Recently, I saw a breathtaking movie. Afterward, I had to question my excitement. The film was American Sniper directed by Clint Eastwood, starring Bradley Cooper. A near-perfect suspenseful script, brilliant acting, and a rendering of the Iraq War was moving – searing in fact. Against a background of destitute limestone buildings and impoverished towns, the American sniper, played by Cooper, takes aim and kills any Iraqi who carries a lethal weapon against his American fellow soldiers. In his first shoot, a young boy is killed because he was carrying a grenade to take out twenty of those soldiers. That one moral question reverberated so severely through the audience’s emotional systems, the other perhaps more urgent moral questions were buried by its intensity. The difficulty Bradley Cooper had with his marriage after his PTSD, returning home to America and staring aimlessly at walls, unable to communicate with his wife and children, furthered the pathos of the film, rendering a soft and tender emotional layering that obscured the film’s more ambiguous moral issues. The viewer soon puts the Iraqi landscape of impoverishment and military inferiority and the near serial killer instincts of the Bradley Cooper away, as the compelling story of this one man, the American sniper, is explored with dramatic excellence.
Though I was fully entranced, lurking in my conscience were eventual questions about the general morality of our involvement in Iraq after 9/11 and the moral attitude of forgiveness toward an emotionally driven killer, who with zeal and high moral purpose killed more than 150 Iraqi people, including putting an innocent Iraqi family at risk so they were executed by the extremists. Being from the Middle East in heritage, I have seen such impoverished villages and towns on the other side of the Israeli border. I am no stranger to the brutality of Islam extremists as well, but because Iraqi families and homes were raided in this film and thrown like so much flesh to a hungry shark, the killing of innocents and the plight of innocents in the real skirmishes we witness today in the Middle East were glossed over. The focus on our dubious hero sniper dominated the film, defined its moral perimeters.
Later, I read that the actual sniper the film was based on was hardly viewed as a hero by his own army. By all accounts, he was a disturbed and driven soul. As I heard more, the likeness of the real person to his movie character grew dimmer and dimmer. At best, the real sniper, a man named Chris Kyle, was of questionable motivations.
Having felt the Iraqi war was a large mistake and a lapse in judgment, it should have been easy for me to hate this movie, which glorified our soldiers’ roles and the determination of the sniper to protect his fellow men. The fact that I didn’t, the fact that I loved this film, was troubling beyond words. I confess my intense attraction to Bradley Cooper, an actor I find about the sexiest and finest around, contributed to my awe of the movie. I also confess that Clint Eastwood has proven to be a director extraordinaire, that his sense of timing and suspense is superlative. He can set up tension and scenes like a cinematic magi. So the question I want to explore is: does it matter? That is, in movies and books, does it matter if the material is noxious and immoral but the artist renders it brilliantly, taking one in completely. Does its value diminish because of the bad morality that is its bedrock, and because it doesn’t stay true to actual people (who are called their real name in the picture)?
I haven’t answered the question yet. It reminded of the time when I found out my favorite philosopher, Martin Heidegger, was a Nazi sympathizer and worked with Hitler’s national socialist party, admitting in his famous “black books” that he saw Nazism as a glorious new frontier and wanted to support it, including its anti-Semitism. In no way could I throw out his genius. His Time and Being remains a landmark in philosophy, and it makes no mention and gives no hint of his Nazism. As is true with Ezra Pound, a great poet by any standard, and a Nazi sympathizer as well, Heidegger will remain as the father of existentialism, its most ingenious theorist.
I did, I admit, cringe and hate myself for admiring this film when the Bradley Cooper called the Iraqis “savages” that have to be destroyed or they will infiltrate America. The hero worship grew tedious and unearned once the sniper had killed more Iraqis and there continued to be an unbalanced, uncontested treatment of the Americans as heroes who could do no wrong, as well as the Bradley Cooper character experiencing his victims, like a serial killer, with no guilt, remorse or self-reproach. The question of a preemptive strike against innocents by George Bush’s declaration of war against a country that had little or nothing to do with 9/11 simply did not figure into Eastwood’s depiction of the Iraqi War. Or seem to trouble any of the players.
I thought these were valuable misgivings. It’s another example of how excellent artistry and brilliant directing and acting can so easily overshadow one’s judgment. I still tell friends to go see it, but warn it is painfully difficult to admire it so very much.