American Sniper is a perplexing film, and I have no good idea why Clint Eastwood felt compelled to make it. As an investigation of what it means to be a sniper, and in particular, this sniper, the deadliest in our history, it falls short; it is most definitely more of a biography of Chris Kyle than anything else, and his sniping career is relegated to some highlights early in the film, with the balance concerning itself with his actions on the ground, fighting more conventionally (if we can call asymmetric urban warfare conventional at this point in time). I’m sure the detractors of the film, most of whom I would guess have not actually seen it, would say, “Well, he made it as a hagiography to a war hero,” as there is a perception that Eastwood is somehow a conservative or reactionary in his choice of subjects and in his political views. Putting aside his bizarre and pathetic performance at the Republican Convention in 2012, I have always found this view of Eastwood troubling, as his films do not support it. I’ll admit, I am a fan of his work, both before and behind the camera, but even good ol’ Dirty Harry is not the right-wing vigilante freak everyone thinks – or at the least, such a reading is terribly one-dimensional (admittedly, he did not direct Dirty Harry, and while the sequels do go more toward establishing Harry as a reactionary, they are some of Eastwood’s least interesting work, and still, there is nuance to all of them). Eastwood has portrayed violence and war, at least since Unforgiven, as a weakness and a failing, albeit at times as a purposeful one. But I am digressing.
What makes me question the nature of this film is that Eastwood does, for the majority of the running time, take a critical view of Chris Kyle. Critical in the sense that many knee-jerk lefties would want? No. He does not castigate his subject. That would not be art, but mere propaganda, folks, and Eastwood is an artist, even if you dislike the portraits he paints. By critical, I mean that he portrays Kyle as a fairly simple man who doesn’t think about things too deeply, and who represses not only the bad experiences of the war, but lives in denial about the horrible things he has to do in combat. And those things are portrayed as horrible. I have read many a commentary on Facebook (if not from critics) by those who feel that the violence is staged in a way that gives the audience a vicarious thrill – for instance, the slow-motion “bullet time” sequence that serves as a kind of climax, and results in the death of the dread enemy sniper. This is patently untrue. The violence in this film is staged in a way that is little different from many other contemporary films about the Iraq conflict (such as Hurt Locker). It is bloody, brutal, and grim, and the principles involved obviously take no pleasure in it. The style highlights the confusing, ugly nature of the battlefield, and the soundtrack, devoid of music except for low electronic atmospherics that build dread during these sequences, follows that lead. Now, I have also seen arguments to the effect that any film that portrays warfare is, de facto, providing the audience with a vicarious thrill simply by portraying such things for us, safe and snug in our seats. To this I can only say that, while perhaps this is so, I find a world of politically correct, policed representations boring at best, and smug and censorious at worst. How exactly are we to make sense of the world around us, or engage in a discussion as a culture, outside of representation? I would ask those who think along these lines to read Paul Virilio’s excellent book War and Cinema, for he explicates that the technologies, and modes of viewing, that make both war and cinema possible are deeply intertwined, and have been from the beginning of film history. If you want to give up viewing film totally because it is implicated in violence, go ahead; I don’t disagree, but I won’t be joining you.
Still, I am digressing. Let me get specific. At the beginning of the film, we witness Kyle sniping a child and his mother, seemingly of necessity. We then jump back in time, to his own childhood, and witness his father taking him hunting, and standing by while he makes his first kill (a deer). The death of the deer is played down in favor of Dad lecturing him on how to properly treat his weapon. So in the first few moments of the film, Eastwood is linking the idea of Kyle’s skill (shooting well) to the death of the innocent (and of innocence itself, I would argue): the child in the street, used as a pawn, and the animal in the forest. We then get a sequence wherein Kyle’s father attempts to justify how he can use his skill, obviously a menacing one, for the greater good – he is the sheepdog, one of the elect few that can protect the majority of humans (the sheep) from the evil-doers (the wolves). We sense that Eastwood is already skeptical of such a schema, as he portrays Dad as a gruff hothead, containing the implicit threat of violence about to uncoil itself, and we sense this nice little story is of the type that can bend at will to make sheep into wolves as need be. The rest of the film, we expect, will be, if not a judgement on this origin story, at least an exploration of its truth value. A short while later, we see Kyle exit from a barn the outside of which is covered, somewhat ominously, in the antlers of many animals that he has obviously taken with his “skill.” Kyle, during this pre-military portion of his life, is portrayed as a roughneck without much motivation or introspection; not a bad guy, necessarily, but no sheepdog either. He is soon shaken out of this sleepiness (not too convincingly, I might add) by the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya, and, after enrolling as a Seal, at the ripe age of 30, is further convinced of his calling by 9/11. All of this Eastwood portrays more or less flatly; the boot camp sequences are fairly devoid of the usual humor that binds the audience to the recruits in terms of point of view, and Kyle seems a little bit of a fish out of water, and still a little dim.
The tone throughout the film stays mostly in this mode. Kyle is not portrayed as a hero, and Eastwood is “critical” in the sense that he most identifies with the point of view of Kyle’s wife on the home front. Kyle is, instead, portrayed as being in much denial: of his growing PTSD, of his addiction to combat, of the impact of his choices on his family. He views the Iraqis as “evil” and calls them “savages,” and while Eastwood doesn’t really correct this view, he does question it, particularly with the figure of Marc Lee, a would-be pastor from Oregon who calls Kyle out on his faux-religiosity and his one-sided denials. (At the same time, it can also be said that Eastwood provides few Iraqis in the film who aren’t complicit with the terrorists. At the same time, he does humanize Kyle’s rival, the sniper Mustafa, by lingering on a photograph of him before the war, as a clean-cut looking young athlete, medaled and on a podium). Throughout, Kyle’s viewpoint is portrayed as simplistic and, if not dangerous, at least becoming self-destructive. The film is hardly the portrait in heroism and an apology for war that its detractors would make it out to be.
Except… Eastwood falls down in the end. Having set up this growing critique of Kyle, and the original moral question of self-justified violence, Eastwood refuses to follow through. The film ends in a blur of unsatisfying sequences that seem to self-abort rather than make a judgement. For instance, a trip out hunting with Kyle’s own son, where we’d naturally expect some sort of dramatic counterpoint to that first such sequence, now with the added weight of Kyle’s horrible experiences behind the scope, is short and perfunctory. He says something to the effect of “Today you’ll take your first life, son, and I’ll be right there with you.” End scene. I guess he doesn’t fetishize the weapon like dear old Dad, but is this an improvement? Kyle comes off, if not still in denial, as one-dimensional as ever his thinking. Kyle’s trip to solve his PTSD, which, given the depth of his denial, we expect to be fraught, goes quite easily – he denies he has a problem, the VA doc introduces him to some disabled vets who need his help, and he helps them… by taking them target shooting. Suddenly Kyle seems back to “normal.” Again, end scene. The final sequence of the film, which alludes to the Marine who allegedly murdered Kyle, portrays him suspiciously, from the point of view of Kyle’s worried wife, peeping out the cracked front door, seemingly having a premonition of something bad coming. Eastwood could have here made the connection between Kyle’s PTSD and this man’s state, as brothers in arms equally unhinged – or, even if not taking it that far, at least as the consequence of PTSD not so easily “cured.” Instead, Kyle’s wife shuts the door, we get a quick title telling us what happened, and then cue file footage of Kyle’s heroic death parade. Roll credits. Did Eastwood lose his nerve? This is my only theory, as the rest of the film is too much like Eastwood’s other films – that is, the work of a questioning artist, not a hack. But the ending is, sadly, very weak, if not hackwork.
All of which makes me again question – why did Eastwood make this film? And why are audiences attracted to it? It is well made, and well acted, and does raise some issues discursively, but all in all it is bland, does not offer vicarious thrills, and provides a payoff that is unconvincing and feels like it is pulling punches. It does, in its mixed way, offer a place that all sides can converge on, not feeling offended or preached to, a site that provides the opportunity for real discussion. At the same time, as a work of art, it is quite disappointing. The film is very far from the exercise in jingoism it has been made out to be, but it is also far from the best film of the year, and does not deserve Oscars. As someone who expects more from Eastwood, I left discouraged. There are too many very good films about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan for this to rank among the top tier. In particular, I’d recommend Nick Broomfield’s criminally underseen The Battle for Haditha (2007), a masterpiece of verité filmmaking (although it is a “fiction” film) that treats all sides of the conflict with equanimity.