Silver Screen: American Sniper ***1/2
Clint Eastwood would like you to think that his thrilling, deeply flawed war movie American Sniper is apolitical.
The movie “certainly has nothing to do with any [political] parties,” he said in an interview with the Toronto Star. “These fellows who are professional soldiers, Navy personnel or what have you, go in for a certain reason... and there’s no political aspect there other than the fact that a lot of things happen in war zones.”
It’s patently ridiculous to claim that something must be party-affiliated to be political. In fact, some of the most insidious propaganda necessarily downplays political affiliation. Forget about the fact that American Sniper is a movie set against the backdrop of a still-controversial war and directed by a speaker at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Everything you need to know about the movie’s half-hidden agenda exists in the space between the page and the screen.
American Sniper is an adaptation of Chris Kyle’s bestselling memoir. Kyle is considered the most lethal sniper in American history, with 160 confirmed kills across four tours of duty in Iraq. That much is not in not in dispute. An awful lot else is.
Kyle’s book shot to the top of the New York Times bestseller list partly on the strength of its I-can’t-believe-this-is-true stories, which included Kyle allegedly punching out former governor and fellow Navy SEAL Jesse Ventura in a bar fight and Kyle personally finding weapons of mass destruction. Ventura won $1.8 million in a libel lawsuit against Kyle’s estate, and the former claim was removed from later editions of the book. The weapons of mass destruction story remains in print but was never confirmed. Various news outlets have also debunked claims Kyle made about being let go by police after killing two would-be carjackers in Dallas and being hired to shoot looters from atop the Superdome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Now hold that thought for a second.
In Eastwood’s adaptation of American Sniper, written by Jason Hall, Bradley Cooper, thickened and drawling, plays Kyle as the embodiment of old-school American manhood. His daddy teaches him homespun morality at the end of a belt: There are three kinds of people in the world: wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs. There are no sheep in this family, he says, and if I find out you’re a wolf I’ll beat your ass.
Kyle takes this lesson to heart. After a harmlessly wayward youth spent carousing on the rodeo circuit, thirty-year-old Chris signs up for Navy SEAL training. His marksmanship earns him the job of sniper, and in Iraq he’s positioned in windowsills and on rooftops, protecting convoys and roadside checkpoints from above. He’s such an efficient killer his fellow troops nickname him Legend, although the movie’s half-humble version of Kyle demurs, saying, “That’s a title you don’t want.”
Kyle’s wife Taya (Sienna Miller) begs him to stay home with their new family each time he returns from a tour of duty, but he keeps signing up to go back to the warzone. He’s haunted by all the soldiers he couldn’t save and feels a kind of aching uselessness while Stateside. He’s also increasingly obsessed with stopping the vicious terrorist known as the Butcher (Mido Hamada) and bringing down Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), his Iraqi counterpart, a former Olympic medal-winning shooter who is responsible for a series of American casualties, including one of Kyle’s close friends.
Here’s the trouble: In Eastwood’s version, Kyle finally decides to return home for good following a climactic showdown with Mustafa. In real life, not only did Kyle not spend months stalking his supposed archnemesis through the chaotic streets, he never once ran across the guy. Never even claimed to. As for the Butcher, who in the movie is dispatched with some suspiciously Schwarzeneggerian action-hero moves, he was captured alive a month or so after Kyle left Iraq.
Changing the truth here is a political act. By assigning Kyle a couple of major villains to knock off before he can return home, Eastwood and screenwriter Hall provide the war with a structure, purpose, and end— exactly what critics of the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts lament those incursions lacked. It turns the war into a clearer game with defined winners and losers. It also puts more distance between the real Kyle and the film’s Captain America-ified version of him.
The movie posits itself as purely from Kyle’s perspective. That doesn’t make the portrayals of Iraqis much less troublesome; they’re a nameless bunch offhandedly characterized as “savages,” their actions explained away as the tangible consequences of “pure evil.” Every male between toddlerhood and white-bearded infirmity is characterized as a “military-age male,” while the women all wordlessly skulk about with grenades beneath their robes or cell phones in their headscarves to report American troop movements. Eastwood’s camera regards them with the same suspicion that Mel Gibson gave the goblin-faced Jewish caricatures in The Passion of the Christ.
It’s valid if a little disingenuous to hide behind the notion that this is simply a presentation of Kyle’s story as he saw it, not an objective examination. Yet Eastwood must bear some responsibility for unquestioningly adapting a work filled with already dubious claims, to say nothing of further manipulating the already-in-question material to fit a conventional, comfortable narrative. It is blatant advocacy.
Kyle’s perspective certainly merits consideration. Whatever his embellishments or prevarications, he was a highly decorated soldier with a unique insight into the war. His views represent the opinions of an awful lot of Americans, even if the morality he espouses strikes others as woefully simplistic. (It is, in fact, the same black-and-white morality that led us into the war in the first place.)
As for Eastwood, he’s not the one-dimensional, hawkish old man lefties love to make him out to be. He’s contemplated the troubling legacies wrought from violence in his best film, Unforgiven, as well as Gran Torino, and his interrelated World War II movies Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima demonstrate that he can appreciate the conflicted ideologies of both sides of a conflict. He’s not obligated to do that here, but to make the claim that American Sniper is a truthful, apolitical film... well, Clint must be feeling lucky.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.