American Sniper (2014)
Editor’s Notes: Warning spoilers ahead! American Sniper is currently out in wide theatrical release. For more on American Sniper, read American Sniper: Clint Eastwood and (Re-)Issues of American Masculinity by Ronan Doyle.
Film, or any piece of art, cannot exist in a vacuum. Rather than blast unprovoked from the more aphotic recesses of the creative mind, art is instead a manifestation of countless intuitive processes – some cerebral, others biological – the spawn not of an insular, uninformed being but of one belonging to a precise moment in time, someone who’s perhaps inspired by circumstance and primed formally and/or theoretically by a lifetime’s supply of antecedents; art is thus never a radically distinct or wholly alien entity, and should not be considered as such. With this, I think it’s irresponsible to untangle director Clint Eastwood’s vocal politicking from the onscreen content of his latest work, American Sniper (Or, as I prefer: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Gunner). So distinct is my memory of Eastwood, his face displaying a strange contrast of makeup-tinged vitality and naturally gaunt agedness, as he stood tall and prattled on at the 2012 Republican National Convention, delivering his “Empty Chair” harangue to a congregation hungry for that specific brand of evangelizing. No matter a viewer’s voting patterns, the knowledge of this event is catalytic, something that shapes the opinion of the man, for better or worse, as well as his relation to the world and any artistic output that reflects this relation. Such details afford us context, and guide us toward seeing how a particular work can be wedged into the amorphous, perspectivist puzzles that makeup our realities.
I write, of course, not without my own biases and background. The suburbanite son of two public educators, I’m an around-thirty-year old male who traditionally harbors liberal sensibilities, although I’d argue that this has little to do with my parents’ vocation and is instead due to gradually (read: very gradually) acquired humanitarian interests. More to the point, I have not read American Sniper, the quasi-autobiography of Chris Kyle on which the film is based, aside from the more publically discussed and debated excerpts that can readily be found online. But I’m also someone who cites Eastwood, in some small way, as a contributing figure of my cinematic education; my love of film and filmic analysis coincided with my personal discovery of Eastwood the actor. As a performer, I found that he exuded this iconic stony stoicism, and his lean yet impactful sentences typically fell, at least to me, on the side of honesty and decency. These films – among them the standards: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Dirty Harry, and Unforgiven – house within them issues of morality, to be sure, but aren’t what I’d consider sturdy moral templates or even quizzical moral studies; Rohmer tales they are not, but nor is that their aim.
I suppose then that my one pervasive, credits-to-credits complaint with American Sniper (Or, or: We Need to Talk About Christopher) is its unidimensional look at probity and honor during combat, in particular Eastwood’s beguiling attempt at straddling the congressional aisles in his presentation thereof. No matter Kyle’s reasons for writing his book, the story is still, by its very nature, of greater conservative than liberal interest, and this concept of having an inherently red-painted chassis isn’t a fact that’s lost on the filmmaker. So instead of obstinately committing to his own ideals – and presumably those shared by both Kyle and party members alike – Eastwood hones the work as something of a dialogue, a conversation between polar political sensibilities that’s ultimately purported, or at least it seems, to win over the sympathies of his audience. I read much of the narrative as a series of manufactured back-and-forths between purposefully flaccid left-leaning criticisms and emotionally potent right-handed responses. It felt cheap. It felt to me that Eastwood was doing his best to anticipate and appropriate liberal estimates of the material and answer them with admittedly stirring superficialities.
This all starts with the portrayal of Kyle himself. Acted in charmingly accented fashion by Bradley Cooper, the Chris Kyle of Eastwood’s film is a man – gender cannot be emphasized enough here, for women are a commodity, as we’re to learn, to be protected – of inspiring brevity and simplicity, a man who views morality as a binary system but is unassumingly content with this, a man who exists in something of a worldly disconnect, a personal vacuum. He is meant to appear without an agenda, as someone far enough removed from the complexities of politics and diplomacy and from procedural quandaries and philosophical hypotheticals that there rings an overarching, undiluted purity to his words, an air of affability bore of experience and confidence. The result is a human character, albeit a sketchily formed one, an intentionally nebulous figure of bifurcated function: represent Kyle and his more heralded individual attributes while acting as a surrogate for the general enlistee.
Unfortunately, both sides of this onscreen persona bring compromise. The story of Chris Kyle, the narrative formed by his actions in combat and his adjunctive testimony afterwards, is atypical of many if not most soldiers, as is the valiancy with which he joins the Global War on Terror ™. (Naturally, this is a meant as an observation of motive, not an assessment of character; like every professional outlet, the men and women who make up the complex network of our armed forces do so for a delicate mosaic of reasons, and are no less brave for most of them.) What Eastwood does is coalesce the image of proportion and nobility of Kyle’s story with the wonton abjection and so-emotional-its-physical response more commonly experienced during war. In this, Eastwood’s lead is a convenience of characterization, as he sheds the well publicized, less than admirable respects of Kyle’s personality for something more relatedly and universally human, nay, American; the protagonist is shown as truly brave, a man performing an objectionable duty not out of internal wants but nationalistic needs.
American Sniper (Or, or, or: Actually, I AM Legend) opens with the very same suspense ratcheting diorama as seen in its trailer, during which Kyle debates whether or not to fire upon an Iraqi child who’s carrying an anti-tank grenade toward a Marine Corps convoy. As his finger on the trigger steadies, quivering not, unlike his voice and conscience, the film bursts suddenly backwards through time, sending the viewer into tangent temporality that will eventually lead, full circle, back to those beginning, sensational moments. What transpires in these intermittent scenes represent Eastwood’s idea of development, of the individual-level ecological propellants that would bring a man to put a child in the crosshairs. It’s during these flashback sequences that Kyle’s father fosters in him a personal philosophy regarding the three types of people in the world as he sees it: sheep (those in need of protection), wolves (those from whom sheep need protecting), and sheepdog (who protect the sheep from the wolves). While this trifold classification informs in the protag a sense of protective duty and purpose (any slyly undercuts any non-military nitpicker-y), it also goes wholly unchallenged throughout the picture, hence reading as something of an endorsement. More than a developmental device, Eastwood is making a statement, one that calls to task the civilian criticism of militaristic heroes – and certainly anticipating the liberal denigrations that would follow the film’s release – because their efforts, their sacrifices, are driven by selflessness. This, in and of itself, is not an unworthy point. But Eastwood appears to be dubiously linking this global concept of valor with what is publically known of Kyle’s personality, eschewing any widely perceived flaws under the blanketing praise of sacrificial honor. In short, the work is purposefully divertive, a straw-man of more-democratic-than-not censuring that evades the complaints against its subject’s integrity, favoring instead to answer conservative-speculations of liberal questions regarding wartime politics.
So when the movie’s narrative returns to Kyle, rifle aimed at the explosive wielding boy, everything is allegedly, morally copacetic. We’ve seen glimpses into Kyle’s upbringing, his inveterate identity as a protector instilled in him by his dad, the bond between he and his SEAL brothers so laboriously forged in boot camp, and now an impetus to act, the credible and immediate threat to fellow members of the American Armed Forces. He fires, the boy dies. But Kyle is shown to be shaken, to be objecting, viscerally, to his taking of the young life. While this remains one of Eastwood’s most powerfully conflated statements – how soldiers can still be disquietingly affected by performing the very duties necessitated by war, and moreover, how they face an asymmetrical enemy willing, at times, to place children in harm’s way – it is not the image of Chris Kyle we know, not of the man who lamented that he hadn’t killed more “savages” during his four tours abroad, the man who later fabricated/bragged (bragricated?) that he shot rioters whilst perched atop the Superdome in the Hurricane Katrina aftermath, the man who circumscribed individuals and actions alike with a dualistic sense of morality: good guys vs. bad guys, right vs. wrong, Christian vs. Muslim. Eastwood needn’t paint the central figure as a sociopath, or even someone of a more aeriform code of ethics. But he shouldn’t have dealt in borrowed narratives, either, he shouldn’t have included the storylines in which details are borrowed or massaged or intentionally omitted in order to picture the lead as a troubled though no less morally infallible figure. Rather than employ his training as anything more than a litmus test of loyalty, rather than question what we can generously call tenuous and specious reasons for invading Iraq, Eastwood is content to offer the same aggressively succinct political points his lead regurgitates upon being probed by his future wife (Sienna Miller) at their barroom, whiskey-shooting meet-cute – who, being an attractive woman in leather pants, is asking to be approached by men – or later when she asks why he has to repeatedly, voluntarily return to a warzone. The Chris Kyle of the film believes that his work overseas can be extrapolated far enough that he is, in some way, protecting his family from future terrorist attacks; this logic is never challenged.
I recognize that it’d be irresponsible for me to simply fault the film for existing on the lines of conservative logic, as I, then, would be proffering the same, albeit ideologically inversed, brand of singularly voiced dialogue that I’m accusing Mr. Eastwood of. I suppose the chief distinction in our viewpoints is that I demand the “why”. Throughout it all, no single Iraqi is shown to be wholly innocent, and because everyone of foreign ascription is in some way linked to terroristic activity, no one ever questions what the US military hopes to achieve there with their presence. Moreover, no one confronts Kyle when he refers to local merchants – not insurgents, but a civilian who sold his friend a diamond so that he could propose to his girlfriend – as savages. And so it goes, as we’re meant to sit and watch, not to implore why enemy deaths are shown in vivid and sometimes spectacular fashion, why no one hypothesizes about or expounds upon the number of lives Kyle saves rather than those he that ends, or why there’s absolutely no mention, insofar as I can recall, of his writing his book, doing press tours, and publically selling his Legendary status and brand. American Sniper, for all it does right regarding the personal and interpersonal cost of combat and the labels thrust onto soldiers by the general population, is still ultimately a one-sided conversation – Eastwood talking to an empty chair.
American Sniper, for all it does right regarding the personal and interpersonal cost of combat and the labels thrust onto soldiers by the general population, is still ultimately a one-sided conversation.