I assume that Clint Eastwood will now turn, as he did with "Flags Of Our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jima," to the other side. Or the other end of the barrel, if that would be more succinct. "American Sniper" tells the story of Chris Kyle, who is referred to often in the story as "the deadliest marksman in U.S.military history." He is credited with saving hundreds of American soldiers' lives. The flip side of that is that he is credited with one hundred sixty kills, officially. That number swells to more than two hundred fifty if they didn't need certification. That's a lot of dead people.
I don't suppose I should have expected much more from the title, but Mister Eastwood has, in the past, shown a much more even-handed way of dealing with life and death. This was no more in evidence than in "The Unforgiven," a move for which he was given an Oscar for directing. Clint starred himself as William Munny, a hired killer lured out of retirement for one last job. He plays Munny as a broken man, who has turned to farming, but allows himself to be dragged out for one more killing by a young tough and his old partner. As things get darker and darker, Munny becomes more alive on the outside, but more dead inside. He tells "The Schofield Kid" after the kid shoots his first cowboy, "It's a hell of a thing, killing a man." If that's true, then it's a hell of a thing, killing a mother and her young son.
I'm not giving anything away here. It's been part of the "American Sniper" trailer for months. The decision to kill a woman and her child is not taken lightly. We understand that Chris Kyle had his own wife and young son at home even as he was surveying the scene through the sight of his high powered rifle. He took those lives to save those of his comrades. He did this at least another one hundred and fifty-eight times. It must have been a hell of a thing. Maybe that's why we see Bradley Cooper, who plays Kyle in the film, flinching when doors slam or dogs bark once he returns home. This was a man who was consumed by his duty, and eventually when that duty changed to giving back to others who served, it killed him. It's a hell of a thing.
So why does it feel like the movie is a two hour video game? Why aren't we asked to question the circumstances that made this former rodeo cowboy the deadliest killer in our nation's history? Kyle's nickname among his fellow soldiers was "The Legend." We are a nation that loves a legend: Paul Bunyan, Casey Jones, Pecos Bill, Buffalo Bill and Annie Oakley. Ox wrestlers, train engineers, sharp shooters. But these are examples from long ago. Chirs Kyle was a legend for post 9/11 America. His only regrets, he said, were for the people he couldn't save. Well, not those two hundred or so folks that he wasn't exactly saving. That was war. That's what makes a legend, after all.
Jimmy Stewart didn't shoot Liberty Valance. The man who shot Liberty Valance was John Wayne. Nobody would dispute that Valance had it coming, but why did Jimmy Stewart, or rather his character, Ransom Stoddard, get the credit? When a newspaper reporter decides to dig into the matter, years later, it becomes clear that Stoddard and his eventual ascendancy from territory delegate to Governor of his new state to the Senate makes a better story. The truth is thrown into the flames along with the lives of those forever changed by that bullet. "This is the West," insists the reporter. "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." It's all just a little more complicated than Clint has laid out in his version. Or maybe I should just wait for the sequel.