the latest Vin Diesel thug fest, indestructible robots, alien attacks, sociopathic one-person-against-the-world battles, and vengeance-justified killing sprees.

Clint Eastwood may not have selected these appetizers for his film but the movie marketers shamefully set the stage for audience bloodlust with a score card of good guys vs. bad guys and with death as the ultimate solution. This is not to diminish the value of portraying battle valor and success but we have to remember that this is not the average soldier’s experience. Chris Kyle’s story as the most deadly American sniper lends itself to the classic movie genre and Eastwood’s extra touches emphasize the glory dimension. The most troubling example of this made-for-Hollywood quality was the (apparently fictional) scene which came across like a zombie massacre movie as Iraqi’s are mowed down by the apparently invincible Americans who escape into the sand storm.

Despite these detractions, during most of the movie I was able to empathize with the characters, including the Iraqis. Though it is a mistake to call this a movie about PTSD, there were indeed some glimpses into the psychological experiences of the characters.

The portrayal of Kyle’s wife, Taya, was an important dimension of the film. Unfortunately, she is introduced in the first bar scene as a rather nasty handful that Kyle rodeo lassoes into marriage with his charm. The problem with this is that it makes her ongoing struggle with the roller coaster of her husband’s back and forth deployments seem more like her own personal problem than as the completely understandable anguish experienced by most families of our veterans. During one reunion, she cracks that her husband is a stranger and the baby she is carrying feels like an alien. This moment of honesty is smoothed over with humor by her husband, but the truth of it is too easily dismissed.

The movie portrays other common war zone to home zone adjustment difficulties. After one tour, Kyle’s first stop before heading home is to a bar stool. Finally, alone with a drink, you see why he craves this chemical relief. Without it, he is constantly keyed up, startled by sounds and literally jumping with lethal intentions at a playful dog he misperceives as attacking a child. These are common and telling symptoms of PTSD. His high blood pressure betrays his stoic exterior. He appears obsessed with his military mission, and the film effectively suggests that he is partly hooked on the adrenaline high of the action as he craves his next returned to combat. Life at home seems boring by comparison. He has to be talked out of yet another tour.

The movie captures the experience of ambiguous loss, a term used to describe how loved ones often feel when a military member of the family is there but not there. It applies to when a family keeps a chair at the table for deployed family members. More eerily, it describes the experience of others when they have returned home but are not really present. Several times Taya’s face winces when her husband doesn’t hear what she has said. Should she drop the subject or persist to get his attention?

Kyle’s apparent modesty and ambivalence about his accomplishments combined with the “sheep dog” metaphor made him likeable. In killing, he focused on protecting American lives and values. This appears to be his defense against moral injury, but will this hold up for him internally? You get the feeling that Kyle is finally going to crack when he returns home for the last time. He awkwardly stammers in the auto shop when a grateful veteran persists in making him realize that he had saved the man’s life.
When he showed up at the VA, I hoped to see a process that would allow Kyle to uncoil safely. As it turned out, his coping strategy is what Judith Herman would call a “survivor mission” as he serves as an “older brother” to help other war survivors. Indeed, I’ve seen vets help vets as a complement to therapy but it is needs to be mentioned that this does not generally fully deal with the symptoms and problems of PTSD. Tragically Kyle’s future is undone by one of those men. And so, sadly for all, we will never know what trajectory his life and recovery may have taken.

As Eastwood achieved in his films of Iwo Jima (American and Japanese viewpoints), I hunger for films that portray different perspectives to simultaneous experiences. In this film, I was just as interested in Kyle’s soldier brother who headed off on redeployment with obvious internal conflicts about the war and his role in it. Many veterans need understanding and support as they confront the complex task of making inner peace with what they were asked to do for this country. I hope this film leads Americans to ask more questions about the experience of all veterans.