What made the ending of America’s top-grossing movie of the past two weeks so extraordinary was what happened not during the movie but after it. Anyone who’s seen it will tell you. It was the silence, the silence as American Sniper came to an end. There was no soundtrack blaring at us as the credits rolled, a bold decision by the movie’s 84-year-old director, Clint Eastwood. That choice had its intended effect; not one person in the theater spoke while they rolled.
In a world where silence is difficult to find anywhere human beings gather — and even where we don’t — Clint Eastwood created a space for the audience to just shut up for a moment and share some silent time together, without comment, without opinion or text or tweet.
But it wasn’t just the silence. It was the stillness. Not one person in a very full theater moved as the credits rolled. Not one person got up and tried to beat the crowd or got on the phone.
It wasn’t until the house lights were up that the audience ushered out of the theater, visibly shaken, most of us wiping away tears, or still trying to hold them back, as if we’d just been through something important together — something profound, like a funeral. It was just a few hundred of us, old and young, white and black, and every ethnic group imaginable, alone in the dark in the Malco Theater in Oxford, Miss., doing our best to process what we’d just witnessed and lived through, which was, in some respects, what so many of our soldiers lived through in Iraq.
Actually, that’s not quite true. We witnessed what one soldier — Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in the American military during the Iraq War — lived through on and off the battlefield. We walked in Chris Kyle’s boots for two hours and 14 minutes, through four tours of duty, his trips to Iraq and his trips back home again. We got to know where he was born, how he grew up, what he believed, and, most important, how his service in Iraq impacted him — and his family.
American Sniper broke box-office records because it dared to be an old-fashioned movie about a modern hero, about good and evil, about an American war hero who nearly loses everything, himself included, in a war that almost every American had an opinion about but almost none experienced. That’s what that silence was all about, and all the stillness and tears. It was about — in a word — reverence. At a time when our culture peddles irreverence endlessly, there is a hunger to see real-life men and women doing extraordinary things, hard things, things that we can’t imagine, but want to.
Some of Chris Kyle’s comrades lived through the war, and some didn’t. Some came out stronger, and some were broken. Some might not ever recover from the trauma.
That’s why we lined up to see American Sniper: because it wasn’t a simple-minded war film. Indeed, it was the exact opposite.
We lined up because the movie contained none of the cynicism of Full Metal Jacket and none of the surrealism of Apocalypse Now — and none of the condescension of a movie like Jarhead. Those movies weren’t about the soldiers; they were about the directors and their take on those wars. Eastwood didn’t take that route. He didn’t make this movie to make a point about the war in Iraq. He made the movie to tell a story about one warrior. And what a story it is.
It took a steady hand like Eastwood to do the story justice. There were no subplots, no dazzling technical scenes, no distractions or diversions or editorial asides. The focus was on Chris Kyle exclusively — relentlessly, even, as Eastwood piled up detail after detail of his life, until all of us understood what being Chris Kyle was like. The film doesn’t mock his values or his roots. It actually respects his humor, his simplicity, his toughness, his grit — and his courage. And, most important, it respects his humility.
That’s why we lined up to see American Sniper. We lined up precisely because it was not a gung-ho macho Rambo movie. Indeed, we see the emotional toll that war takes on Kyle, the toll that comes from watching his buddies get blown up, and the toll that pulling the trigger each and every time takes — even the toll that quitting the battle takes, leaving his fellow Marines behind to fight the next fight.
We see the toll that combating and witnessing real evil takes on him, even if he won’t admit it to doctors, or to himself. A scene where Kyle’s blood pressure is taken while he’s home on leave between tours tells the tale. It’s sky-high, and it’s sky-high because the stress of war is something even this hardened war veteran can’t brush off. His heart can’t trick a heart monitor.
It doesn’t take long for us to experience that stress ourselves. The movie begins with Kyle on a roof in Iraq, protecting a convoy. Things are quiet, but the sniper’s eyes aren’t normal eyes. He’s on the lookout for suspicious activity, and spots a mother handing a young boy a small metal object that looks like it could be a trinket. But Kyle’s eyes see something different — an explosive device, possibly. He’s not sure. We’re not sure, either.
So he watches the child through his scope. We watch the child through that scope, too. Kyle’s heart pounds. He watches. And waits. And we watch and wait with him.
He’s warned by a buddy on that roof that if he pulls the trigger and he’s wrong, he could find himself serving time in Leavenworth for killing an unarmed child. And yet, if the item ends up being what he thinks it might be and he doesn’t fire, his comrades could end up dead.
This is no ordinary job, Kyle’s. It’s no ordinary life. Indeed, it’s no ordinary war he’s fighting, and no ordinary enemy.
Soon, it becomes clear that the boy is intent on throwing what he’s holding toward the convoy. Kyle pulls the trigger slowly and kills the boy instantly. His mother runs toward the fallen child, but she doesn’t check to see if he’s dead or alive. She doesn’t even bother to shed a tear. She instead picks up the explosive device her son dropped when he was killed and hurls it at the convoy. Kyle pulls the trigger again and kills her too — and saves the life of many American soldiers.
That too is why we lined up to see American Sniper: because Eastwood wasn’t afraid to see the enemy in Iraq as Kyle saw the enemy. The enemy wasn’t ordinary Iraqis. It was a cadre of Islamic thugs who instilled fear in the lives of the locals with practices so savage it made us wonder if the citizens didn’t long for the bad old days when Saddam Hussein and his psychopath sons were in power.
There’s a scene in the movie where American soldiers are seen talking with an Iraqi family. Moments later, Kyle watches one of those street thugs take the child of the man who spoke to those soldiers and drive a power drill through his son’s leg, and then through his son’s head. The father races to save his son from the savagery — and gets gunned down in broad daylight for all to see. We watch it all, and feel what Kyle feels: helplessness, horror, and anger.
That too is why we lined up to see American Sniper: because so many of our soldiers were sent to a war so many Americans were for before we were against it. Our soldiers didn’t have the luxury to debate the war’s efficacy and, once sent to fight, did what soldiers do, which is everything they could to save their brothers’ lives, to kill the bad guys before the bad guys killed them.
We lined up for American Sniper because it compelled us to see the war through Chris Kyle’s eyes, to see how his tours of duty numbed him, how he came home after each tour ever more distant from his wife and kids, from the ordinary pleasures and rhythms of civilian life, from his own life, and from the country he so proudly defended. “Welcome home,” a soldier says to Kyle as he lands at an air base in Iraq to start his third tour of duty. For too many years, Chris Kyle’s real home was a battlefield in Iraq.
We lined up to see American Sniper because it was also a remarkable love story, of love found, lost, and rediscovered. It was beautiful to watch Kyle and his wife meet and fall in love — as beautiful as it was painful also to watch the two of them as distant as a wife and husband can be. There were moments where the love seemed dead, with Kyle unable to communicate his feelings to a wife who was alone when her husband was on tour, and even more alone when he was home.
We understood why he was distant, why he just couldn’t be the man he’d been before he was deployed. He didn’t have the words to describe to his wife what he saw, and knew, and what he knew he was returning to.
There’s a remarkable scene where Kyle is at home after his third tour and about to head out on his fourth. He’s staring at a blank TV, oblivious to everything around him. His wife watches him watching the blank screen. What she’s really watching is a ghost of the man she knew. We know why he’s staring at that TV. She doesn’t, because she doesn’t know what he knows – and what we know.
That’s why we lined up to see American Sniper. Clint Eastwood’s agenda had nothing to do with politics, or his opinion about the war in Iraq. His only agenda was getting the story of Chris Kyle on film – the story of a good and godly man doing his best in ungodly circumstances, a man we can rightly call heroic.
“They did it right,” a fellow Navy SEAL and friend of Chris Kyle told CNN. “Thank God, they did it right.”
That’s why we lined up to see American Sniper: because it got Chris Kyle’s story right. And in doing so, it got the story of the modern American soldier right, too.
— Lee Habeeb is the vice president of content at Salem Radio Network. He lives in Oxford, Miss., with his wife, Valerie, and daughter, Reagan.