American Sniper becomes neither a post-ideological assertion of the nobility of the soldier forced to reflect on his own beliefs, nor a latter-day western investigating the presence of violence at the heart of the liberal American enterprise. It becomes the latest example of a three-decade-long project to reassert a vision of America as an island of innocence in a sea of violence, a place in which a naïve population is protected by the self-sacrifice of its best and brightest, who are by definition above reproach.
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The story of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, briefly put, is as follows. A boy believes in a certain vision of the world, instilled in him by his father. In this vision, there are three kinds of people: vulnerable sheep, predatory wolves, and protective sheepdogs. The boy is a sheepdog, tough and fearless. He grows up to be a patriot and, incensed by acts of terrorism against America, joins the Navy Seals, where he becomes a sniper. He does four tours of duty in Iraq, killing one enemy after another; eventually the psychological strain of this begins to take its toll. He becomes withdrawn and his marriage deteriorates. At the end of his fourth tour, he manages to kill an enemy sniper who has become his nemesis, and this act in some way releases him. He’s ready to come home. He returns, and finds that through helping disabled veterans he can overcome his own psychological issues. The film ends first on a bitter note, then a heroic one: he is murdered by one of the veterans he’s trying to help, but is remembered and honored by huge crowds on the day of his funeral as a great American.
In the weeks after its release, not surprisingly, the film spawned a great deal of public controversy, which broke down along familiar liberal and conservative lines. The critical reception has been more nuanced, less willing to see the film as a blank political statement, and generally celebratory. Richard Brody, writing in the New Yorker, explains that the film “contains valor and horror – the destructive and self-destructive conflicts that are intrinsic to a person endowed with a warrior’s noble nature. As such, it’s a cinematic tragedy in the deepest and most classical sense of the term.” Thomas Powers, writing for the New York Review of Books, takes essentially the same approach, noting that the film is one of “disciplined art and moral complexity” that presents an evolution from the “gung-ho enthusiasm of young men eager to go forth and kick ass for the greatest country in the world, to the half-strangled confusion of men who have suffered and killed for reasons that slip away like water in sand.”
In Salon, Andrew O’Hehir makes explicit what is perhaps less so in other reviews. The cultural debates over American Sniper, he writes, “demonstrate how cultural works get reduced to ‘politics’ in the least interesting sense of that word.” Here, O’Hehir is voicing not only a lament about the regrettable way our public debates treat artworks, but also a traditional critic’s complaint: in focusing on the content of the film – how many people the protagonist kills, or the degree to which the depiction of the character accords with the real-life man on whose autobiography the film was based – people are ignoring the film’s notable formal elements. He closes his review by noting that “there’s a level of sardonic commentary at work that is sometimes subtle and sometimes pretty damn obvious,” and that at base the film was about “an American who thought he knew what he stood for and what his country stood for and never believed he needed to ask questions … and then paid the price for it. So did we all, and the reception of this film suggests that the payments keep on coming due.”
These are all intelligent takes, and they all share in some sense O’Hehir’s gripe: people who wanted to politicize the film aren’t really seeing it well. Like many critics, these writers are to a greater or lesser degree formalists, and believe that to understand a film is to be aware of the subtleties of its construction, in addition to its content. This is what makes it so surprising that there is little mention in their reviews of how formally weak so much of the movie is.
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It’s true that Eastwood’s famously spare narrative construction and camera work are on full display here. There is, in the old phrase, “not a single wasted shot.” But in terms of its narrative construction, we are treated to numerous moments that are not simply clumsily executed but, particularly given a filmmaker of Eastwood’s ability and accomplishments, unsophisticated to the point of being intentionally naïve. Consider the movie’s first big moment of tension and violence. Chris Kyle, the hero, sets up on a roof, guarding over a line of troops advancing along a dusty street. Through his sniper’s scope, he watches a woman and a boy emerge from an alley. The woman takes a grenade from beneath her dress and surreptitiously hands it to the kid. Kyle announces what he’s seeing to his superiors, and asks if anyone can confirm. His spotter notes that if he’s wrong about what’s happening and kills the kid, he’ll end up in Leavenworth. We then cut to a long backstory sequence, showing Kyle hunting deer with his father, discovering his great abilities as a marksmen, and then working to refine those abilities. We cut back to the scene on the street. The kid runs forward with the grenade. Kyle shoots him. The woman runs forward, picks up the fallen grenade, and tries to throw it at the Americans. Kyle shoots her too; the grenade flies into the air and explodes harmlessly.
This sequence is an object lesson in narrative cynicism. It presents us with what is purportedly a moment of real tension, involving the possibility of shooting an innocent child: Kyle reports to his superiors that he believes he sees a grenade; his spotter notes that if he’s wrong he’s going to prison. But we have seen very clearly that the kid is in fact holding a grenade. The composition and clarity of the shots leave no doubt in our minds. Thus, the film builds an edifice of serious moral danger, while at the same time resolving that danger in advance; it allows us to wallow in the threat of the moment while knowing the whole time that it will be okay in the end. What is presented as peril is nothing more than a disguised confirmation of infallibility: Kyle will not – here or anywhere else in the film – kill someone who does not deserve it.
It is worth pausing to note that Eastwood has made very similar scenes before that do carry emotional and moral complexity. The most easily comparable is a scene in Unforgiven (1992) in which Eastwood’s character and his fellow bounty hunters shoot a man from ambush. They then have no choice but to watch as the man dies slowly, hollering for a drink of water. In that film, we are given a scene that does not let us off the hook: the moral complications involved in shooting another human being are allowed to play out before us, and are given real weight. The issue of killing itself supersedes, and complicates, the issue of the guilt of the victim; the whole is presented without expositional guidelines handed down by the director.
But perhaps we’re missing the point of the scene in Sniper. Maybe the innocence or guilt of the people he has killed is not exactly the issue. Indeed, after Kyle kills them, we see him sitting on his bunk back at base, shocked by what he’s done, despondent that his first kills were a child and a woman. There is something unmanly in what he’s done; Kyle believes in war, and we are seeing him as prey to the consequences of that belief, and the position forced upon him by his nature as a sheepdog.
But before granting the force of this, we might stop to ask how exactly the film portrays the kid and the woman. They are people who attempt to kill American troops, an act of war in a theater of war. But what is their method? The plan they’ve come up with is to walk into the open, have the woman hand the kid the grenade, and then to run forward, across open ground, toward men carrying high-powered rifles, until they can get close enough to throw the grenade at them. But why not wait until the troops are closer before emerging from cover? And why wait until they’re in the street, and visible, before she hands him the grenade? And do they really think they can run all that way, carrying a grenade, before one of the soldiers sees them and kills them?
This is a bad plan. More directly, it’s a plan that strains credulity in narrative terms. It is problematic in precisely the way of Kyle’s dilemma on the roof: it trumpets its own seriousness, while relying on manipulation. In order to get around the problems of the physical construction of the scene, Eastwood falls back on tricks of editing, playing it almost as though the troops on the ground can’t see the kid, or are surprised by him. This construction ultimately resembles nothing so much as the moment in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975) when the guards at the gate of the castle see a man in the distance charging across a field toward them; they yawn and wait, we cut, and the man is right in front of them, having surprised them with his approach.
But the more serious manipulation arises from the basic fatuousness of the plan: these terrorists are presented as irrational in a way that undercuts any ability to depict them as having understandable motivations for their actions. They are in some sense objects, or symbols, rather than people. Once again, the deck is slanted: Kyle is shown doing something morally problematic, but he is relieved of his sin beforehand by the very evilness, or incomprehensibility, of the people he’s stamping out. The film would like us to have the cake of our moral and narrative tension, while eating the joyous fact that we know Kyle is going to get away with it, and that they deserved it, anyway.
A filmic comparison here is again devastating to Eastwood. Recall the scene from Apocalypse Now (1979) in which, as Kilgore’s troops are taking “Charlie’s Point,” a Viet Cong woman throws a grenade into a helicopter that’s evacuating wounded American troops. But rather than simplify portraying the VC woman as an evil, mindless monster, Francis Ford Coppola chooses to imbue the scene with actual moral weight. She is presented as cogent, a human being reacting to circumstance. She is also an actual threat, and is thus both more dangerous and more human than Eastwood’s villains. It is exactly this combination that gives the scene its force. When the American troops in a second helicopter gun her down as she flees, we have a moment of true moral horror: she has murdered Americans, and has been murdered in turn. And both actions are understandable. At stake is what it means to kill another human being who is engaged in what she believes is a justified act, rather than Eastwood’s question of what it means to kill another human being who is little more than an embodiment of mindless evil.
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Perhaps, then, Eastwood has not really made a war film. Perhaps, in another reading that has gained favor with critics (and was forwarded by the film’s star, Bradley Cooper), he’s made some interlacing of a war film and a western. Writing in Salon, Alex Trimble Young makes perhaps the best-worked-out version of this argument. “The aspects of American Sniper that conform to western archetypes are easily recognizable,” Young explains. He notes that Kyle is a rootless cowboy as a young man, whose masculinity is challenged by both a cheating girlfriend and his rodeo-circuit failures. He is then trained and deployed to “the new wild West in the old Middle East,” where he is able to realize his true calling as a latter-day western lawman, serving as the lone wolf representative of the civilization whose sovereign violence he embodies. His trials on the frontier are allegorized by a confrontation with a villain who shares his capacity for killing but not his humanity: “Mustafa,” who, as many commentators have noted, is represented not so much as a character as an embodiment of the “savagery” Kyle strives to eliminate.
Young’s point is that the film should be read as both a critique of this violence – it destroys Kyle, emotionally and spiritually – and a critique of the way that “American liberalism depends on the frontier violence of men like Kyle in ways that liberals would like to forget.” He uses The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) as an example of a revisionist western that explicates the violence that lies beneath the surface of the American enterprise and self-image. American Sniper operates in same way, because it “draws liberal viewers closer to [Kyle’s] worldview than they feel comfortable being.”
There is again something oddly revealing, I think, in this rather gentle attempt to turn another of the film’s formal deficiencies into a strength. To create a plot about a rather plotless situation – a sniper doing four tours – Eastwood and his screenwriter create not one, but two individual villains for Kyle to defeat. The first is a particularly nefarious Iraqi henchman – “The Butcher” – and the second is the enemy sniper Mustafa. In terms of a war film, this is a childish decision: it reduces a large-scale situation of chaos and violence into a morally manageable, small-scale scenario in which “bad guys” are identified and put down. To slide past this, we insist that it’s not really a war film at all, but a western, and further that the character of Mustafa isn’t ridiculous – he’s evil, he dresses in black – but is actually a symbolic representation of the “savagery” in Kyle’s own heart. (One is tempted to ask how far this symbolism goes. Of what are the kid and woman in the first scene symbolic? How about the Iraqi who is hiding in a palm tree and falls rather comically into the midst of the American troops when Kyle kills him?)
To slide past it even further, we rely on a misinterpretation of the relationship of American Sniper to the revisionist western. It’s true that a film like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance does engage, at least in some way, in a kind of indictment of the violence beneath the American “liberal” enterprise. It presents us with a clear political division: the well-meaning but essentially unmanly easterner, and the brave, if morally retrogressive westerner. But a large part of the projects of many revisionist westerns is to question the ideology of the brave man himself. High Noon (1952) questions the very notion of violent manhood: rather than a hero who shoots it out in the street, we’re given one who shoots from behind corners, one whose new wife breaks her Quaker vow of peace to save him. The Wild Bunch (1969) gives us violent men as anachronisms, undone by the historical fact of the irresistible march of radical mechanical violence, allegorizing them in an image of children tormenting a scorpion by throwing it among ants. Perhaps most glaringly, Eastwood’s own Unforgiven tosses what is left of the notion of the nobility of violent manhood onto the fire: the protagonist Will Munny was not “good” but lucky; he was drunk when he committed his most famous exploits; his violence, we are shown in the last scene, leaves him nothing in the end but a dirt field in which to labor.
How, given this context, does American Sniper operate as a revisionist western? It presents us with exactly the ideological metaphor – the innocent sheep, evil wolves, and noble sheepdog – that is under attack from much of the revisionist western tradition. And it never seriously challenges this metaphor. Clearly, the central assertion of the film is that there are strong men who represent the paragon of “manhood” and who pay a heavy price for defending the rest of us. (This is the point of Richard Brody’s invocation in his review of the “warrior’s noble nature.”) Kyle is a born sheepdog. There are wolves out there – nearly every Iraqi presented in the film is shown to be evil, and to have no legitimate reason for their actions, other than their evilness. There are sheep, too. These are the American public and Kyle’s family, of course, but also the American soldiers who are weaker, or who doubt the war, are less manly than Kyle. All of them need to be protected.
It’s true that the weight of this responsibility weighs heavily on Kyle, to the point of saddling him with what we might describe as PTSD: in one scene he sees a dog playing with his son and loses control, nearly attacking the dog before he is checked. In another, he cannot concentrate when a civilian approaches to thank him for his service, because of the sound of a tire gun in the background. But the depiction of these wounds does not challenge the metaphor so much as reinforce it, particularly because it’s exactly his position as a sheepdog that eventually heals him.
In what may be the film’s most preposterous scene, Kyle, finally home from his fourth tour and suffering psychological distress, goes to see a psychologist. The doctor suggests that Kyle may be suffering from what he’s seen and done; Kyle retorts that he’s actually suffering from the thoughts of all the soldiers still out there that he cannot protect. A sliver of doubt is raised. We sense that Kyle, stoic that he is, may not be telling the whole story. And then, instead of drawing out this point, the doctor assumes a wise expression and takes Kyle on a tour of the hospital to meet other disabled veterans. Kyle talks with them, finds camaraderie, and eventually begins to teach some of them to shoot. It is through helping these men that Kyle overcomes his PTSD and becomes, with remarkable rapidity, almost completely healed, able to interact with his family again. Thus the film support’s Kyle’s assessment – that his damage comes from the nobility of his position as a protector, rather than from what he has seen and done – instead of challenging it.
Put aside for a moment the question of the film’s treatment of PTSD, which is to reduce it from acute psychological distress to something that can be cured in the course of several minutes of screen time by doing good deeds and remembering your true nature. (If you do not want to put it aside, compare it to Dr. Jonathan Shay’s depictions of combat veterans with PTSD; once again, Eastwood’s film comes off as flippant.) Focus instead on the film’s assertion that there is such a thing as a paragon of manhood, whose job is to protect the weak. In case we’ve missed the point, American Sniper pushes it in our face with its closing image. Kyle is rehabilitated and still operating as a sheepdog, helping disabled veterans. He leaves his house to go to a shooting range with the unstable veteran who will end up murdering him. Kyle is big and bluff and outgoing; the other man is shifty, small, somehow demented-looking. Kyle’s wife, watching them leave, sees this. We cut back and forth between a shot of her eyes as she closes the door and a shot of the veteran: something is wrong with him, something is deficient. He’s not a sheepdog. He’s weak. He’s not a “real man.” She recognizes this, and is terrified by it. We fade to black, text on the screen informs us that the man killed Kyle, and then we cut to footage of Kyle’s cortege and funeral, American flags flying, firemen paused to salute on interstate overpasses. We are a long way from the end of Unforgiven, with its reminder of the absurdity and uselessness of our notions of “manhood.” We are an even longer way from the end of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973), in which the film’s sheepdog rides off in a twisted homage to Shane (1953), despised by himself and everyone else, into the sunset with a kid chasing after him throwing rocks.
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To understand what’s at work here, it might be worth pausing for a moment to put American Sniper into the larger context of the contemporary American war film. To say that these films arrive in a pro-military moment is to state the obvious. We are surrounded on all sides by reminders of the heroism of our warriors and the necessity of protecting ourselves through violent means, from sports teams wearing camo-colored uniforms, to continual calls to “honor our troops,” to the remarkable number of movies, games, and shows that valorize not just the military but war as such. One cannot, these days, even offer a critique of the U.S. military as an institution without offering an obligatory, “But I support the individual soldiers, of course – they’re making a great sacrifice for the rest of us.”
It is, perhaps, slightly less obvious to point out that it was not always thus. One way to understand our current view of the soldier is to think of it as exactly the one that fell out of favor in the narratives produced in the wake of the Vietnam War. The novels, memoirs, and histories produced by that war were decidedly unheroic in tone, and were preoccupied with the idea of the loss, or indeed nonexistence, of American innocence. This literature, almost entirely, doubted the justness of the war that produced it, as well as those in power who incited and maintained the war. But it also doubted the notion of heroic action itself, and moved to strip any glamorous shine from the depiction of combat. There was nothing noble about being sent to war to kill people. The soldier was neither more nor less heroic than the citizen; he was merely a part of the machine of war, and could not maintain his innocence by claiming that he was a good man at the mercy of larger forces.
The movies followed suit. Films like MASH and Patton (both 1970) recast earlier American conflicts in terms of absurdity and quasi-madness. Films about returning veterans, like Who’ll Stop the Rain (1977), were nearly uniformly cynical, and even the epic war films of the decade, such as A Bridge Too Far (1977), tend to be admonishing rather than heroic in nature. This trend continued into the 1980s, and created some of the most morally intelligent war films ever made, including Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket (1987), with its unforgettable closing scene of the soldiers marching through a post-apocalyptic Hue singing the theme song from the Mickey Mouse Club.
Through the 1980s, this approach came increasingly under assault from first one, then a second counter-narrative. The first was pro-military, and pro-American honor. Films like First Blood (Rambo) (1982) and Uncommon Valor (1983) attempted to portray the Vietnam War as the story of noble warriors betrayed by cowardly politicians. In this, they also attempted to suture what they saw as a break between the public and the soldier: to speak badly about the war was to bring dishonor onto the soldier, who needed to be restored to his rightful place. As the decade continued, this narrative spread to films not ostensibly about Vietnam. Red Dawn (1984) was nearly explicitly about the way an America emasculated by its agony over the war, and thus lacking in true defenders, would be ripe for a Soviet invasion; Top Gun (1986) resurrected the notion of the glamorous, heroic American fighting man, now with better technology. (It’s worth remembering that in Top Gun, Maverick’s father was a pilot killed in Vietnam and subjected to a posthumous smear campaign. The humiliation of this is what drives Maverick, and the film is in this sense an explicit attempt to restore the American pride and glory that was besmirched by the critics of the conflict that had ended fifteen years before.)
The second, and more recent, counter-narrative is one that asserts itself as a cold-eyed evaluation of the horror and inescapability of war. This trend might be said to start somewhere in the vicinity of Blackhawk Down, Ridley Scott’s 2001 account of the failed 1993 U.S. raid on warlords in Mogadishu. This film helped establish an approach that has become increasingly common: present war in “realist” terms and use protestations of being apolitical (or post-political) to elide questions of any larger political context. Recent examples include Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty (2012), the Mark Wahlberg vehicle Lone Survivor (2013), and virtually all of the more or less serious action movies set in military contexts. What unites these films is an underlying assertion that war exists because the world is a violent place; to question that is to expose oneself as naïve. Blackhawk Down epitomizes this view with its epigraph, attributed to Plato: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
Significantly, this project allows these films to focus not on innocence lost, but on innocence cherished. There are no bigots or sadists in the ranks, there is no real dissension: the men and women we see are noble comrades, fighting for one another and for all of us. They are not morally stained; the world is. The soldier acts only out of best intentions and serves a necessary purpose. The difficulty with this approach arises not simply from the avoidance of the question of what we mean by “necessary”; it also arises from the films’ continual assertion that lying somewhere far behind all of this horror is the oasis of an America under threat. This America is innocent, as are its soldiers, and it is exactly this innocence that they fight to protect and defend. They are virtually never put into the position of culpable participation in moral atrocity. The closest they ever come, as in Bigelow’s film, is doing bad things to bad people.
Seen in this light, American Sniper becomes neither a post-ideological assertion of the nobility of the soldier forced to reflect on his own beliefs, nor a latter-day western investigating the presence of violence at the heart of the liberal American enterprise. It becomes the latest example of a three-decade-long project to reassert a vision of America as an island of innocence in a sea of violence, a place in which a naïve population is protected by the self-sacrifice of its best and brightest, who are by definition above reproach. Like Maverick in Top Gun, Chris Kyle is an innocent, troubled only by his own greatness. He never kills a person who does not deserve it, and each of his kills can be justified as a wiping of evil from the face of the earth.
The arrogant ease of this vision comes through clearly in a second scene in which Kyle is faced with shooting a child. Toward the end of his time in Iraq, Kyle watches through his scope as a boy toys with the idea of picking up a discarded RPG and firing it at American troops. The sequence is meant as a kind of bookend to the initial one with the grenade-lobbing kid; we are meant, I think, to see it as a moment that reveals the destruction wrought on Kyle by his experiences. As he watches, he is visibly terrified by what he may have to do. A more serious film plays the climax of this scene in one of two ways: either the kid fires the RPG and Kyle is unable to kill him, or Kyle kills him before we are really sure of the kid’s intent, bringing Kyle face to face with the agony of his position. Once again, however, Eastwood opts for the appearance of moral risk laid over a foundation of moral reassurance: the kid puts the RPG down and runs off, and Kyle remains unsullied, having once again made the right decision. As in the restorative films of the 1980s, our hero’s moral innocence is preserved. And yet, as in the contemporary wave of war films, this innocence is accompanied by the protestations of a faux-realist worldview. The point is never that we ought to reevaluate our image of ourselves as innocent, noble actors in a sullied world; it is that this innocence is the source of our strength, the thing that forms the great burden of being the best nation on earth.
Toward the end of the film, when Kyle finally kills his nemesis, the evil enemy sniper Mustafa, he places himself and his fellow soldiers in great danger. They’ve been secreted on top of a building, and the enemy troops hear the shot and surround them. As the firefight begins, Kyle calls his wife and tells her that he’s ready to come home. Things look bleak. Fortunately, a massive sandstorm descends on the city, which gives Kyle and his comrades a chance to escape. In the blurry running firefight that ensues, Kyle is almost left behind. He symbolically and melodramatically loses his grip on his sniper rifle. We cut to a shot of the rifle lying on the ground, being covered over with blowing sand. It is a perfect image. Not because of the metaphor the film seems to think it’s making – look at this object of expertise and violence and manhood, wasted by the folly of the world. No, it’s perfect because the baldness of the symbolism captures exactly the way the film’s vision of itself as non-ideological is a poor mask for its ideology. It confuses pathos with the serious moral considerations incumbent in making art about the act of killing, and mistakenly believes that an argument for the wasted nobility of the warrior can be disconnected from an argument about the nobility of war.