Like most public outrages sparked and sustained by Twitter and cable news, the one surrounding American Sniper was largely gossamer. On the left, we’ve had a coterie of detractors, ranging from the rabid to the glib, decrying the glorification of violence against a largely civilian population. On the right, we’ve had the usual platitudes about flag and country, as if merely telling the story of an American military sniper is enough to make American Sniper a worthwhile movie.
It is a worthwhile movie, but not for any of the reasons that were shouted back and forth on social media and TV this week. American Sniper is masterful not only because of Bradley Cooper’s powerful turn as Chris Kyle, the most lethal sharpshooter in American military history, or because of Clint Eastwood’s ability to tell stories about great and terrible violence. What makes American Sniper remarkable is that it captures the fundamental emotion at the core of military service, which is—and has always been—loneliness.
As those of us who had had the distinction of being where the bullets are know, the first realization of being in combat is that you may die; the second is that when you die, you die alone. This is why military camaraderie is always so loudly announcing itself: Men in battle zones are desperate to play up the strength of their bonds because they know that when the gun fires or the knife stabs or the explosive device detonates, it will strike them and them alone and there is very little anyone else will be able to do to help.
Such a recognition can unsettle even the most hardened warrior, and Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle is a study of a man struggling to stay composed. Being a sniper, he’s already removed from his brothers in arms, perched on a rooftop somewhere, watching over the American soldiers on the ground. They believe in him—his prowess and his confirmed kills have earned him the nickname The Legend, and the grunts going from door to door in Iraq’s most accursed battle zones consider themselves blessed so long as he’s overhead—but he knows better, realizing that war gives no guarantees. In Iraq and back home, he shrinks whenever anyone attempts intimacy.
This isn’t just post-traumatic stress disorder. It happens before, during, and after combat, and makes communicating with civilians and fellow soldiers equally impossible. It’s loneliness, and it is blacker and heavier than any condition modern psychology can begin to fathom. Which is also why war movies are so hard to get right: Loneliness, like boredom, is one of the emotions before which the dramatic arts stand helpless. Even an experienced director like Eastwood felt compelled to embellish Kyle’s story—the movie is based on an autobiography—with operatic moments that never happened in real life and wildly exaggerated antagonists.
The same tendency to lacquer over the lonely surface of military service with a shiny coat of invention is evident also in Talya Lavie’s excellent Zero Motivation. A young Israeli filmmaker, Lavie based her debut feature on an earlier short she’d directed, titled Lone Soldier. The term is IDF-speak for a soldier whose parents are either dead or living outside of Israel, but it serves just as well as a metaphysical label. The soldiers in Zero Motivation are all lonely. They are also largely female, spending their days doing soul-crushing clerical work in a base somewhere in the heart of the Negev desert. They try to form friendships but are constantly reminded that they’re soldiers, not people—the military machinery has its needs, and its needs trump all forms of human feeling. Even though the women are in an office and far from combat, death and violence are very much present, in clever and unexpected ways. And, unlike Chris Kyle, Lavie’s uniformed heroines are eager to talk about their feelings; they’re just fundamentally, existentially, irreparably alone.
It sounds depressing, but Zero Motivation is very funny, just like American Sniper is deeply touching. Being movies for adults—unlike, say, the flat The Imitation Game, which treats its hero’s loneliness with the same nuance a Batman movie reserves for, say, the Batmobile—these two military tales, different as they are in tone, tell the same story, the only story there is to tell, really, about army life: a story of soldiers alone.
Audiences in Israel, a nation that mandates that all of its young citizens spend several years of being alone together in the army, adored Zero Motivation. Moviegoers in America, land of the myth of the rugged individual, made American Sniper a surprise runaway hit. That this has to do with the quality of both films is hardly a question. But something more profound may be afoot. As this year’s Oscar-nominated films suggest, we’re in the mood for solitary confinement: Birdman is about a washed-up and lonely Hollywood star; The Theory of Everything tells the story of a brilliant young scientist about to be imprisoned in a wheel chair by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, unable to move or speak; and Whiplash demands that its young protagonist abandon all human relations and focus only on his drumming. For reasons probably not entirely clear to us just yet, we are lonely, and we crave tales of other lonely folks to help us understand just why we feel this way and what, if anything, might we do about it. The American sniper and the Israeli military clerks are good Virgils to guide us through this particular purgatory.
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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.