I used to watch Dirty Harry movies with my father. I dug so much about the character Clint Eastwood brought to life. His swagger. His thirst for justice. His shades. His aloofness. And the man knew how to wield a gun. He was complicated, yet simple. A product of his time. Black and white as they come.
I got him.
It’s been bitterly cold in the Northeast and I needed an escape for a few hours. Apparently, one guy in my town had the same idea. There we sat, a few rows apart in the stadium-style theater, the place to ourselves to see American Sniper.
My friends weren’t interested in seeing it. I had been trying to get to it before being influenced by any outside sources. I had been doing my best version of hands-over-ears and “lalalalalalala” for weeks.
I settled in with a little trepidation, to be honest. I had some sense of what was coming.
But first there were the inevitable previews. Furious 7 with Vin effing Diesel. One called The Gunman. Some Liam Neeson saving-the-world thing. Exploding. Shooting. Fiery messes. Cities. Deserts. Guns. Bombs. The theater actually shook with the volume and force of one trailer. Completely and utterly gratuitous, graphic violence.
What a horrible, dishonorable prelude to what I knew was to come in the feature presentation. That was my immediate thought as one preview after another proved thunderous and nonsensical.
My gut feeling was correct. Because what unfolded on the screen in the coming hours was a meaningful story of real people, particularly one named Chris Kyle. The American citizen in me felt increasingly grateful as the movie went on. I was in New York when those towers fell and while my call to action from it was obviously much different from those who enlisted, I marvel at the choice they made.
I’m sure I’m not the first to say it, but since I’ve tried to sequester myself from others’ opinions, I’m going to say it anyway – it was like a front seat to war. It was as close as some of us will get to understanding its reality. Over and over I’ve heard people like Bill Maher talk about how we in the homeland have been asked to sacrifice nothing in these wars, in contrast to wars past. He’s right. This film drives that point home. We’ve been shielded. Chris Kyle and his comrades have helped make that possible.
This is so not about whether we’re ‘for or against’ war. For what it’s worth – full disclosure? — I didn’t support going into Iraq. But these wars are a foregone conclusion. They happened and are happening. No amount of holding up peace signs is going to change that. We can continue to debate our Presidents’ (yes, plural) decisions regarding deploying troops since 9/11, but when it comes to American Sniper it’s missing the point to do that. Our ideal is a peaceful world. Our reality is that the world is in turmoil and this man entered an existing military structure, excelled in it, saved lives in it.
That, as I said, was my take as a citizen. But there was also something that appealed to the life coach in me. Chris Kyle had a gift. His father identified it when he was young. He could shoot. Don’t ask me to describe the kind of gun or rifle or whatever; I’m happily clueless there. However, I am drawn to a story where a person finds his or her purpose in the grand scheme of things. This is a man who did.
No, I can’t relate to an upbringing where a father teaches his son how to use a gun. But why do I have to? I was not brought up in a gun culture. So what. I confess to bristling in my seat a little at the culture Chris grew up in. I took a deep breath and told myself I could learn from our differences. And I did.
I suppose that brings me to how the writer in me responded to Jason Hall’s screenplay. I thought the storytelling was masterful. It pulled me in and still hasn’t let me go. It won’t for a while. For all the jokes we can make about Bradley Cooper’s sexiness, I think it’s a compliment to him that I didn’t feel like I was watching Bradley Cooper. I was watching a soldier come of age, cross the line, search his conscience, honor his overall mission, and try to sort it all out.
He says in the movie he is willing to account to his God for every one of his ‘kills’ and I think amidst all of the death and emotion I saw on that screen, that is what stands out most powerfully. As a spiritual person I’m being asked to explore something within myself here – am I going to judge that? Is it for me to parse “Thou shall not kill” in the context of war? It is all the more poignant that Chris Kyle has died and we can only wonder.
I could not do what Chris Kyle did. Most people couldn’t. Not just the pinpoint accuracy part, the killing part. But maybe that’s because some of us weren’t meant to. I recently interviewed a woman who wanted to do work with animals but knew she couldn’t be a veterinarian because she couldn’t ever kill an animal; she made the right choice.
There is a moment in American Sniper where Chris is on a rooftop and takes out a man who is about to be in a position to kill a bunch of Marines. After he falls, a little boy picks up his rifle (again, clueless about weapons so I can’t be specific) and tries to hoist it onto his own shoulder. Chris is in his head, pleading with the child to put down the weapon he is now pointing at those same Marines. The boy drops it and walks away and Chris is left emotionally shattered in his relief at not having to pull that trigger.
I had sucked in my breath without even realizing it and then I breathed in relief with him.
Lately I’ve been leaving theaters in tears. People’s stories, so varied, touch me deeply. The way they respond to their calling. The way they etch out their journeys.
I strive to understand people better. I really do. This one triggered something so emotional in me that it had me wanting to reach for comfort food. I went to a diner and shoveled in some eggs, toast, potatoes.
On some level, I got him.