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‘American Sniper’ provokes debate on Iraq, depictions of war

"American Sniper" has been nominated for six Academy Awards and is on track to be the biggest box-office war film ever. But the drama based on the life of a late Navy Seal, said to be the most lethal sharpshooter in U.S. military history, has rekindled debate about the Iraq war and the glorification of killing, as well as the veracity of Chris Kyle's own account. Jeffrey Brown reports.

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Now a look at a movie that has been at the top of the box office for the past two weekends, as well as generating a lot of conversation and controversy.

    Jeffrey Brown has that.

    It's part of our occasional series we're calling "NewsHour" Goes to the Movies.

  • BRADLEY COOPER, Actor:

    Don't pick it up. Drop it.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    "American Sniper" is a drama based on the real story of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL said to be the most lethal sharpshooter in U.S. military history, credited with killing more than 160 people in Iraq.

  • ACTOR:

    Do you ever think that you might have seen things or done some things over there that you wish you hadn't?

  • BRADLEY COOPER:

    Oh, that's not me, no.

  • ACTOR:

    What's not you?

  • BRADLEY COOPER:

    I was just protecting my guys. They were killing our soldiers. And I'm willing to meet my creator and answer for every shot that I took.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Kyle himself told the story of his multiple tours from 1999 to 2009 and difficult adjustment to civilian life in a bestselling memoir.

    Now the film, directed by Clint Eastwood, has become a huge commercial success, on path to becoming the biggest box-office war film ever, overtaking Steven Spielberg's World War II classic "Saving Private Ryan," with $200 million in ticket sales and counting. And it's received six Oscar nominations, including for best picture.

    It's also clearly touched a national nerve, rekindling debates about the Iraq War, the glorification of killing, and more, all playing out in popular culture, on social media and on TV.

  • BILL MAHER, Real Time With Bill Maher:

    I'm just saying, you know, the idea that Americans cannot see any ambiguity, that somebody has to either be pure hero or pure traitor, is ridiculous. And this one is just American hero, he's a psychopath patriot, and we love him.

  • BILL O’REILLY, The O’Reilly Factor:

    He was shooting al-Qaida terrorists, all right? And I would have shot them, too, because his job was to protect the soldiers and the Marines who were on the missions. And he was up. And when he saw, he shot.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Cody McGregor, Texas state director of the group Concerned Veterans for America, told me why he thinks the film is appealing to so many Americans.

    CODY MCGREGOR, Former Army sniper: Americans are hungry to see heroes on the field. And I'm not talking about football players this Sunday. I'm talking about our heroes that are on the battlefield.

    And I think it does a tremendous job and it resonates with not only veterans, but civilians, because it shows the battle that we incur in camouflage and the battle that we incur in civilian clothes when we come home. And I have got to tell you, we have seen the parades that take place when we come home from combat. I would like to see those same type of parades a year later, after we have come back into society.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    McGregor, himself a former Army sniper who served in Afghanistan, also thinks the film captures the ambiguity and pressures that people like him went through.

  • CODY MCGREGOR:

    The film does a great job in showing that there is far more to being a sniper than just pulling a trigger. You have got to be able to quickly assess the battlefield. You have got to make sure you're identifying your target properly. And you have got to be able to think through the larger impact of that trigger pull.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But, for others, that gun barrel focus is too narrow and ultimately deceptive.

    New York Magazine film critic David Edelstein says he greatly admires the film-making here, but not the message.

  • DAVID EDELSTEIN, New York Magazine:

    The way that you frame something, context is everything. Clint Eastwood looks at this character, Chris Kyle, in a vacuum, in a way that I think does a profound disservice to the men who died over there, supposedly defending our freedom, as well as the Iraqi civilians, tens, if not hundreds of thousands, who died as consequences.

    The film presents the Iraq War as a natural outgrowth of the attack on 9/11. Chris Kyle sees footage of the Twin Towers fall. He gets married very quickly. And the next thing you know, he is in Iraq. And there's no indication by the film that those two things, 9/11 and Iraq, are not connected. There's no historical context whatsoever to the movie.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    But then why are Americans flocking to the film?

  • DAVID EDELSTEIN:

    The story of Chris Kyle told in this extremely dishonest way is giving people some idea, yes, we lost him, yes, we lost these incredibly brave soldiers, but there was a reason we were there, there was a reason we had to be there.

    And the movie allows us, allows people to mourn Chris Kyle, to mourn the dead in Iraq, but also to say, this made sense, it made moral, it made cosmic sense.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The man behind all this, Chris Kyle, came home after four tours of duty and worked with troubled and wounded veterans. There are continuing questions about how much he himself suffered from PTSD and about the veracity of some of the accounts he gave of his own life and deeds.

    In 2013, Kyle was killed by a vet he was trying to help through some dark times. That year, Nicholas Schmidle wrote a profile for "The New Yorker" magazine that tried to pull together a full portrait of the man.

  • NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE, The New Yorker:

    He's an enormously dynamic person. He — he — all of the things that have been said about Chris Kyle, about his opinion — his opinions about Iraqis, his embrace of killing, all of that is true. And yet he also was enormously generous when it came to helping veterans.

    He was a mentor. I think he was a natural mentor. I think that if you — again, looking at some of the military records, he was repeatedly cited for his leadership and for the way that he worked with younger SEALs. And I think that carried on after he left the service.

    I think that Chris Kyle drew a line between us and them, a very, very bold line. I think that some of us would draw that line a bit further out and be a little bit more inclusive as to who the us is. And for Chris Kyle, it was a bit closer to him.

    But if you were on this side of the line, you were a brother in arms.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Actor Bradley Cooper, who plays Kyle and received an Oscar nomination, says he thinks the film puts a spotlight on the challenges of vets and their spouses and families back at home.

  • BRADLEY COOPER:

    So we tell this man's story, but he does serve a purpose, hopefully, that someone who is going to watch this movie who maybe has gone through what he has gone through, or has gone through what Taya has gone through can sit there and say, oh, wow, I'm not alone.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    That's one theme that's run through films that have tried to capture aspects of the nation's longest-running wars. "American Sniper" has outdone them all in the box office and says, Nicholas Schmidle, raised the level of contentious divide still further.

  • NICHOLAS SCHMIDLE:

    It has people talking about the war again in a way that perhaps felt reflexive at the time and felt very political and polarized.

    And you see — customarily, you see sort of these unlikely bedfellows of people who are saying — who are anti-war, but pro-film or think the film glorifies the war or think the war is anti-war, and I feel like a lot of people are projecting their own opinions about the past 14 years, how the U.S. has responded to 9/11, U.S. engagements abroad.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    One thing both supporters and critics of "American Sniper" may at least agree on: Americans are still sorting out their responses to our recent wars, and films are one way that's happening.

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