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American Sniper, or Clint Eastwood's reduction of a soldier's life

June 29, 2015

Wait, so you're telling me, Bradley Cooper, that I'm not the real Chris Kyle?
I finally watched Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-nominated American Sniper (2014). I had avoided the film largely because I thought it would be impossible to view it on its own terms, rather than as a lynchpin in political debates over U.S. foreign policy or arguments over the role of art in depictions of war. I thought perhaps enough time had passed since the furor of Oscar-season that I could hash the film out of opinion’s rubble and view for what it is. I admit such a task is probably foolhardy and vain on my part, but, regardless, what I found in American Sniper is a rather mundane film for its lack of ambition and attempts to avoid controversy.

Eastwood, as Mark Harris of Grantland notes did not necessarily make a politically conservative film—he simply made a conservative film. The world of Eastwood, which becomes the world of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), is a world lacking nuance or complexity. Much of this world’s flattening is a result of the film’s pacing.

 Almost everything occurs in the blink of an eye or the pull of a trigger. When Kyle returns from war his struggles are reduced to a few unanswered questions and some time spent sipping beers alone in a bar. After which, he and his wife (Sienna Miller) reconcile rather quickly with their marriage returning unheeded to its flirtatious roots.

Unfortunately for the film, Eastwood’s presentation of the Kyles’ romance removes the edge from their relationship. They meet at a bar, they marry quickly, they communicate in the midst of gunfire, he comes home, they talk briefly about separation, he leaves, repeat, drinks in bar, back to flirting, the end.

Aesthetically, Eastwood is most likely attempting to mimic the rapidity with which military families live, but in doing so he also robs the story of its struggles by reducing them to snapshots.  In reality, Chris Kyle was a heavy drinker. He even wrecked his car one night, coming close to landing it in a swimming pool. His bouts with PTSD were more than a couple conversations and one drinking session. In his efforts to render the man a hero, Eastwood reduces the man and gone are the ambiguities of character that made Eastwood films such as Mystic River (2003) so compelling.

Wait, are you saying Eastwood made a bunch of fictional characters more complicated than real people?
And that is the real problem with Eastwood’s film, not that it praises body counts or a soldier that refers to his enemies as “savages”, but that this cinematic soldier is not as interesting as the one in real life who admitted to not always telling the truth and who held staunch political beliefs about his country and his Presidents. The politics of the film convey themselves merely through their noted absences. Gone are the moments from Kyle’s memoirs where he rails against President Obama, and, more important to the film’s shortcomings, are Eastwood’s attempts to render the motives for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as one and the same.

On the one hand, yes, this omission of truth matters because it reveals the director’s political agenda. On the other hand, this omission matters more because it robs the film of a tension between the perceived causation in a person’s life and the actual forces shaping human lives that act beyond an individual’s consciousness. In other words, the truths by which individuals make their decisions are not always true, but they choose to act anyway. People are misled by governments, other individuals, and their own willingness to believe, especially when the ideologies one adheres to present opportunities for self-empowerment.

The film could have walked this zig-zagged line, but its director chose another, more straightforward path. Instead, Eastwood opts to define Chris Kyle as a hero based on one single premise: a hero acts in opposition to his own cowardice and against the tyranny of the weak.

American Sniper, however, does not start off so simple-minded.

The first twenty minutes depict a more nuanced approach to violence and power than anything in the film’s last hour and a half. This terrain is most evident at the dinner table scene in the household of Chris Kyle’s childhood. In a previous scene, he defends his brother from a bully on the playground. At the dinner table, the brothers’ father wants to know whether Chris came to his brother’s defense or instigated the violence. When he broaches the subject, Chris’ father plops a belt down on the table. The rules of violent justice, in this scene at least, cannot escape their violent roots. The belt, as much as the Bible, is the instructor. This scene, and this scene only, explores the forces that shaped Chris Kyle’s masculinity and its resulting code of heroism, and the film would be better served if such explorations were pursued further.

For example, the film includes scenes where Chris either shoots women and children or is on the verge of having to shoot women and children. Such acts, while troubling, appear justified by the lack of context the film provides for the war in Iraq. Yet the actions of these civilian soldiers parallel Chris' own defense of his brother on a larger scale. Where he fights on the playground with fists, these Iraqis defend their streets or their religion with weapons. Observing these similarities is not to suggest right or wrong but to acknowledge that all individual actions take place within a larger frame. People can do right or wrong and believe they are doing the opposite. Or perhaps right and wrong have nothing to do with anything. The characters in American Sniper ensnare themselves to a particular scope and so too does Eastwood.  

A moral murkiness exists in these frames, but the film moves further and further away from the troubling territory that to act heroically may also be to act foolishly or that violent justice may result in mistaken acts of hypocrisy. In this sense, Eastwood’s self-made hero in American Sniper resonates with less complexity than Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) in Mystic River. Both act, and kill, with a sense of justice that cannot be separated from its thirst for vengeance, yet gone are the careful scenes that study the subtleties with which Eastwood once depicted men of such horrifying courage. Thus, Eastwood rushes everything, falling prey to the same habits of urgency (albeit on a smaller scale) that led to U.S. forces fighting in Iraq. Thus, his film becomes a reenactment, only more shallow for it also tames its source material.  

The real Chris Kyle is, most likely, to be found neither in a book nor a film.
Or perhaps Eastwood should have looked beyond his own oeuvre and his hero’s own source material for how to handle the life of a protagonist not so simply lived. Dave Eggers’ questioning of Abdulrahman Zeitoun through his use of free indirect discourse in the book Zeitoun (2009) is one such example, as is Martin Scorsese’s mess of a film Wolf of Wall Street (2013), where the closing frame holds a mirror up to the audience’s reaction, allowing us to be horrified by our own glee and participation in the making of the men like Jordan Belfort. Then there is Bennett Miller's Foxcatcher (2014) whose David Schultz faces a death similar to American Sniper's Chris Kyle, but arrives at its destination through a more compelling artifice. Eastwood seems always on the brink of entering such territory, but rather than study the landscape before him, he shoots without asking questions. What results is the figment of a life once lived but still not understood beyond its own worldview.

Bryan Harvey can be followed @LawnChairBoys.

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