The Secret to the Success of ‘American Sniper’
It shocked the movie industry, with its $90 million debut ranking as one of the top 40 in cinema history. It made twice the money of the second-biggest January opening ever. It posted the second-best opening on record for an R-rated movie. And it’s already made more money than every film nominated for “best picture” this year.
The movie is “American Sniper.”
I have seen the film, and my wife’s reaction is the best thing I can say about. She is every bit the army brat. She was born in Nuremberg, West Germany, while her father was stationed there with the 101st. She’s also a graduate of Ft. Campbell High School.
We saw “American Sniper” together and when it ended she was in tears and so moved she was almost trembling. She was also silent as the final credits rolled with footage of the funeral for Chris Kyle. The most lethal sniper in American military history’s funeral was held at Cowboys Stadium in Dallas because of the number of mourners who paid their respects.
My wife’s reaction wasn’t unique. Listeners from all over the country reported similar reactions to me. And with the film receiving the rare “A+” from moviegoers via CinemaScore, more sold-out showings are still to come.
The film is on pace to gross over $200 million domestic, which would likely put it among the top 10 films for 2015 by the end of this year. But here’s a question: why?
Why is this particular war film shattering records and changing the movie-going paradigm? Yes, Bradley Cooper is excellent as Kyle and is an A-list star. Yet Mark Wahlberg is every bit the box office draw he is, and his well-made “Lone Survivor” didn’t perform close to “American Sniper.”
Yes, “American Sniper” is directed by one of the best ever—Clint Eastwood. However, this film has already done far better than either of Eastwood’s last two similarly excellent war films about Iwo Jima. “American Sniper” is even about the war in Iraq, which conventional wisdom tells us is probably the most unpopular war in American history other than Vietnam.
So how do you explain this film opening as big as a summer tent pole release from Marvel Studios or J.J. Abrams?
I believe what sets “American Sniper” apart, and why the politically correct crowd deems it inexplicably successful, is the first word in the title. It’s not just a war movie. It’s an American war movie. It turns out there are still plenty of people between the two liberal coasts who root for the home team.
The film begins by laying out Kyle’s driving motivations: Going to church and having a strong father in the home that taught him to defend himself and the innocent. A good dad and a good church were two of the key components in constructing the culture that gave birth to American Exceptionalism, but both are largely foreign or enemy concepts to the elites of our day.
Then like most of us, Kyle grows up to live a life of rebellion as a young man. He sows his wild oats as a wannabe rodeo cowboy until he sees an act of terrorism on television. Then the values instilled in him as a child re-emerge and, at the ripe old age of 30, he enlists and eventually is motivated to become a Navy SEAL.
Kyle meets his future wife over one-too-many shots of alcohol but that beginning is transformed into a rock-solid family. Yet again you see that despite Kyle’s imperfections, the values of Americana instilled in him as a child come back to life in him when the time is right. Kyle’s military accomplishments may have been extraordinary, but his life was all too typical to many everyday Americans.
Many of us can relate to being tempted by and indulging in the excesses of our freedom as Americans when we were young, but when it comes down to it we end up wanting the exact same “boring” life our parents found meaning in – marriage, children, and a home. That is yet another foreign or hostile concept to the elites of our day.
Once Kyle goes to Iraq, the movie lacks the post-modern moral ambivalence you see in so many war movies of this era. True, there are several times when soldiers express self-doubt about the carnage they’re a part of, but that is the human condition. Every time the doubt rises above that to the level of mission creep, Kyle is the conscience of the film. He assures his wife and fellow soldiers, and thus the audience, that what they’re doing is good and the cause is just. Several times the enemy is even described as “savages.” There’s no doubt how foreign or hostile that concept is to the elites of our day.
The movie is also unabashedly patriotic. Kyle is not just fighting for his “band of brothers” but also for his country. That point is never questioned in the film. In fact, the money line of the movie is when Kyle says he’s at peace giving an account to “my Creator” for every shot he fired, and that his only regret was he couldn’t save more of his brothers (by killing more bad guys). That’s the most foreign or hostile concept of them all to the elites of our day.
“American Sniper” is not a movie for kids. It’s got enough F-bombs to satisfy Quentin Tarantino, hence the “R” rating. It’s also more violent and intense than most of the movies Americans pay to see.
However, when you peel back that veneer of modern excess you find an old-fashioned war movie that John Wayne would’ve made a cleaner version of in his day. “God-country-family” is at the heart of the movie, regardless of Kyle’s imperfections. And while most of us could never see ourselves doing what Kyle did, we see ourselves in Kyle nonetheless.
We fall away from the traditions of our forefathers, and then come back to cling to them when the time is right. We want to believe that the American dream is still alive and well. And we understand that one person, no matter how flawed, if motivated by the right mission and purpose can still leave a legacy in this cynical world.
We want to hope again. Although the film is titled “American Sniper, ” make no mistake what it is really about. Hope.
Our elites thought they had eradicated that hope these past few years. They thought they had beaten everyday America down with malaise, disenchantment and division. But it turns out Kyle had one more shot to fire across the bow of the enemy. This time he took aim at the enemy within.
And in “American Sniper” his aim is true.
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