Clint Eastwood’s filmography is a mixed bag of genres and intention, one that I haven’t spent much time with over the last ten years. I can’t help but feel that he is a real world representation of The Dark Knight adage of ‘Live long enough to see yourself become the villain’, but I was very much willing to give him and his recent output the benefit of the doubt. American Sniper held my attention and at no time was I bored. The action is directed in a classical manner that is works very well. Everyone gives interesting, controlled and charismatic performances. However, I could not accept the way it embraced a lie. American Sniper doesn’t give a damn about anything except for The Legend, a myth that it refuses to question or to ever let slip into a grey area. Every question raised is rhetorical, with no answer required or wanted. Eastwood has a smooth operator’s way with social issues, one that makes the audience feel like a protest has been raised without ever questioning the linkages and incidents that pulled us into the situation.
[Spoilers for American Sniper are included in the discussion ahead – Ed]
There is a small but interesting selection of war films that dedicate themselves to the world of the sniper. It is a difficult sphere to represent, often counter-intuitive to dominant action cinema techniques. It requires long periods of inactivity with occasional bursts of explosive intensity, much like a Bela Tarr film. A few films spring to mind: Sniper, Jarhead, and Zero Dark Thirty briefly concerns itself with this field. The depiction of snipers in cinema concentrates on patience, strategic elements, and the emptiness that can result from anti-climatic distance from ‘the shit’. In Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper the focus becomes the integration of man and machine, along with the precise crafting of techniques of the body to an unflagging dedication to patriotism and his fellow Americans. This is a film about robotic repetition and reinforcement of ideological ideals until they become knee-jerk reactions built into the muscles of ‘heroes’. That is a problem.
Despite many bravura action scenes, Eastwood leaves the actual artistry of the sniper by the wayside. The character of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) entirely abandons it at one point: feeling that he cannot do enough from afar, he abandons his strategic position and starts kicking down doors with the rest of the soldiers. Eastwood’s representation of Kyle barely allows him to be a sniper; he’s reduced to being an archetypal protector who snaps down like a hunting eagle, fast and deadly. This is ‘Print the Legend’ cinema that focuses so deeply on deep-mining ideological fervor that much of the interesting details get left behind. For instance, the ongoing vendetta with an enemy sniper is made a recurring focal point, and yet the continuous references to Enemy Sniper #1’s Olympic gold medal in marksmanship makes it clear that he exists only to demonstrate Kyle’s supremacy in the ‘real’ world. While it raises some interesting correlations between combativeness in sports and war, these are never allowed to transform into something more significant. The failure to engage with a deeper meaning or question any of the associations that the film flops and drops undermines every possible interpretation that refutes the accusations of it being one-note propaganda.
The problem of unquestioned superiority and right to power bring forth a spectre that is very difficult to address without hitting some very serious nerves. Nonetheless, these associations must be drawn out and considered. American Sniper has a cinematic twin, one that suggests how extremism on opposite ends of the spectrum looks the same (see here for a perfect example). Since I began writing this article (I have let this simmer for a week to try to be as objective and clear as possible) the association between American Sniper and Stolz der Nation has been well documented. Translated as Pride of the Nation, Stolz is a fictional film-within-a-film directed by Eli Roth and featuring in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds (which, additionally, raises some interesting associations between Roth’s Hostel films and American Sniper). It tells the story of an invented Nazi sniper who single-handedly becomes a legendary hero for the Third Reich, and whose story is used to perpetuate the Nazi war machine. It is a mockery designed to demonstrate the hollow lies that propaganda perpetuates in the name of patriotism along with the absolute need to prove itself right, and pull more people into its deadly sphere. Eastwood’s film gets uncomfortably and unironically close to capturing the spirit of the propaganda mocked by Roth and Tarantino. There is no space in Stolz der Nation or American Sniper for the possibility of the enemy as a human being who sees, fears, feels exactly like Chris Kyle does. There is only the enemy, only the danger, only the need to stop them at the gates and not let them enter into The Legend’s jeweled realm. There is no self-reflexive commentary; this is as earnest as it gets, and that is more than a little terrifying.
In American Sniper, one can see the enemy, he is recognisable by how he looks, and I’m not just referring to racism here. The veteran with whom Kyle had a fateful appointment is depicted as Travis Bickle-like, wasted and unhealthy, an obvious (in the eyes of the film) source of danger. One could argue that this is because he is a veteran with trauma and should not be read in to. However, the other veterans, many of whom have suffered from the physical trauma of limb loss and bodily destruction, are represented as being virile and otherwise ‘healthy’; they are no danger. Thematically this makes sense, as this is a film that may not concern itself with the ins-and-outs of being a sniper, but it is very concerned with justifying one’s ability to ‘see’ danger and then never doubt the decisions that arises from that recognition.
Anyone who does not fit the ideal of red-blooded American physical supremacy is to be considered untrustworthy. This is a consistent representation across the entire film, regardless of skin colour or even blood relation to Kyle (he’s brother is also represented as sickly when we last see him). In the final moments of the film, we see that Kyle’s wife, Taya (Sienna Miller) recognises the danger presented by the veteran whom her beloved husband is trying to help, and yet she does nothing. This failure to act mirrors and inverts the opening, in which Kyle recognises the enemy (not a difficult task as it involves no subjectivity: the enemy, a woman and child, are carrying an obvious grenade) and acts appropriately in defence of his compatriots. Appropriate response = big green tick. This opening scene is presented in the trailer as a dilemma, which it isn’t in the film because we know that Kyle absolutely believes in protecting his fellow Americans and these ‘enemy combatants’ are a ‘clear and present danger’. By echoing that first moment of enemy identification in the final scene, yet representing it as a more subjective situation while still indicating through stereotyping that the ‘enemy combatant’ is recognisable, Eastwood emphasises the point of the film: Trust your instincts and know your enemy, know the people who would take from you, and know how to stop them or you will lose, and do not doubt, do not hesitate, act with force and unfailing righteousness. Taya fails to act on her recognition of the enemy and fails God, America, and her Family by letting a hero die = big red cross.
It is hard to pick a ‘most telling’ scene in this film, one that damns absolutely, as so many of them are problematic to the point of visceral disgust. For example, scenes of the World Trade Centre falling are seamlessly linked into Kyle’s tour of Iraq, with no hesitation as to why the two should be connected. This implies a just intrusion into this location by American forces, further emphasised by the emphatic representation of Iraqis as violent, distrustful, alien (no subtitles are ever deployed) and just plain “savage”, to quote the film. Which is fine, if you happily inhabit and do not question the ideology of misinformation, domination and violence that has oppressed American foreign policy for the last forever. The one ‘good’ Iraqi is used by Eastwood to underline the nickname of lead villain, The Butcher (a character straight out of Hostel), and dispatched before being allowed to fully prove (in the eyes of the military) that he is a good guy. This film is a culture lying to itself, attempting to prop itself up with myths and legends about what it is to be a hero and what it is to be a villain.
Eastwood not only ignores perspective, he actively denies it at every opportunity. This is a One Vision mantra. There is a point at which the young brother, barely a character to begin with, is re-introduced to tell his legendary brother that he hates “this place”. They meet on a barren runway with no apparent detail as to whether “this place” is America or Iraq. This does not matter because to hate Iraq is to deny their heroism as much as hating America would. To hate the place you are trying to save is as great a crime as hating the distant home you are ‘protecting’, because that undermines the role of the good Christian savior. The younger brother is then ejected from the film, never to return. He ceases to exist, as all un-patriotic individuals should. To give him a death scene would give him meaning and would create a martyr of him. The fragile American psyche would not cope with making this unbeliever into something and as a result he becomes the blank, the redacted, the emptiness of the blind spot refused to be seen. It states clearly and emphatically “Do not question OUR definitions and our orders”. The only way an American soldier can be wrong is if he questions his orders, questions his reason for being, and then he is already dead. This is openly stated in the film by The Legend.
I hesitate to say ‘the fragile American psyche’, because I know so many wonderful, empathic, anti-violence and anti-ideology Americans to lump them all together. No, this film is about a universal human violence, one that erases identity in favour of total domination. Pride of the Nation (and what does pride come before?). This is a film about monsters and the lies they create to justify their fears and their reactions. It is sickening. I recommend you research the unfortunate person that this film is based on, someone who’s worst tendencies were re-enforced by the American military complex to create an exceptionally skilled and unexceptionally violent killing machine. The fact that none of the issues which surround this real person are ever raised by the film demonstrates a dangerous complicity with an ideology that supports abusive myths and destructive lies over any intelligent interrogation or an emotional attempt to engage with a troubled human.
This film does not need to be American Psycho in the Navy Seals. It doesn’t need to demonise Kyle or the heroic efforts of soldiers put in a terrible position. A great many liberal, anti-war films are as lazy and filled with bullshit as their conservative counterparts. As anti-war and liberal as I am, I will not accept lazy filmmaking just because it supports my perspective and I’m sick to death of simplistic browbeating, of which the left is as guilty as the right. Eastwood is a genius at finding paths through political quagmires that appear to be neither right nor left-wing. However, much of my attempts to accept this film were based on attempts to distance the portrayal from the brutal reality of the dangerous psychopathology encouraged and enforced by the military. Okay, let’s let go of the ‘true story’ and just look at it as a piece of fictional cinema. But we can’t Eastwood won’t let us because he just has to end it with that documentary footage of the real Chris Kyle’s funeral. No, Mr. Eastwood, you can’t completely lie about the reality of the situation, or rather, you can’t shape a film based entirely on the lies of a government and the myths of an ideology, and then rub our noses in factual trauma to reinforce his American Hero status. You don’t get to have your cake and eat it.
Please do not try to tell me that generic lip service to the ‘horrors of war’, a very real and horrifying burden that soldiers have to carry, is enough. I grew up with elder veterans, I have lived with the effects that this damage has on individuals and families. In American Sniper, after an hour and a half of military recruitment war-porn, after executing brilliant scenes of exciting violence and destruction, Eastwood slots in some brief moments of post-traumatic troubles that the hero shrugs off as effortlessly as he shrugged off every other bad thing. No, you cannot have it both ways. There is no scene in this film as haunting and terrifying as the moment in The Hurt Locker in which Jeremy Renner’s character stares at a wall of endlessly colourful cereals in a near-empty supermarket, and feels the chasm opening before him that he may never escape from.
The fact that this film has received such high ratings on assorted review aggregators makes me wonder whether we should be concerned less about artistic education of critics and more about their ethical education. I am completely unwilling to support this film in any way. If you want to see a film that deals honestly with the true dangers of war and misinformation then go watch How To Train Your Dragon, and if you want a film about a fictional hero who goes against the worst traits of his nature to embrace the people around him, no matter what, then go watch St. Vincent. But please, leave this piece of toxic culture alone. Do not follow these men into the cinema or onto the field of battle. Instead, remember Hiccup from Dragon, who eloquently stated: “I wouldn’t kill him because he looked as frightened as I was. I looked at him…and I saw myself.” I believe that Kyle, real and imagined, saw himself as he looked through the scope, but that the reflection showed him only a monster built by an oppressive world to destroy and backed into a corner, convinced that lashing out was the only way to escape. After everything is said and done, this film is yet another tragedy about human hearts lost to violence. If only we could find a better way to tell that story.
By Ben Buckingham
American Sniper is released in Australian cinemas on January 22, 2015.