American Sniper, the latest film from director Clint Eastwood, is officially a cultural phenomenon: the box office numbers are colossal, and the intellectual skirmishes surrounding the film have been essentially unavoidable for anyone with an internet connection.
Given the militant focus of the film, it’s not all that surprising that a large chunk of critical responses tend to fall rather cleanly across the standard left-right divide. For the right, this movie is humanizing an American soldier. For the left, it’s dehumanizing his targets. These conversations can stray a little off-topic, with plenty of right-wing support for the movie often a reflection of appreciation for the real Chris Kyle’s service, while the left has jumped from the single-soldier focus of the movie to much larger critiques of the American military’s intervention in the Middle East. In many ways, the public debates surrounding the film have become more interesting than the movie itself.
To start with the positive: this is Bradley Cooper’s best work to date. That the actor put on 40 lbs to play the Navy SEAL has been well documented, but what’s more noteworthy in the performance is the mute subtlety and control that Cooper displays over his enlarged form. He’s able to build a larger-than-life character out of little, minute actions: from empty stares to stuttering breaths, Cooper is in complete control, and it’s his presence on the screen that helps tie the movie together from start to finish.
Unfortunately, Cooper is the exception: the rest of the supporting cast is drastically underwhelming. Sienna Miller, playing Chris Kyle’s wife, does her best with a relatively flat character, but beyond that there’s not much to celebrate. From extended family members to miscellaneous military personnel, the majority of the minor characters feel egregiously awkward and out of place.
That the Middle Eastern people of the film are essentially mobile, brown targets is also a given. There’s really no way to argue around it–the most developed character on the battlefield not in a US uniform is an Iraqi whose only job is to slaughter kids with a domestic power drill. Yes, like you’ve probably already heard, the film is decently racist, mostly in its refusal to explore anything beyond caricatures of Middle Eastern people. Iraqis are either terrorists, supporters of terrorists, or collateral damage. That being said, the acknowledgement that American Sniper is simply racist or pro-war doesn’t quite hit on the totality of ideology that’s at work here.
While Eastwood isn’t all that interested in going beyond caricature in his depictions of the Iraqi people, he doesn’t do much for the American soldiers in the film either. At best, the men of the military come across as fanboys. At worst, they appear incompetent. When Chris looks to help a group of marines go door to door securing locations, the marines can’t even remember their various code words. At one point, we see Chris lying prone in sniping position while a colleague sits and plays a Gameboy. The intention of deification is obvious, but the result is deflating.
Eastwood’s depiction of PTSD, though certainly a difficult topic to dramatize, is equally disturbing in its simplicity. Rather than exploring any nuances of a veteran’s mental psyche, Eastwood sticks with stereotypes. Ominous, subterranean bass invades the soundscape of a family picnic, just in case you forgot that Chris might not be okay. When our protagonist runs into his brother at a military base, the younger Kyle can barely even muster a word as he shakes with shell-shock. In the final scene, the veteran who will eventually kill Chris is depicted as a shadowed boogeyman, ultimately undermining the power of what should be a haunting moment. In place of nuance, the message offered by American Sniper is that PTSD is–apparently–quite easy to spot.
This emphasis on blatancy is further exhibited in the central metaphor of the movie, provided by Chris’ father. There are, supposedly, three types of people in the world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Chris is the obvious sheepdog, the Iraqis slaughtering kids are the wolves, and the soldiers and citizens both home and abroad who lack either the skills, or the mental fortitude, to fully appreciate and combat the wolves, are the sheep.
If there’s an ideology to the film, it’s embedded in this metaphor, though it has less to do with the relationships and roles of the respective sheepdog, wolf and sheep, and more to do with how apparently easy it is to identify these types. In American Sniper, everything is present in the surface image, everything is visible, from PTSD and mental illness to the overt evilness of foreign combatants. It’s no coincidence that Chris Kyle chooses to enlist after watching a news broadcast of 9/11 on his TV. In this world, the image is all that’s needed.
To see something is to know it, and to have a certain kind of power over it through this knowledge. The sniper is thus renowned for his ability to see something from a great distance, and to eliminate it with a single stroke of his finger. American Sniper promotes violence, yes, but it’s not promoting the joy of violence or the brutality of it. Rather, it’s a film that promotes the efficiency of violence as a quick solution to a complex problem.
This fetish for simplicity can help to explain why Chris Kyle, even before his death, was a hero and a celebrity. Yes, Chris Kyle was a Navy SEAL. But there are plenty of Navy SEALs. The celebrity surrounding Chris can be attributed to the subtitle of both his book and the movie: he’s famous because was the most lethal. Chris Kyle is famous because of his service, yes, but more than that, because of how efficient he was in performing this service. During the opening title sequence, the words “American Sniper” are superimposed on an image of Chris Kyle’s sniper rifle, rather than Kyle himself. It’s likely incidental, but simultaneously indicative: American Sniper values the ability to easily target and eliminate enemies, a mindset that assumes enemies, as manifestations of evil, are blatantly visible, easily seen, and easily known.
It’s a machine mindset, one that grossly conflates the conflicts of Iraq and Afghanistan into a series of shootouts between sheepdogs and wolves. The racist reductionism of the film is, in one sense, simply a way of satisfy this desire for simplicity.
Matt Taibi called the movie “almost too dumb to criticize.” I would contend it’s just dumb enough to scare you. The modern sniper is, in many ways, the last step before the drone: it’s the perfect balance of human and machine. As we improve our ability to kill at a distance, the idea that the complexities of the world can be boiled down into a good guy holding a gun with a bad guy in his scope, is an issue of arrogant reduction that spans beyond the scope of a single war or film. This mentality is at the core of the worship of Chris Kyle and his service as our most efficient militant machine. It is a mechanized mentality that lacks the capacity to answer what we should do if it weren’t so obvious; if the world were made of more than sheep, sheepdog and wolves; if we couldn’t so easily capture them on camera, or kill them with a gun.
Photos courtesy of American Sniper