At the end of 2014, American movie screens lit up with soaring tales of mythical heroes. No, not “The Hobbit” or “Exodus,” but two “true stories,” Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-nominated “American Sniper” and Angelina Jolie’s thudding adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s gazillion-selling book, “Unbroken.”
Popular entertainment has always reflected America’s sense of its military. Television shows such as “Sgt. Bilko,” “Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C.” and “MASH” mocked military life, and veterans laughed knowingly. After Vietnam, we turned to darker visions such as “The Deer Hunter,” “Coming Home” and “Platoon.” Now virtually every American movie about war, even those praised as thoughtful, trades in blind jingoism and cynical myth-making.
The story of the late U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle arrived with the publicity tagline, “The most lethal sniper in U.S. history.” Jolie’s biography of the late World War II veteran Louis Zamperini, was pitched—with perhaps more candor than intended—as “The unbelievable true story.”
Eastwood’s movie taps both lionizes and attempts to humanize an action figure. “Unbroken” puts its hero right up there with Hercules as he is shot down over the Pacific, endures weeks on a raft and endures torture by a sadistic Japanese officer. No fanciful dragons or parting seas, but these are hardly “true” stories.
Zamperini wrote his own memoir in 1956, with more focus on his conversion to Christianity and forgiveness of the Japanese. Hillenbrand and Jolie make him into a demi-god: There goes Louis at age 2, shinnying down a drainpipe … suffering from pneumonia; dominating shark after shark despite nearly starving to death; watch him run a 4:12 mile … in sand (his previous best was 4:08, on a track; the world record in 1943 was 4:02); wince as he is savagely smashed in the face by hundreds of fellow prisoners on orders from his captors, but never falters.
Zamperini’s suffering was real, but there is no real evidence for any of these tall-tale feats, despite Hillenbrand’s claims to the contrary. But hey, she had a book to write!
Eastwood’s Kyle is an excellent marksman who experiences qualms about what he’s being asked to do and struggles upon his return. Kyle was highly skilled and used his training as intended, but he was not the conflicted man played by Bradley Cooper.
Consider a few words from the 2012 memoir upon which the movie is based: “I hate the damn savages. I couldn’t give a flying **** about the Iraqis.”; “I don’t shoot people with Korans. I’d like to, but I don’t.”; his kill count threatened, he suddenly “had every stinkin’ bad guy running across my scope”—get it?
After coming home, Kyle claimed he gunned down would-be carjackers at a remote Texas gas station. But, he said, police swept it under the rug (no evidence of the alleged incident has ever turned up) due to his famous SEAL status. He also boasted that the government sent him and another man to gun down 30 miscreants from the roof of the Superdome after Hurricane Katrina; an appalling boast, but no such deaths occurred.
Some people surmise that PTSD may explain Kyle’s erratic words and behavior. And very few are qualified to judge him for carrying out his duties and making split-second decisions to protect his comrades.
Kyle and others like former SEAL Marcus Luttrell can hardly be blamed for shooting and telling; this is, after all, the Facebook age. But thoughtful memoirs and fictional works from earlier wars, from Robert Leckie’s “Helmet for My Pillow” and Eugene Sledge’s “With the Old Breed” to Philip Caputo’s “A Rumor of War” and Karl Marlantes’ “Matterhorn” (I wish I could make his non-fiction book, “What It Is Like to Go to War” should be required reading for all Americans) reveal a soldierly humility; they killed, but they knew better than to boast about killing.
But we, the American public, are the problem. Just about every Hollywood war movie made after the Gulf War, including such allegedly “anti-war” works as “Saving Private Ryan”— James Carroll calls it “war porn”—counts on audiences to swoon before heroes and meekly accept that “we” are the “good guys,” by definition noble and heroic.
For more than a quarter of a century we have allowed cynical politicians to lead us to someone else’s slaughter, few of us making any sacrifice at all. Rather than asking whether the troops should be placed in harm’s way in the first place, we have turned them into phony saints for our popcorn passion plays and bumper sticker boot camps, all the while patting ourselves on the back for the supreme sacrifice of “supporting the troops.”