American Sniper is a curious thing — a movie that’s provoking intense debate even though everyone appears to agree about what the movie says. Audiences on both the Left and the Right see Clint Eastwood’s film as having a clear, uncomplicated point of view about Chris Kyle and the American military effort in Iraq: There is good, and its name is America. There is evil, and we took it down in Iraq. The Right calls this perspective patriotic, while the Left calls it jingoistic, but both seem to think it pretty much sums up Eastwood’s take.
But American Sniper is not as simplistic as the response to it has been. Both those grunting hooah! and those shouting hooey! are missing the subtle ways the film expresses ambivalence toward Chris Kyle — not as a historical figure, but as symbol of a modern American warrior.
How do I know? Because in American Sniper’s visual language, the Bible tells me so.
Early in American Sniper, we meet Chris Kyle as a young boy. One Sunday while his family is at church, young Chris steals a Bible from the church pew, pocketing it much to his younger brother’s dismay. Eastwood then cuts to a closeup of the Bible sitting on a table at the Kyle home, and the shot of the Bible is long and steady, held in the center of the frame for several seconds.
We then see the family at dinner, where the father is giving his sons a stern talking-to. Intercut with the dinner scene is a flashback to the boys’ schoolyard earlier that day, where Chris had saved his brother from being beaten by a bully. Their father tells them that the world has three types of people: evil wolves, compliant sheep, and courageous sheepdogs. You don’t want to be a wolf, like the school bully. You don’t want to be a sheep, like the younger brother (who seems to be haunted by this talking-to for the rest of the film). You want to be a sheepdog, like Chris Kyle.
“We protect our own,” Kyle’s father says. “If someone tries to fight you, tries to bully your little brother, you have my permission to finish it.”
Eastwood uses Kyle’s childhood Bible as the visual symbol for this mentality. After this sequence, the same Bible shows up a few more times, always underlined in the film’s visual language. During Kyle’s first tour in Iraq, we see him pull out the Bible and place it carefully inside his vest before his first mission. He’ll do the same for every mission.
In case we’ve missed the importance of Kyle’s Bible — Eastwood takes his care with this — his fellow soldiers comment on it. One asks Kyle whether he thinks the Bible could stop a bullet — “Is that why you keep it there?” Ryan “Biggles” Job notes that Kyle never seems to open the Bible and actually read it. Kyle shrugs: “God, country, family, right?” When Job asks Kyle if he believes in God — and relatedly, whether he believes the American military knows what it’s really doing in Iraq — Kyle is flustered. He walks away. It’s one of the few times we see him flinch.
When Kyle was a boy learning to hunt, his father had told him never to leave his gun in the dirt. In his last firefight in Iraq, both gun and Bible are not just left behind in the Iraq dirt; they are overwhelmed in a sandstorm. That’s the last image we see of Kyle’s tours in Iraq, and it comes at the end of a nearly disastrous firefight, one catalyzed by Kyle’s determination to exact revenge. He’s been successful in fulfilling his own sense of justice, but he’s compromised the mission for it.
Chris Kyle’s cherished church pew Bible seems to be an Eastwood invention. In his memoir, Kyle only mentions his Bible once: “. . . I’d carried a Bible with me. I hadn’t read it all that much, but it had always been with me [since SEAL training].” He read it once after a firefight, he says, because it made him feel better to think he was “part of something bigger.”
But in the film, these few sentences are a touchstone for the way we’re meant to understand Kyle. The black, leather-bound Bible is a recurring object, a symbol of Kyle’s sense of self, his sense of the world and what’s required of him. And crucially, Eastwood seems to be saying, it is an unopened, unexamined sense.
At one point in the film, Kyle tells his commanding officer that he doesn’t know what a Qu’ran looks like. But he can spot a Bible, and he knows what’s important about it without bothering to find out what it says. He just assumes it’s on the side of the sheepdogs.
This pattern of images and scenes may be only loosely related to the actual Chris Kyle. But Chris Kyle is not the only subject of American Sniper. Eastwood has more on his mind. The Bible images are not incidental — they are part of what the movie is about. Using them allows Eastwood to maintain two perspectives at once: the Kyle of the film is a figure of American bravery; he is also a figure of how that bravery and nobility can be compromised — misguided in motivation, uninformed in duty.
Originally, Steven Spielberg was slated to direct American Sniper. While he dropped out, he, too, once told the story of an American sniper who had the Bible on his mind:
Barry Pepper’s World War II marksman doesn’t have much to do in Saving Private Ryan beyond shooting Germans and quoting Scripture. Pretty much every time we see him, he’s uttering Bible verses and taking out enemies. But the sniper’s Bible isn’t just used for character color—it’s an explanation of the way people bear with the weight of war.
In a memorable scene set in a long, sleepless night after a brutal battle, we listen as Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) and his squadron deal with the violence they’ve seen, the violence they’ve performed that very day. How did they get here? How can they ever go home and be who they were before? A soldier nods over to Pepper’s character, who is sound asleep in a corner, and wonders how someone can rest so well in the wake of so much warfare.
Private Reiben (Edward Burns) offers a wry explanation — in the form of a Bible quote: “If God is for us, who can be against us?”