American Sniper

March 24, 2015

Neither facile liberal censure nor rabid applause from the right speak to Eastwood’s purposes in this superbly crafted picture.

[[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_crop","fid":"33187","attributes":{"alt":"American Sniper","class":"media-image media-image-right","id":"media_crop_5350445438102","media_crop_h":"0","media_crop_image_style":"-1","media_crop_instance":"3495","media_crop_rotate":"0","media_crop_scale_h":"0","media_crop_scale_w":"0","media_crop_w":"0","media_crop_x":"0","media_crop_y":"0","style":"width: 120px; height: 184px; float: right;","title":" ","typeof":"foaf:Image"}}]]“Legend” was the nickname given by grateful troops to master sniper Chris Kyle, who scored 140 plus confirmed kills during 4 tours of duty in Iraq. Clint Eastwood’s latest film, American Sniper, is based on Kyle’s best-selling autobiography. It has been immensely successful at the box office, but has drawn fire from the left because of its supposed repugnant jingoism. The movie has also been lauded by some as a monument to an authentic American hero’s skill and valor. Kyle’s heartland love of God, country, and home acquired an added shimmer with his tragic murder last year-of which more presently.

Neither facile liberal censure nor rabid applause from the right speak to Eastwood’s purposes in this superbly crafted picture. American Sniper comprises a profound probe of Kyle’s legend, particularly the machismo heroics of Eastwood’s earlier work in Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, the Dirty Harry series, etc. American Sniper’s searching critique hearkens back to Eastwood’s revisionary work in Unforgiven, Gran Torino, and Flags of Our Fathers.

Kyle’s admiration of his father is captured in the establishing sequence, which shows him teaching the child Kyle to hunt. But a darker picture of the father emerges: father, mother, and Kyle and his brother sit around a kitchen table in tense silence while father declares his savage predatory take on the human condition.

The father asserts that humanity consists of wolves who prey on sheep (the majority of us); noble dogs are tasked to protect the herd. His children must grow up to become good sheepdogs. At one point, the father slams a coiled belt on the table. Traumatic retribution for not heeding his words is clear. As the belt crashes down, the mother’s unspoken intimidation is also crystal clear. Eastwood implies that for young Kyle, the father’s love was conflated with absolute obedience to authority. The tang of violence hovers over all. The father’s dog-eat-dog ideology will infuse Kyle’s adult persona, sharpening Kyle’s own conviction that justified violence is mandated if America’s sheep are to be protected.

Kyle enlists in the Marines after watching the Twin Towers’ televised fall. His training as a Navy Seal is reminiscent of the ritualized torrent of abuse Lee Ermey’s profane drill sergeant heaps on the Marine recruits of Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. The Seal program is designed to weed out the effete sheep from the few privileged to join the elite cadre of killer dogs. But unlike Kubrick and Oliver Stone, Eastwood refuses the obvious polemic. He shows not only the brutality of the training but also the evolution of an intense camaraderie that will render the Seals as close to each other as to their loved ones. Perhaps closer.

Kyle’s first kills in Iraq are a bomb-bearing mother and her small son. His doubt and guilt are momentary. Over 4 tours, he becomes increasingly fixated on protecting his fellow soldiers from the terrorist wolves. The kills mount and his legend grows, but he takes no obvious enjoyment in his job. He just feels fortunate to do it so skillfully. Praise makes him uncomfortable.

Nor does Kyle care a whit about winning Iraqi hearts and minds. The civilian population are terrorist savages or an indistinguishable conglomerate of hajis-collateral damage when a mission goes bad; otherwise utterly alien and always mistrusted. (Most of his comrades seem to harbor the same sentiments.) He doesn’t acknowledge the possibility that some adversaries might not be sadistic Al Qaeda jihadists, but ordinary Iraqis who have come to bitterly resent the American presence that is destroying life, property, and the very fabric of their culture.

Political rationales hold no interest for Kyle beyond defending “my country,” obliterating the particular menace seen through his weapon’s scope. He does not register the mounting disillusion of friends. Eastwood depicts their skepticism sparely and potently-the angry flare-up of Kyle’s brother; a fellow soldier, who declares that Iraq is a "fucked-up" place; and the letter read over a slain friend’s casket by his widow expressing doubts about the war’s validity.

Kyle is just as alexithymic about his own PTSD symptoms, which grow so flagrant that his wife threatens to leave him. Throughout the film, Kyle hunts, and is hunted by, a Syrian marksman who might well be his mirror image. During a routine sortie, Kyle gives away his outfit’s position by taking out the Syrian archenemy in his last, most extraordinary shot. In the ensuing chaos, several of his friends are killed, precipitating his decision to quit the battlefield.

Back home, he continues to deny being traumatized; tells a VA psychiatrist that his conscience is untroubled . . . he will stand before God’s throne and affirm that every kill he made was righteous. Recognizing that talking therapy will not penetrate Kyle’s formidable defenses, the doctor asks him to chat with the hospital’s wounded vets. These are real people, and their terrible disabilities are as scarifying as the film’s combat sequences.

In reality and on film, Kyle helped himself by healing these wounded warriors with empathic listening and gracious deeds. Occasionally he tried to restore their shattered self-esteem by taking them out to hunt or shoot. One wonders whether his respect for guns and those who used them well was so engrained that he failed to recognize the potential danger. Last year one of his charges killed him and a fellow vet on a rifle range.

Kyle’s book drew fire from some Navy Seals who thought it was self-serving and that it violated an honored tradition of secrecy about their missions. Kyle apparently was also something of a fabulist. He claimed he traveled to New Orleans during Katrina to prevent looting (which never happened). He stated he punched out Jesse Ventura for bad-mouthing the service (Ventura denied Kyle’s boast, sued successfully for defamation of character, and won). Ventura, by the way, is a former Seal, a patriotic libertarian, who profoundly opposes the Iraqi and Afghanistan campaigns.

Eastwood and his writers have softened whatever rough edges existed in Kyle’s character, fleshed out by Bradley Cooper’s stunning re-creation of the man. The film’s portrayal of Kyle as an unassuming, unreflective gentle giant underscores the inherent paradoxes of his astonishing skill at pinpoint violence. He’s as obedient to his duty as he was to his father’s cruel perception of the world as a vicious jungle. His eerily unthinking commitment to keeping his comrades out of harm’s way is both admirable and scary, as the film increasingly reveals the horrors wrought by this war on so many young bodies and minds-Kyle’s included.

But American Sniper cannot be read as an anti-war film. Although Eastwood never preaches his politics, I speculate his stance-like Ventura’s-is libertarian, not liberal. He speaks powerfully to the misuse of young warriors by those in authority who wave the flag, bang the drums, and send them forth to die.

Kyle’s last and most masterful shot, which may have done more harm than good by revealing his group’s position, unfolds amidst a gathering sandstorm. The soldiers’ escape is gradually obscured, until they are swallowed by the howling murk. The scene is a potent metaphor both for what has been called the fog of war or the perennial confusion of combat, and for the obscured, deeply suspect motives that plunged Kyle and his companions into hell.

American Sniper ends with photographs of Kyle’s funeral. Taps, that melancholy bugle-call, is heard: then the soundtrack music slips into a moving meditation on the trumpet’s theme by the great film composer Ennio Morricone. Morricone composed the poignant music threaded through Sergio Leone’s Westerns, most of which starred Clint Eastwood.

Leone deliberately created a West even more fictive than the Hollywood classics. His Spaghetti Westerns comprise an elegy for a West that only existed in legend. One recalls the famous quip by a frontier town’s newspaper editor in John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance: “When the fact becomes legend, print the legend!”

American Sniper eloquently prints the legend of Hollywood war, then with equal eloquence dives beneath Kyle’s “legend,” exposing the harrowing facts behind that spurious and dangerous fiction.