NAVY SEAL CHRIS Kyle was America’s most lethal soldier. Single-handedly, he killed over a hundred and sixty Iraqis (or “savages” as they’re referred to). He was regarded with awe and considered a living legend by fellow soldiers and those who knew of his achievements. In lieu of the real thing (Kyle was himself murdered by an emotionally unbalanced vet he was trying to help), “American Sniper”, Clint Eastwood’s latest, has become the go-to movie of Red state America (it earned over $100M last weekend). To them, it offers a wonderfully patriotic narrative of heroism and victory both in war and in self doubt, all in the face of insuperable odds.
Movies of war (perhaps without the pause for the honesty of evaluation or the mask of nostalgia) often tend to reflect a collective perspective about the particular war. Hollywood’s version of Word War II was, via Audy Murphy, or the more recent “Fury” for that matter, a celebration about how America won the war; for the Brits, that war was more about a celebration of British fortitude for having endured the Blitz and the rationing that followed. Both narratives reflected versions of identity.
The movie narrative of Vietnam, from “Good Morning Vietnam” to “Mash” (though this was ostensibly about Korea) was darker, more cynical, more condemnatory of those who lead the nation into the fog of war and the reality of failure.
The narratives of this new series of wars…against vague abstract goals in Iraq and Afghanistan initially focused on the lasting damage it was doing to returning soldiers (as a stand in for the damage it was doing to the psyche of America) in brilliant movies such as “In the Valley of Elah”; and in movies such as “The Green Zone”, the dubious morality of the wars was examined.
“American Sniper”, with that distinctive adjective (it’s not simply “Sniper”, it’s a particular type of sniper, the “American” one) is Clint Eastwood’s continuation of the counter-argument probably initiated by movies such as “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty”. This counter-argument suggests that these wars were/are defined by the heroism of (mainly) men who are putting their lives on the line to keep America safe. In a sense the righteousness of these wars – now rapidly crystallizing away from the adventurism of Bush and Blair into a defensive crusade against Islamic terrorism – offers a new and more triumphant perspective on American identity. This isn’t a case of great art being co-opted by political fervor (as say Wagner was by the Nazis). There’s nothing about the movie to suggest that the way the movie is being read by its supporters is in any way less than the movie intends to be read.
Kyle is never for a moment in any doubt that what he’s doing is right. He says to a therapist that “When I meet my maker I’m prepared to defend why every one of those I killed deserved to die”. There’s nothing in the story-line to suggest that we the audience should take this in any way but at face value. In Kyle, Eastwood offers us an old fashioned, stoic, taciturn John Wayne type of hero who has mastered to art of locking away any troublesome issues (like moving away from the field of battle when he’s back home) as though they don’t really exist. For him, the way to deal with the awful darkness of killing people is to reposition his actions to himself as simply a means of keeping soldiers alive. Kyle is a man, a trained hunter from his youth, whose life is built on the foundation of two complementary philosophies: God, country and family, and the more intimate philosophy taught to him by his dad. “There are three type of people in the world,” says dad, “Sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. You must never be a sheep, never be a wolf; always be a sheepdog”
The idea of America as the world’s sheepdog is a tremendously appealing version of national identity.
The movie’s structured along the lines of the traditional Western. There’s a bad guy who’s killing good guys and who needs to be killed by the hero, the sheepdog. This is The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence set in Falluja. Here, the faceless enemy is given a face in the form in an Iraqi sniper, Kyle’s counterpart and opposite number. He is an Olympic gold medalist, Mustafa, who like Kyle is a ruthless killer. Eastwood shows him picking off the Americans (vulnerable, ever threatened by seemingly innocent fathers and mothers who harbor stockpiles of weapons buried in plain sight) with deadly precision. Like Kyle, he too is a father and husband and presumably, like Kyle, he too is doing his job for God, country and family.
Alas, “American Sniper” never deviates too far from its central argument to add unnecessary nuance. Mustafa is the deadly face of the enemy that needs an even deadlier force to take him out. Boohah!
Bradley Cooper (massively bulked up) is Eastwood’s perfect choice. He exudes trustworthy protectiveness and passionate patriotic fervor. Who wouldn’t trust this decent, good-looking, faithful, honorable man? Eastwood never allows us to question for a moment the building psychosis of the killings. After the shock of his first kill, he quickly settles into the complacent acceptance that it’s what has to be done in the cause of God, country and family.
The action is good (Eastwood takes us there into the heart-stopping terror of being in a war zone) and the acting is superb (Cooper is on central stage for the entire movie which he charismatically holds). Even Sienna Miller as Taya, his wife, does the usual (in films of this sort) duty of crying, imploring and looking pained, convincingly.
But “American Sniper” is a disingenuous revisionist presentation of the (failed) war in Iraq.
We’re presented with three core images of the war: Kyle’s heroic, skillful ‘kills’. One hundred and sixty plus kills. And all of them, like the kid at the beginning of the movie, were bad guys out to get the good guys. The world of massive collateral deaths that scar the reality of these wars, and of Abu Ghraib just never exist in the world of Eastwood’s morally righteous war.
It’s one thing for a character to be blissfully untroubled about killing people in defense of country. But where’s the director’s artistic thoughtfulness in all this? He too seems untroubled by the morality of war and of lionizing Kyle as a modern day hero; a modern day take on the American identity.
The American soldiers, as seen through the lens of Mustafa, are vulnerable easy targets. There’s a moment as a troop of soldiers, increasingly defenceless and stranded on a roof-top are surrounded by hoards of infitada swarming toward them. Poor, defenceless marines; all decent people planning weddings, back home BBQ’s now under threat by swarming faceless brown savages.
It’s “Zulu” all over again.
It makes for compelling, exciting story telling.
It’s almost as though the might and firepower of the US Armed forces and the rag-tag group of Iraqi insurgents were evenly balanced…and the more morally righteous force won. Hmm.
In the movie, Eastwood consistently reiterates what America is fighting for in Iraq: defense of those back home. He never for a moment pauses to wonder what they – the savages – are fighting for (in their own country) or how and whether Kyle’s one hundred and sixty deaths really did or does keep our loved ones safe back in Oklahoma and Idaho and everywhere that’s not Falluja.
At issue is not Eastwood’s politics or his attitude to war. It’s just that when polemic tries to pass itself off as art, with the power that art has (the same criticism could be leveled against Matt Damon’s sloppy liberal polemic about fracking, “Promised Land”), it becomes duplicitous propaganda.
And to this blogger, that ain’t worth the price of admission.
American Sniper: Dir: Client Eastwood. Written by Jason Hall from the book by Chris Kyle. With Bradley Cooper & Sienna Miller. Cinematographer: Tom Stern (“The Hunger Games”)