Clint’s Cause: The Case for ‘American Sniper’

Warner Bros.

You couldn’t ask for a better contrast of Old Hollywood and New than 84-year-old Clint Eastwood and Ava DuVernay — who’s African American, female, and half his age. That extends to the two Best Picture contenders they’re responsible for, too.

Despite being set 50 years ago, Selma is rightly perceived as timely. If Eric Garner and Ferguson root DuVernay’s movie in the fierce urgency of now in one way, the Supreme Court’s gutting of the Voting Rights Act does it in another. On top of that, she’s living proof that old white guys no longer enjoy a monopoly on deciding whose stories are told or how.

American Sniper, on the other hand, is a contemporary tale that ends with ex–Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s death in 2013. That’s so recent that the movie was already in the works when he was murdered. Yet the film is saturated in yesteryear’s definition of a hero, a topic on which Eastwood is something of an expert. And unlike Selma — whose box office take is welcomely impressive, but not phenomenal — American Sniper is an old-fashioned, monster hit, giving America’s liberal enclaves their worst case of the pop culture heebie-jeebies since The Passion of the Christ made over $600 million worldwide back in 2004.

Me, I think both movies are terrific. But the more I mull them over, the more I’m struck by how similar they are — in approach, in effect, in terms of what’s most praiseworthy about them. Even though its subject invites the most knee-jerk kind of inspirational bombast, Selma isn’t simpleminded or triumphalist. The fossilized Noam Chomsky to the contrary — wouldn’t it be nice if he had at least seen Eastwood’s movie before denouncing it? — American Sniper isn’t, either.

Not only are both uncommonly grown-up, their methods — tenaciously matter-of-fact, alert to the complexities that can be generated out of seemingly straightforward material — are identical. Of the two, however, Eastwood’s movie has been more aggressively misinterpreted, both by the people condemning American Sniper as jingoistic hogwash and by the millions apparently embracing it for exactly the same reason.

Both views are equally undiscerning. But that’s how it goes when everybody’s programmed to react tendentiously. By comparison, the disputes over Selma’s characterization of Lyndon Johnson, which my colleague Mark Harris did a terrific job of dismantling right here, are a tempest in a slightly misshapen teapot. As DuVernay herself has suggested, they’re a great way of changing the subject from her movie’s real focus on black struggle: not only the campaign for voting rights, but also the larger arc of African Americans taking charge of their own destinies.

With their faint whiff of being ginned up to undercut the movie’s Oscar chances, the op-ed hissy fits about DuVernay’s treatment of LBJ also haven’t really engaged the populace at large. But there’s not much manufactured in the passions provoked by American Sniper, a full-on donnybrook pitting the usual suspects — Chomsky, Michael Moore, et al. — against the Folk, even if the latter category includes self-appointed tribunes from Sarah Palin (aren’t she and Moore just made for each other?) to Fox News. Ultimately, everybody’s arguing over what kind of country we are or should aspire to be — and that’s hardly irrelevant to what’s on the screen.


American-SniperKeith Bernstein/Warner Bros.

In fact, it’s more or less American Sniper’s subject, just as it is Selma’s. That starts with its title — which Eastwood probably knows has a discomfiting side, even if Chris Kyle and/or his autobiography’s ghostwriter didn’t. Moore isn’t wrong that American boys his age weren’t raised to see snipers as heroes; “sharpshooter” and “marksman” were the euphemisms when a positive light was required. The movie’s Kyle sometimes balks at the job himself — although, when he volunteers to go out on raids with the guys instead, it’s not totally clear whether he’s experiencing moral qualms or just wants more action. Or maybe more company, since being a sniper is a lonesome life.

Even so, just because the story is told from Kyle’s unreflective — well, never willingly reflective — POV doesn’t mean Eastwood shares it. Whatever the movie is, it isn’t jubilant; it’s the most mournful epic to become a box office smash since The Sand Pebbles — which was almost passed at the box office, funnily enough, only by The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.

Everything about American Sniper’s narrative arc is organized to take a guy who thinks he’s got moral clarity to burn and gradually engulf him in chaos, futility, and Matthew Arnold’s good old darkling plain where ignorant armies clash by night. If heartland multiplexers are seizing on the movie as an affirmation anyway — that the Iraq War was righteous, that white America still has the right stuff, that Chris Kyle was Jesus Christ reborn in Sergeant York’s body — that can only be because they’re feeling starved for one.

They’re certainly right that Eastwood values Kyle and the God-fearing Texas milieu he grew up in. Though Bradley Cooper is very good throughout — jumpiness about how he’s coming across has been a nagging undercurrent in most of his roles, but buffing up and knowing he’s got to skimp on cleverness do wonders for his confidence — he’s particularly effective in the early scenes with Sienna Miller that establish Kyle as a likable galoot who’s too secure in his values to have much truck with moral ambiguity. But if you’re prejudiced against shitkickers, his transformation won’t affect you much, even though Eastwood clearly means viewers to recognize that Kyle gets a hard lesson in those values’ inadequacy.

He’s positioned as the modern-day heir to a manly (and movie) tradition that still resonates out in what right-wingers are much too fond of calling the “real” America. Kyle starts out wanting to be a cowboy — can’t get more symbolic than that, can you? — but only ends up playing out the fantasy after his last tour in Iraq, in a bit of sexual byplay with his wife that’s at once creepy and forlorn. Eastwood has respect for traditional masculinity; that’s why he keeps making movies about how it gets misused and warped. What’s unmistakable here is that he thinks it deserved a better, less soiling war.

We’ve all heard the stories about audiences exiting American Sniper fired up to kill Arabs. That reaction doesn’t say much about their perceptiveness, though it may say a lot about their bigoted priorities going in. Kyle’s first targets are a woman and child — suicide bombers — and even though killing them saves American lives, the scene isn’t what you’d call an occasion for fist-pumping. When he and his fellow SEALs are raiding Iraqi houses, brutalizing and terrifying the families inside them is basic to their M.O. They look like what they are: intruders who don’t speak the language and are baffled by the culture.

Of course, the Iraqi leader portrayed as “The Butcher” is brutal at a whole other level of sadism. But is that a propagandistic contrast, or a slippery slope? When the Americans aren’t lethal, they’re ineffectual — Eastwood sure doesn’t make it look like we’re winning this war, or could even define victory if we wanted to — and nobody comes off untarnished.

The movie’s most forthright comment on our whole Iraq misadventure comes from Kyle’s Marine kid brother at the end of his own tour: “Fuck this place.” Eastwood even somewhat overemphasizes the basket-case hauntedness, but it’s clearly a moment he wants us to pay heed to, partly for the effect on the kid’s older sibling. Nobody said “Fuck this place” at the Alamo — or if they did, Chris’s daddy didn’t tell him about it. Neither did John Wayne.

Near the end, Kyle finally gets the Iraqi sniper who’s his opposite number. But the showcase for his skill — and that’s all it is — is immediately undercut by the disastrous consequences. Blamed for putting the men he’s assigned to protect at risk, he ends up telling his wife on the phone that he’s ready to come home — not pridefully, but because he’s at the end of his tether — as a sandstorm makes it impossible to tell friend from foe. The image of his sniping rifle abandoned in dust is a long way from the flag-raising on Iwo Jima.


Retired Navy SEAL killed in TexasPaul Moseley/Fort Worth Star-Telegram

The two flash points of left-wing hostility to American Sniper are (1) the flagrant disconnect between the real Chris Kyle and the one portrayed onscreen, and (2) the movie’s treatment of Iraqis. They aren’t unrelated issues, since the real Kyle was a racist as well as a fabulist. As preposterous as it is vile, his claim to have dropped 30 looters in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is enough by itself to qualify him for the psycho ward.

Some of the same people arguing that DuVernay isn’t being irresponsible when she reconceives LBJ for her didactic purposes — and she isn’t, because Selma’s LBJ is the LBJ she needs, to dramatize how the sausage gets made — are aghast at Eastwood’s mendacity in retooling Chris Kyle, an infinitely more trivial figure, to suit his. “We’re not watching a biopic,” one negative reviewer wrote, midway through an ace job of detailing all the “self-mythologizing” and ugly callousness Eastwood left out. And she’s right — we aren’t. Cooper’s Kyle is the Kyle Eastwood needs, and what the original was actually like is irrelevant. Outright fictionalizing him would be an improvement, but that’s not what WB shelled out for before Steven Spielberg bailed and Eastwood took over.

A movie that exposed Kyle as a self-aggrandizing racist crackpot would be interesting. So would one that did the same for Davy Crockett, whose phonied-up mythos retains a lot more folkloric heft than Kyle’s. But American Sniper has its uses for him as the archetype the big audience thinks he is, and those uses aren’t thoughtless or uncritical. He’s the familiar can-do man of action, sure — but transposed to a situation where his deeds never solve anything. He comes back damaged and uncomfortable with his legend.

I don’t blame anyone who’s unnerved about American Sniper’s success inflaming xenophobia. One bit of brutality the movie records accurately — and which is often cited as proof of its odiousness — is Kyle’s term for Iraqis, which is “savages.” But it’s a stretch to assume Eastwood agrees with him. When the SEALs raid a house, we’re conscious of the family life being disrupted — panicked kids, frantic parents — and the Iraqi sniper Kyle stalks isn’t a cartoon psycho. Above all, he’s a peer.

If the Iraqis and their culture are nonetheless alien to Kyle, he and his fellow Americans are equally alien to them, and Eastwood, of all people, can hardly be unaware that “savages” is a slur with a pedigree. It’s what Kyle’s ancestors — including his cinematic ones — used to call Indians, and this is a movie with ancestry on its brain. People do tend to forget that Eastwood is the director who made Letters From Iwo Jima, depicting a World War II enemy we demonized on racial grounds with admiration and pitch-perfect empathy.

Eastwood is, if anything, a mite more intrigued by the Iraqis caught in the middle than, say, Saving Private Ryan was by the French — whose near omission from the screen turned Normandy into a feel-good boxing match between virtuous Yanks and evil Krauts. If the movie is consciously addressed to conservative, white America — Eastwood’s natural constituency — that doesn’t mean it’s endorsing yahooism. Even more than Unforgiven, American Sniper is the director’s funeral for the cowboy myth. Audiences may be refusing to see it that way, but that only shows how much they cling to their icons.

We know which iconography is replacing it, too: the one Selma dramatizes. Martin Luther King Jr. had to wait half a century for a feature film, but both first- and second-wave feminists are still waiting for theirs, as are so many others — though not Harvey Milk, which is some consolation. One version of America is stubbornly rising, another got lost in the wastes of Iraq, and that’s why DuVernay’s film and Eastwood’s bookend each other better than you’d think. I’ve never given two hoots about the Oscars, but in my perfect world, they’d tie.

This article initially stated that a Cesar Chavez feature film had not yet been made; one came out last year. We regret the error.

Filed Under: Movies, Oscars, Academy Awards, 2014 Awards Season, Clint Eastwood, best picture, Bradley Cooper, american sniper, selma, Ava DuVernay