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Just about every Iraq war movie to date has bombed at the box office, and there’s a reason for that: Like the war itself, most of those movies were bummers. Even “The Hurt Locker,” which did well at the Oscars, had a lukewarm reception at the box office. But along comes director Clint Eastwood with “American Sniper,” which has become one of the top-grossing films of 2014 in the U.S., and one of the most lucrative war movies of all time. The reason? It’s an old-school, John Wayne-style war movie of patriotism and righteous killing, and the American public has lapped it up.

So what if the Islamic State group controls the Iraqi city of Fallujah now? Here’s “American Sniper” to show us the blinkered alternate narrative: a U.S. Navy Seal kicking insurgent ass.

In truth, the real-life marksman Chris Kyle — the subject of Eastwood’s film, played by a bulked-up Bradley Cooper — did exactly that, with 160 confirmed kills and possibly as many as 250 during his tours in Iraq. He was extremely good at what he did, and if you were serving in Iraq, you were glad you had him behind your lines.

American Sniper
Rating
Director Clint Eastwood
Run Time 132 minutes
Language English
Opens Feb. 21

Much of the debate around this film has focused on traditional left-right divides, with Fox News loving the film and The Guardian hating it, but a lot of the criticism has seemed like anger at the Iraq war itself as misguided policy, placed onto the shoulders of Chris Kyle the man. Yes, Eastwood criminally blurs the issue by cutting directly from footage of the 9/11 attacks straight to Kyle’s deployment on an Iraqi battlefield, thus reinforcing the tricks played by the Bush-Cheney administration, but the film’s problems are separate from that.

“American Sniper” is billed as a biopic, but Eastwood cheats the truth in many ways. The film shows us a military superman, but takes the edge off his killing with a bit of moral complexity, showing Kyle agonizing over some of his shots and longing to return to his family, but there is little in the real man’s biography to suggest he felt any such doubts. Moreover, the actual moral complexity of the character is deliberately omitted. The real Kyle described Iraqis as “savages” and was quoted as saying, “I don’t shoot everybody holding a Quran, but I’d like to.” He also invented tales about shooting a couple of would-be carjackers near his home in Texas, and punching out former pro wrestler and politician Jesse Ventura in a barroom brawl (a statement which led to a libel case that he lost in court). There’s a movie in there somewhere, but Eastwood has shelved the moral ambiguity of his film “Unforgiven” for the moral simplicity of “Dirty Harry.”

There’s also the question of deliberately fashioning a white-hat-versus-black-hat narrative, where certain Iraqi villains are created out of thin air to serve as foils to our sniper hero. This is exactly the sort of mindset — a refusal to deal with complexity — that got the U.S. into Iraq in the first place, and a celebration of bloody-mindedness is hardly in order now, given the number of U.S. servicemen dead — not to mention the millions of Iraqis dead or displaced.

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