These films aren’t merely exercises in cinematic glorification – like Clint Eastwood’s speech, they are a part of a uniquely American myth-making process, posing straw-man moral tests for their protagonists that ultimately validate their heroism by presenting them as fundamentally rejecting their fame. Eastwood’s 2012 performance wasn’t an old man stumbling on stage and freely associating, but prescient propaganda for the age of Trump.
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Clint Eastwood looked over at an empty chair on the main stage of the 2012 Republican National Convention and asked, “So Mr. President, how do you handle promises that you have made when you were running for election?” Throughout his address, the actor and director pretended to engage in conversation with the President, interrogating him over failed policies and empty promises. At one point, Eastwood asked, “What do you want me to tell Romney?” Eastwood feigned shock at the President’s answer and then responded. “I can’t tell him to do that. I can’t tell him to do that to himself. You’re crazy, you’re absolutely crazy …” The audience burst into laughter. The show, it seemed, was a hit.
Outside the stadium, pundits and politicians expressed shock at Eastwood’s off-kilter political satire. Even Romney’s campaign staffers admitted to the New York Times that Eastwood’s address was “strange.” At the time, MSNBC anchor Melissa Harris Perry connected Eastwood’s speech to black invisibility, stating in a column, “Watching Eastwood reduce the President to an invented entity in a chair, I couldn’t help but wonder what Ralph Ellison would say all about this.” Despite Eastwood’s efforts to make him disappear, Obama was re-elected that November in a landslide. Eastwood had no other choice but to fill that empty chair himself.
Rewatching Eastwood’s performance four years later, one might wonder whether this was in fact a broadcasted moment of a man succumbing to old age. However, within the context of two films Eastwood has directed since 2012, American Sniper and Sully, a coherency emerges. Eastwood’s performance predicted his efforts, through these two films, to present an alternative protagonist for a post-9/11 America – the white working-class individualist, a populist figure guided by altruism, not ego. Both American Sniper and Sully are “based on the true story” about straight white Christian men who utilize their command over the technologies of war and transportation, respectively, in order to save the American people from looming danger. These films aren’t merely exercises in cinematic glorification – like Clint Eastwood’s speech, they are a part of a uniquely American myth-making process, posing straw-man moral tests for their protagonists that ultimately validate their heroism by presenting them as fundamentally rejecting their fame. Eastwood’s 2012 performance wasn’t an old man stumbling on stage and freely associating, but prescient propaganda for the age of Trump.
In his 1957 book Mythologies, Roland Barthes states. “The best weapon against myth is perhaps to mythify it in its turn, and to produce an artificial myth: and this reconstituted myth will in fact be a mythology.” Eastwood recognized the power of the myth of Obama and had to impose a new meaning onto him, presenting a “reconstituted myth.” In his 2012 performance, Eastwood knowingly nodded toward the myth-making that surrounded the election of President Obama in 2008 – televised promises of “hope and “change,” masses engaging in timeless rituals of candle lightings and expressions of solidarity between racial groups and economic classes. Oprah Winfrey, a celebrity with one of the largest followings among Americans, joined common Americans in a spectacle that, for Eastwood, was wasted for a politician who turned out to be crude and untrustworthy – in his own words, “When Mr. Obama won the election … I was watching that night when he was having that thing and they were talking about hope and change … it was nice … and people were lighting candles, I just thought, this was great. Everybody is crying. Oprah was crying. I was even crying.”
American Sniper, starring Bradley Cooper, tells the story of Chris Kyle, a decorated soldier who served four tours of duty in Iraq. After killing 160 targets in Iraq as a U.S. Navy Seals sniper, he returns home to Texas and is murdered by a veteran he was mentoring in a PTSD program. American Sniper serves as an example of what Frederic Jameson calls the “conventional or generic war film” that “deploy[s] the male collective in exotic settings called into being by their hardships and unfamiliarity, but where the content of the setting is relatively indifferent.” The film doesn’t engage in geographic, cultural, or ideological specificities – instead, Iraq is presented as a manifestation of a colonialist myth, the foreign and vaguely dark other. Chris Kyle, on the other hand, is portrayed as having a fundamental morality to his actions, grounded in a particularly American ethic. Eastwood curates this origin myth, making it seem like Kyle’s sole purpose was to defeat “terror” – he enlists in the army after seeing news coverage of the 1998 bombings at the U.S. embassy in Kenya, is horrified by CNN coverage of the 9/11 attacks, and when in Iraq, is given the task to hunt down and kill a top operative of Al Qaeda’s Iraqi organization. Both the motivations behind the war in Iraq and the U.S Navy Seal’s heroism are unambiguous and undisputed. Throughout American Sniper, Chris Kyle constantly defends the war to his increasingly jaded colleagues, reciting patriotic one-liners like: “It’s [U.S.A] the greatest country on Earth, I would do anything to protect it,” “there’s evil here [Iraq],” “we’re protecting more than just this dirt [Iraq].” Even if they don’t necessarily believe in his cause, the characters around him are eager to mythologize him – his fellow servicemen nickname him “the Legend.” Iraqi insurgents, on the other hand, when offering a bounty for his head, refer to him as “the Devil.” When he’s away from the battlefield and back in Texas, Chris Kyle becomes aimless and depressed, complaining to his wife, “There’s a war going on and I am going to the mall.” Only when he starts volunteering to help veterans who are wounded or affected by PTSD does he regain his central figure as a husband, father, and most importantly, a patriot.
Eastwood positions Chris Kyle within a timeless tradition of a righteous American patriarchal imperialism. In a film that deals with a historical figure in specific conflicts, Eastwood’s Kyle transcends individuality and history – he becomes myth. In an early flashback scene, Kyle is shown hunting with his father and mastering his aiming skills, implying that his talent as a warrior is his inheritance, passed from a previous generation. When he uses those skills to murder Iraqi women and children, his colleagues congratulate him – they offer high fives or scream “fuck yeah.” Kyle, on the other hand, is shown as being visibly uncomfortable, not out of regret for killing insurgents, but because he would rather not engage with his ego. He has a righteous task at hand, and celebrating himself isn’t it.
Toward the end of the film, Kyle is at a gas station with his son when he bumps into one of his fellow servicemen. The man gets down on his knees to address Kyle’s child and proclaims. “Your dad is a hero!” Ten minutes later, Kyle goes on a hunting trip with a veteran from a PTSD program, and the film cuts to black. A text states: “Chris Kyle was killed that day by a veteran he was trying to help.” The credits roll – a split-screen slide show of Texans waving American flags on the highway, greeting a military funeral proceeding for the Navy Seal. While American Sniper’s ending can be read as ambiguous, this courted ambiguity is only an extension of the myth. We are supposed to reflect on Kyle’s life for its untimely end, not the people he murdered. Despite its inclusion of scenes about wounded veterans in the Texas VA, this isn’t a film about the perils of war or PTSD; American Sniper’s primary goal is to sanctify Chris Kyle. By denying the viewer an image of Kyle’s murder, Eastwood both avoids presenting any antagonist that isn’t “terror” and denies that the hero can be stopped. “The Legend” dies off screen, in the real world that allows for his slaughter. He returns to the film sheltered in a coffin, greeted by our collective dismay.
While in American Sniper Eastwood slyly gestures toward the mythologizing process, Sully’s plot centers around it. Sully, starring Tom Hanks, takes place in mid-January 2009, during the immediate aftermath of Captain Chesley Sullenberger’s successful emergency landing of U.S Airways Flight 1549 in the Hudson River. In regard to destroying myths, Barthes argues that it’s difficult, stating, “myth can always, at a last resort, signify the resistance which is brought to bear against it.” With Sully, Eastwood not only glorifies Sullenberger’s actions, he also makes “the resistance” a key component of the myth’s meaning. The central conflict of Sully is between the Captain and the National Transportation Safety Board. After landing a plane on the Hudson River, Sully is forced to undergo something even more strenuous than flying with an engine damaged by a flock of birds: American bureaucracy. The state, in this dreary, Kafkaesque form, attempts to undermine Sully’s heroism through an investigation into whether his actions constituted reckless endangerment. According to a Fox News investigative report, the conflict between the U.S airways captain and the NTSB bureaucracy is highly exaggerated. Robert Benson, the former head of the NTSB, states, “These guys [Sully and his copilot] were national heroes; we weren’t out to embarrass anybody at all.” Instead, the NTSB was merely following protocol in their 18-month investigation into the crash. Following protocol is what Eastwood’s myth is fighting against. At the closing NTSB meeting regarding the case, Sully and his copilot are forced to watch multiple computer simulations that indicate they had made the wrong choice by landing in the Hudson and could’ve easily returned to LaGuardia Airport. Sully tells the room of bureaucrats, “In these simulations you take all the humanity out of the cockpit.” After they recalculate “humanity” into the computer equation by extending the hypothetical decision time to “37 seconds, ” Sully is vindicated. In an earlier scene, the copilot yells about Sully in a NTSB meeting, “If he followed the damn rules we would all be dead!” The NTSB is shown as being inherently threatened by Sully, and as a threat to the American people, trying and subsequently failing to put up a “resistance” to Eastwood’s myth.
Like Eastwood’s RNC speech, Sully addresses the American media’s role in myth-making. Although Sully’s heroism is at least in part a result of the 24-hour news cycle, Eastwood exaggerates this dynamic by depicting journalists as manic vultures rushing to pick at Sully’s flesh. If the NTSB is too skeptical of Sully, the media is eager to accept his myth but motivated by greed and self-interest. Thus, Eastwood is offering a take on the Sully tale in which the elite institutions of American bureaucracy and the media are his antagonists. In one scene in Sully, a few hours after landing the plane, the captain is seen in a phone conversation with his wife. As they speak, both of their voices are drowned out by the calls of journalists and the snaps of paparazzi cameras. She says, “The whole world is talking about you, my Sully” as he tells her that he can barely hear her because of the howling press waiting at her suburban door. During a surrealist nightmare, Sully envisions Katie Couric on his hotel room TV, maniacally staring at the protagonist and the audience as she questions his heroism. These anxious, claustrophobic moments in press conferences and boardrooms are juxtaposed with the realist, muted scenes of Sully in the cockpit, deciding to and then landing his plane in the Hudson River. During these crucial moments, Sully is shown to be calm and focused. His heroism is romantically understated; he asks his copilot for the manual and calls Air Traffic Control – “just doing my job.”
Other than the landing, the only tranquil scenes in the film are moments when Sully interacts with his biggest fans, white working-class Americans. While American Sniper uses September 11 as a literal and symbolic plot point, Sully treats the World Trade Center attacks more abstractly, rendering them an explicit antithesis to everything the “miracle on the Hudson” represents. A pilot congratulates Sully with “it’s been a while since New York has had news this good, especially with an airplane in.” During one of his anxiety-induced daydreams, Sully envisions a plane crashing into the Manhattan skyline. By dispersing anecdotal scenes of white firemen, police, and passengers throughout Sully, Eastwood mythologizes New York City as a haven of the white working class, an idyllic metropolis that Sully had successfully saved from more undeserved terror.
In the first quarter of the film, a taxi driver tells Sully that with all the “news” about Bernie Madoff and the recession, he should feel proud for making a “good headline.” The central interior conflict for Sully is established as him contemplating whether he’s worthy of the working class’s praises, worthy of being “a good headline.” In one scene, Sully goes to a pub and is warmly received by the bar owner and his patrons. They pour him a drink they had named “The Sully” – a shot of Grey Goose with a “splash of water.” Instead of comforting him, this interaction gives him a panic attack and he runs out of the bar. When he’s not literally running away from his iconic status in the streets of Manhattan, Sully exhibits an exaggerated modesty, denying his role as the protagonist by thanking the other “first responders” who were also doing “their job.”
The film ends with Sully’s copilot telling a joke that he wished the landing took place in sunny July, not January. The roomful of bureaucrats erupt in cathartic laughter, and the screen fades to black; a text appears: “The best of New York came together. It took 24 minutes.” After the credits, Eastwood shows footage of the real Sully reuniting with the “155 souls” he saved. His former passengers are gathered around him and a plane, smiling as he tells them that the landing will live on in their hearts. The message is clear – Sully, like Chris Kyle, is a hero by and for the people. If Kyle is our brave martyr, Sully, the accomplished pilot, is the patriarch we deserve – “yes we can,” because yes Sully did.
Barthes concludes Mythologies by addressing the mythologist. He states, “The mythologist cuts himself off from all the myth consumers… The mythologist is condemned to live in a theoretical sociality.…” In a recent Esquire interview, in reply to a query about how his image as an icon of rebellion has influenced the likes of Reagan and Trump, Eastwood said, “[Trump] is onto something, because secretly everybody’s getting tired of political correctness, kissing up. That’s the kiss-ass generation we’re in right now. We’re really in a pussy generation.” As expected, these comments were greeted with criticism. Eastwood doesn’t seem to care. He was merely doing his part as a mythologist, separating himself from the masses by presenting himself as deriving from a different, simpler era. In regard to his RNC speech, Eastwood conceded it was a “silly thing” but also defended it by stating, “[Obama] doesn’t go to work. He doesn’t go down to Congress and make a deal.” Clint Eastwood has presented us with paradigms of people who can “make a deal”; it’s now up to us to follow suit and learn from our mistakes.
Like American Sniper, Sully has been financially and critically successful. A lukewarm Variety review praises Eastwood for his “straightforward tribute to the extraordinary actions taken by an irreproachable character who refuses to see himself as a hero” and for creating a movie that is “inspired by good news,” contextualizing his film with a long line of the director’s “seemingly timeless portraits of exceptional personalities.” Despite being created by someone divorced from our “pussy generation,” we appear to be eager to consume and canonize Eastwood’s myths.
On November 8, 2016, six weeks after Sully’s release, we elected Donald J. Trump, a brash, unapologetic white nationalist straight from an Eastwood film, to be the 45th President of the United States of America. Moments after winning the election, Trump commenced this new era by using his signature medium of communication, Twitter:
The Forgotten Man is an illusion; a recollection of racist memories carefully curated and aestheticized in drama films, bright red hats made in Bangladesh and 140-character messages sent out in the wee hours of the morning by a billionaire demagogue. Eastwood and Trump had spent years alleging that the world was slipping from the white working class’s hands, and now, they will never be forgotten again. Democrats and Republicans soon followed Trump’s lead and remarketed their K Street policies as being for the Forgotten Man: tax cuts for the Forgotten Man, grandiose infrastructure projects for the Forgotten Man, cutting budgets for the Forgotten Man.
After spending half a century performing the myth of American rugged masculinity on screen, Eastwood seems thrilled to be entering his final act – hanging up his cowboy hat and becoming the mythologist himself. His movies will no longer be a film history footnote, but rather a companion piece to the rhetoric spewing from the most powerful person on Earth. Eastwood will spend the rest of his years rendering some of us invisible while encouraging everyone to “come together as never before” and reify his myths.
Barthes, Roland, Mythologies, translated from the French by Richard Howard and Anette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1957. Print.
Jameson, Frederic, “Beyond Landscape” in The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992. Print.