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Categories: Features

An examination of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper and its reputation as one of the most heartless and worrying war films of the modern era.

As August gave the United States domestic box office its worst weekend since the one which followed 9/11, statistical pundits have been burning with the question “what sells in the American market?” It is, after all and quite understandably, the holy grail of American filmmaking.

While tentpoles may be Hollywood’s largest crop they are, by no means, its most popular in the domestic market. The real success stories in America tend to be, as you would guess, uniquely American; and there is no better example of this success, from recent years, than Clint Eastwood’s 2014 war film American Sniper.

Its total domestic haul of just over $350 million (the largest in America that year) was attributed largely to its extremely rare universal appeal. Meaning that, for an R-rated film, it played as strongly in major cities as it did in small towns; taking massive hauls from states and cities with large populations of military veterans and active personnel. Not that this came as much of a surprise.

The film’s distributor, Warner Brothers, had hired Washington-based consulting firm Glover Park Group to help them target military veteran organizations and provide screenings for them in the run up to the film’s wide release.

These tactics are not that out of the ordinary, particularly for a film that was looking to claim some awards buzz to add to its prestige. Nor are they particularly evil. The evil of the whole deal was something that only became more apparent as time went on.

American Sniper is often remembered, much like Paul Feig’s 2016 remake of Ghostbusters, less as a film and more as a political statement. To support it was not to support a singular piece of art, or commerce, but rather a far wider, ideological, front.

The visible battleground of this was between the polemic talking heads Sarah Palin and Michael Moore, but the truth of it was that the vitriol ran far deeper than that superficial squabble.

Warner Brothers’ president of worldwide marketing and international distribution, Sue Kroll, stated that the film’s gargantuan $107 million domestic opening was down to it being “the first contemporary mainstream war film that really tells a personal story about soldiers.” Which is, of course, a lie. The Hurt Locker, released four years prior, was an intensely personal Iraq War story and the lowest earning Best Picture winner in Oscar history. Earning a relatively meager $17 million in the US domestic market. (Just enough to cover the film’s production costs.)

“This is based on a man’s life; we are not making a political statement.” Another lie.

Either consciously or subconsciously, American Sniper provided one unique thing for American cinemagoers that there was clearly a vacuum for: a reassurance that the war in Iraq was the right thing to do.

Eastwood became insistent in the wake of the film’s success that it was, in fact, “anti-war”; as was he. Whether you believe this sentiment to be true is a personal matter but it’s quite clear why he would say it.

American Sniper was a hot ticket item in Hollywood for a brief spell, as many best-selling books are when they’re optioned. The first name attached to it was Steven Spielberg, which generated its foundation of buzz. No one knows for certain why Spielberg dropped off the project completely, other than him, but the revelations made about the lifestyle of the real American Sniper, Chris Kyle, (his personality and propensity to embellish stories, or even just flat-out lie) could not have helped.

While the film was still in theatres, a court ordered Kyle’s estate to pay $1.8 million to former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura as the result of a defamation case which Ventura brought against Kyle for claiming in his book that he knocked Ventura out. (Ventura claimed the entire incident was fabricated and it has since been removed by the publishers from Kyle’s book.) Among various tall tales of Kyle killing American citizens who had wronged him, Kyle was also famous for bragging that he had once taken a sniper rifle to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and murdered 30 US citizens who were looting.

So, with this in mind, Eastwood’s American Sniper is the most fitting film about Kyle’s life that could be made; because it has absolutely no regard, whatsoever, for the sanctity of life.

This is, after all, a film which contains a pivotal scene in which a man from an invading army kills a young boy and his mother and the audience is meant to feel bad for the man who shoots them.

The deceased are, as Bradley Cooper’s iteration of Kyle states frequently throughout the film, only “savages”. A reasoning ingrained into the American military consciousness from its earliest origins as a cleansing machine designed to rid the landscape of the native American, or “savage”, who would only seek to harm the true, upstanding, American citizen.

That’s the fundamental reason why American Sniper could never be an anti-war film, a point which Spielberg probably discovered when delving into the details of the project. Because no matter what personality you, as a filmmaker, could imprint onto the work it would still always be an adaptation of Kyle’s book; and Kyle was a man who firmly believed that what he did was morally unquestionable.

Kyle’s infallibility as a soldier is second in the film only to his masculine nobility. American Sniper is not just an exercise in political conservatism but social conservatism also.

During Eastwood’s, now typical, flashbacks we are shown a vignette of Kyle’s life before becoming a Navy SEAL sniper, a task which achieves with seeming ease. In it, we see Kyle return from a night of rodeoing to discover his girlfriend in bed with another man, whom Kyle physically assaults despite his sincere attempts to explain that he thought she was single. Kyle then physically throws his girlfriend out of the house despite her attempts to reason with him and argue a case of her loneliness and his emotional neglect, which falls on deaf ears.

These are the scenes in which we are meant to get to know Chris Kyle as a human being and empathise with him.

What becomes clear from this encounter is Kyle’s belief that his girlfriend’s purpose is to be faithful to him. To have sex with him and, presumably, at some point bear him children. That is it. Her psychological state is meaningless to him. When he meets his future wife later on in the film, she is introduced, and catches the eye of Kyle, by rebuffing a married man. She understands her purpose and Kyle is portrayed as, if nothing else, a man of purpose. His wife’s purpose is to raise their child alone, Kyle’s purpose is to kill things.

The most revealing flashback comes right at the beginning of the film. After setting up the scene in which Kyle shoots and kills the mother and her child, we cut to Kyle’s early childhood where he hunts with his father.

After shooting his first deer, he runs to the carcass; dropping his rifle in his haste. His father chastises him for showing no respect for his gun, no word is spoken about the animal they just killed for sport. They make no mention of eating it. It does not even appear to be a trophy. Simply a target.

Later, when Kyle is conducting military rifle training, he appears to actually struggle for the first time in the film. He isn’t doing such a good job hitting the target. It’s almost humanising. Then Kyle veers his sight off to the left and shoots a nearby rattlesnake, stunning the instructor who had the momentary foolishness to doubt the flawless skills of the “legend”.

“I’m better when it’s breathing”, says Kyle.

Cruelty to animals, one of the most common signifiers of psychopathic minds, is a running theme throughout the film. Appearing again, near the end, where Kyle removes his belt and moves to beat a dog before seeing the horrified reactions of onlookers. The belt tying in to the beginning of the film where it is implied, but not shown, that Kyle was beaten by his father.

Up to a certain point you could make the argument that Eastwood was in fact attempting to paint a portrait of a violently ignorant man.

Cooper plays Kyle with an emphasis on his slack-jawed grin and practiced aggression. Like a deadly Forrest Gump, simply unable to comprehend the complexity of the events going on around him.

He and his fellow soldiers, obsessed with a Marvel comic book character called The Punisher, coming off as a group of permanent adolescents. (One indignantly insists that his Punisher comic is not a comic for kids but a “graphic novel.”) Armed to the teeth and looking to dispense justice upon a country that has done nothing to them but disgusts them all the same.

It would be a viable theory if it were not for Eastwood’s decision to change the ending of the film.  

The original intention was to end the film with the death of Chris Kyle. (He and a friend were shot and killed by a fellow ex-marine, suffering from paranoid delusions, at a gun range.) But the final cut omitted this scene at the behest of Kyle’s widow; and it’s this decision to the which the entire film boils down, creatively speaking. 

It wouldn’t have made the overall film any less emotionally barren but Eastwood could have at least ended the film with some form of closure that was in line with the rest of the film. To show Kyle dying by the sword that he had lived by.

Showing Chris Kyle being shot, or a scene which culminates in him being shot, was deemed unbefitting for his legacy as a husband and father. It was deemed fitting, however, to see him shoot women and children. This much is fine for the memory of Chris Kyle because that was his achievement. That is what set him apart. That is the fundamental selling point of Chris Kyle’s life by his design. The subtitle of the book itself is “The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in US Military History”, and the lives he took were worth less than the notches on his belt. Because they were Muslim lives. Arab lives. Native lives.

For all its procedural accuracy for military life in wartime, that military-minded audiences enjoyed so much, the film never really discusses its enemy as anything more than a target. It’s not just how the film never addresses the reasons for the occupation of Iraq, or paints Al-Qaeda as the primary problem in the region without addressing how it got there in the first place, it’s the utter erasure of the Iraqi people from their own country altogether.

As the film opens, we see a tank’s tread crushing rubble underneath it, leading a column of troops to break down doors to empty, bombed out, houses and leading into the opening scene with the mother and the child. But before even that, atop the opening logos, the audiences hears a familiar sound, very particular to the openings of films in which Muslims are the antagonists. The muffled echo of a call to prayer. Like a dog-whistle to let the audience know that this film is about the Really Bad Guys. What little footage that there is of the native inhabitants of Iraq depicts them as cowering and cowardly, successfully under boot.

Kyle spends a large portion of the film hunting for a fictional henchman called “The Butcher”, in the process he interrogates a man in his home. He breaks in, points a gun at the man’s small child, demands he answer his questions and to look at him while he speaks, like an authoritative school teacher. All despite the man pleading with him to leave because “The Butcher” murders collaborators. Kyle promises protection for information, protection which never comes. Later we see the man’s son brutally murdered by a power drill being bored through his skull, it ties into nothing in the film and is never mentioned again. The payoff of the scene is to see a small brown boy brutally killed.

Later, we see Kyle interact with another family. A man offers dinner to the soldiers occupying his home in a religious gesture of humanitarianism. Kyle then rises from the dinner table, searches through his guest’s possessions in his bedroom and discovers a weapons cache. Without a word, Kyle grabs the man from behind, drags him to the bedroom and forces his face down to the cache like a dog being made to smell its own urine. Kyle then forces the man to help him gain access to a nearby enemy safehouse. During the raid, Kyle kills a guard beside the man and, in the confusion (the man appears completely unaware of any kind of plan or why the guard was shot), the man picks up the guards rifle and stands defensively, not pointing it at anyone. Kyle kills him too.

The American soldiers have funerals, they have names, they have a culture that mourns them. Iraqis are seen as nothing more than dogs. Getting in the way of foreign invaders in their own country. The towns are described as abandoned, anyone there of fighting age is an instant viable target. Kyle frequently marvels at the evil of his enemy (he describes the incident with the mother and her child as “an evil I’ve never seen before”) but never ponders why they behave the way they do. Iraq, as Kyle describes it in the film, is simply “dirt”.

“We’re protecting more than just this dirt”, Kyle emphatically states. He refers to his belief that if he does not kill these people there then they will travel to America and then real lives will be lost.

His emotional response to the September 11th attacks is submitted as reasoning behind Kyle’s hatred of his enemy; again, never exploring the fact that Iraq had nothing to do with this. But the truth of it is that American Sniper is a film that revels in death. It wants you to cheer for death, and a lot of its audience did.

Kyle’s partner, during the opening incident, provides commentary, attuned to the film’s spirit, as the event unfolds. “Fuck that was gnarly” he exclaims as Kyle kills the child. “Fuckin’ evil bitch” he smirks as Kyle kills the mother.

Kyle’s father supplies him with a monstrous world view as a child, describing all people as being separated into sheep, wolves and shepherds. Making it the job of shepherds, like Kyle the “legend”, to protect the sheep. A great, divine, task for a superior man. But there’s a faint smile on his face, a mixture of nostalgia and satisfaction, when Kyle utters his true credo in the film: “It’s a hell of a thing to stop a beating heart.”

Eastwood, the most prestigious Hollywood conservative left alive, created a superheroic embodiment of the second constitutional amendment that Kyle held so dearly. Good things happen when you give the good guys guns. (As the company motto for Kyle’s security contracting firm, emblazoned around the Punisher skull, states: “Despite what your momma told you, violence does solve problems.”)

It’s quite fitting that American Sniper is most remembered for one of its most hilariously overt examples of contempt for human life; the now infamous rubber baby.

As Cooper cradles the lifeless hunk of plastic that simulates an emotional attachment to reality, it’s hard not to think about just how artificial it all is. How the film never tries to convince you of anything. But rather reassures beliefs that people already held. How it bathes itself in death and destruction. But wants you to feel bad about Chris Kyle having high blood pressure from killing too many people.

There are plenty of jingoistic war films, plenty of islamophobic American films that existed years before September 11th 2001 and more excessively violent films about real conflicts than can be counted. But American Sniper stands apart from those films, in terms of sheer profit, by a wide margin and so you have to look at its unique qualities to assess its importance to modern culture. What did American Sniper do differently? Well, for one it never attempts to humanise the Iraqi people (their culture, their lives, their thoughts) let alone the enemy combatants. (The primary foe being a Syrian sniper who the film calls Mustafa, who also never utters a word and is most likely named after the antagonist in Disney’s Aladdin as almost all references made about Arabic people by the military in the film are, quite accurately, derived from American cartoons.) It unapologetically demonstrates nothing but contempt for Islam as a religion, most often linking it to situations in which people lie. (As well as the dinner scene, a complaint is lodged with the US military that Kyle shot an unarmed man holding a Quran. Kyle dismisses it instantly, stating he doesn’t know what Quran looks like, it is never brought up again.)

Most of all, though, it is the killing. The joy found not in the aesthetic pleasure of violence but simply in death. American Sniper is remembered as a politically charged film despite there being virtually no ideology in its fight, it is a racial war. The audience does not cheer for the defeat of the enemy, they cheer for their deaths. They do not want to see them beaten, they want to see them dead. Exterminated.

This is what makes Chris Kyle their poster child. He wasn’t about inflicting pain, he was about killing as many as he could as quickly as he could. Headshots, one straight to the brain, like a Texas abattoir worker killing a quota of cattle. Or perhaps, more accurately in the film’s eyes, vermin.

Kyle identifies himself as being all about three things “God, country, family.” But not their God. Not their country. Not their family.  

Recently, Egyptian director Amr Salama has stated his intent to film a counter-film, tentatively titled Iraqi Sniper, which focusses on the real life figure behind the film’s antagonist “Mustafa” (most likely based on a real life sniper dubbed “Juba” by the US military). It will be interesting to see the reactions of fans of American Sniper, and war films in general. (Doug Liman recently released a far superior war film titled The Wall, which features Juba as a central character.) But it will do little for the film’s reputation or legacy. I will not go through the banality of comparing it to other war films because I struggle to even identify it as a film.

American Sniper was not an artistic endeavour. Its view of a vastly complicated event, which is both changing and taking lives at this very moment, was selective to the point of distortion and manipulative to the point of absurdity. Its success hinged upon making a war, which has claimed the lives of upwards of 200,000 innocent civilians, appear to be a uniquely American triumph of will and superiority. It is as dangerously close to violent political propaganda that Hollywood has come within nearly half a century.    


Posted on Sep 5, 2017

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