I went to see American Sniper with my wife and left the theater with mixed emotions. I served in Ramadi and Fallujah during that time period and I found the combat segments of the movie unconvincing. The Marines didn’t look or act like Marines, the SEALs (besides Cooper) didn’t look or act like SEALs. Little things like the Marines’ equipment and uniforms being brand new and spotless after fighting through Fallujah and perfectly manicured palm trees adjacent to demolished buildings (my memory was that they were all blown to stumps) caused me to gloss over the combat scenes.
None of that is to take away from the bravery and dedication of Chris Kyle, however, who was by all accounts everything the movie made him out to be.
The part of the movie that I found riveting and that unfortunately gets less attention, is the dynamic between Kyle and his family as he struggles to simultaneously be husband, father, and warrior. Eastwood’s portrayal of the painful balancing act between fulfilling your professional military obligations and the commitment you make to your loved ones was spot on. I could readily relate to Kyle’s sense of guilt about being home while others were in harm’s way, and conversely his sense of guilt about being away while his family needed him at home. The film also highlighted the corrosive, cumulative effect that multiple combat tours has on military families; an effect that for many has resulted in either broken home lives or the early termination of a promising military career.
I also found the depiction of Kyle’s difficulty in decompressing and re-adjusting to civilian life compelling. The triggering mechanism of certain sounds, detachment from friends and family, irrational reactions to benign situations, and even his post deployment high blood pressure all hit home.
To me the great irony of the film comes at the end, when Kyle — who has found a way to manage his demons — attempts to help other veterans manage theirs, and is destroyed in the process.
From my perspective, when viewed exclusively as a war movie, the film wasn’t particularly unique or noteworthy. But I didn’t really view it as a war movie. The combat sequences merely framed Kyle’s struggles and personalized issues faced by the veterans’ community writ large. 52,000 young Americans were wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan, 22 veterans a day commit suicide, and the VA is struggling under the weight of 970,000 new disability claims from young veterans. Although the guns have gone silent and the colors have been cased, the battle for many continues.