‘American Sniper’: Political Rorschach Test

Clint Eastwood’s biopic of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, has been branded jingoistic and anti-war. The reality is it’s whatever you want it to be.

War films demand temporal distance. The gulf accommodates hindsight since, in the words of Benjamin Franklin, “Wars are not paid for in wartime, the bill comes later.” It also allows the spectator to digest it in palatable, abstract terms, since the true horrors of war cannot be fathomed by the uninitiated mind.

In modern times, the minimum gap is three to four years. It took three to four years from the fall of Saigon for movies like Deer Hunter, Coming Home, and Apocalypse Now to examine the costly toll of the Vietnam War. More recently, it’s been three to four years since our withdrawal from Iraq for films like Lone Survivor and American Sniper to capture the zeitgeist.

The latter film, American Sniper, has exploded into the cultural consciousness, racking up 6 Oscar nominations including Best Picture, and stiff-arming Avatar en route to a January opening weekend box office record of $90.2 million. Directed by Clint Eastwood, the film dramatizes the real-life story of Chris Kyle (a robust, impossibly kind Bradley Cooper), a Navy SEAL sniper who served four tours in the Iraq War and racked up 160 confirmed kills (out of 255 possible), making him the deadliest marksman in U.S. military history and earning him the sobriquet “The Legend.”

But Kyle’s made-for-cinemas tale had a haunting coda. On February 2, 2013, the warrior was gunned down at a shooting range in his native Texas by Eddie Ray Routh, a PTSD-stricken Marine Corps veteran who later made off with Kyle’s Ford F-350. “I traded my soul for a new truck,” Routh reportedly told his sister following his arrest. Eastwood’s movie, an amalgam of Wild West machismo and psychic wounds, has divided critics and Hollywood celebs alike. New York Magazine branded it “a Republican platform movie,” while The Hollywood Reporter saw it as “a companion piece—in subject, theme and quality—to The Hurt Locker.” Meanwhile, “Hanoi Jane” Fonda came away impressed, labeling it “powerful” and “another view of Coming Home,” whereas Michael Moore, who famously denounced the Iraq War and then-President George W. Bush while accepting an Oscar in 2003, said, “I think most Americans don’t think snipers are heroes.”

So why has American Sniper proved so divisive? It started with a chair.

Two-and-a-half years ago, Eastwood took the stage at the Republican National Convention and, over the course of 12 mystifying minutes, addressed an empty chair representing President Barack Obama. “And when somebody does not do the job, we got to let ‘em go,” he said to Imaginary Barry, before capping things off with his infamous Dirty Harry quote. Film critic Roger Ebert called the improvised speech “sad and pathetic,” while Ben Affleck told this very reporter, “He didn’t kill with the speech, but I by no means thought it was a huge embarrassment.” And in Double Down, a book chronicling the 2012 Republican campaign, it was revealed that during Eastwood’s soliloquy, one of Mitt Romney’s senior strategists had to excuse himself to vomit in a trash can.

American Sniper is Eastwood’s first directorial effort since that highly publicized gaffe to be viewed through this hyper-politicized lens (you’re better off forgetting Jersey Boys ever happened). And as such, it now serves as a political Rorschach test exposing viewers’ biases towards the War on Terror.

But that doesn’t mean Eastwood’s film is entirely apolitical. Its opening ritualistic chant of Allāhu Akbar is designed to send chills up people’s spines, and before you can say, “welcome to hell,” we’re dropped into the heart of the Iraqi insurgency. Kyle is perched on a rooftop, training his rifle on a young boy sprinting toward a convoy of Marines wielding an RKG-3 anti-tank grenade. Like any first-person shooter game, we assume Kyle’s POV through his sniper scope—a perspective boosted by a match cut to a 10-year-old Kyle picking off a deer.

Kyle, we learn, was raised to be an American hero since birth. “There are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs,” preaches his father. “Now, some people prefer to believe that evil doesn’t exist in the world… those are the sheep. And then you got predators who use violence to prey on the weak. They’re the wolves. And then there are those who have been blessed with the gift of aggression, and the overpowering need to protect the flock. These men are the rare breed that live to confront the wolf. They are the sheepdog.” This is Eastwood’s view of the world laid bare, with Kyle assuming the role of the existential hero, like The Man with No Name, Harry Callahan, and Will Munny before him.

The next half-hour of American Sniper is textbook biopic bullshit. He rides bulls. He’s cheated on. He witnesses the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings and enlists in the SEALs. He takes SEAL training like a champ. He meets Taya (Sienna Miller) in a bar. They do a shot per question. He’s a total Southern charmer. He wins her a big, stuffed teddy bear at a carnival game (yep, sharpshooting). He brings up wanting kids before they have sex. He is everybody’s all-American.

And then we return to the opening scene in Iraq. A mother in a hijab gives a small child an anti-tank grenade, and he rushes towards a Marine convoy. Kyle shoots the kid. Eastwood’s camera rests on Cooper’s face and we see the anguish in his eyes. The mother picks up the grenade and sprints. He shoots her.

“There was a kid who barely had any hair on his balls, his mother gives him a grenade and sends him out there to kill Marines,” a shaken Kyle says ex post facto. “Dude, that was evil like I’d never seen before.”

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Here is where critics of the film have an ax to grind. In Eastwood’s world, this is, like all westerns, a battle of good vs. evil. The forces of “good” are granted names, loves, hopes, and dreams. The forces of “evil” are nameless, voiceless, and most of all, contextless. Kyle and his fellow cowboys constantly refer to their enemies, who are all seemingly al-Qaeda, as “savages.” The “savages” consist of al-Zarqawi, who’s introduced via the infamous clip of him decapitating Nick Berg; his No. 2, “The Butcher,” who brutally executes an informant’s young son by drilling his head with a power tool, and stores people’s heads on shelves; and Mustafa, a Syrian Olympic sharpshooter who videotapes his kills and hawks bootlegs of them on the street. Mustafa is, like all classic villains, dressed in black, doesn’t utter in a word, and is single-minded in his pursuit of Kyle—he has a poster of Kyle’s bounty, $180,000, on his wall, and spends his spare time spinning an armor-piercing bullet on a table.

Mustafa is the “boss,” and a large portion of Eastwood’s film features the two engaged in a game of cat-and-cat. He takes out Kyle’s fellow soldier Biggles, mangling his face, and “The Legend” vows his revenge.

The hails of gunfire are disrupted by Kyle’s brief returns home in between each of his four tours. His PTSD at first manifests itself in high blood pressure, and complaints to Taya of how everyone in suburbia is living their lives blissfully unaware of the chaos unraveling overseas, and the men laying down their lives for their country. American Sniper’s final 15 minutes attempts to portray the psychological traumas of war, with Kyle silently weeping at a bar, sitting in a loveseat and staring at a blank TV screen while hearing gunshots, cries for help, and the awful sound of that power drill, and nearly striking a dog that’s mauling his son (which seems like pretty understandable behavior even for someone not suffering from PTSD).

Kyle gets better after visiting the VA and helping injured veterans shoot—a process called “exposure therapy,” subjecting the patient to the feared object or scenario without any danger so that they’ll conquer their fears. But it proves to be Kyle’s demise. We see Taya slowly closing the door on Kyle and Routh as they get in his truck and head towards the gun range, and then the film cuts to black, followed by the message: “Chris Kyle was killed that day by a veteran he was trying to help.” The closing credits are accompanied by moving footage of Kyle’s real-life funeral procession and images from his memorial service at Cowboys Stadium.

People will undoubtedly view American Sniper through various lenses. They’ll say Eastwood is a chair-talking Republican whose oeuvre is packed with right-wing revenge fantasies. They’ll quote questionable passages from Kyle’s book, e.g. “I only wish I had killed more,” or when he recounts that scene in the film where he shoots a woman wielding an anti-tank grenade (she was actually just cradling her son), saying, “My shots saved several Americans whose lives were clearly worth more than that woman’s twisted soul.” They’ll try to reconcile the film with the tall tales Kyle told prior to his death, like the time he claimed to have joined another sniper in climbing to the top of the Superdome in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and picking off 30 looters. They’ll question why Eastwood chose to cut to black instead of exploring the cruel irony of Kyle’s death. They’ll wonder how Clint “we’re always hoping every [war] is the last one” Eastwood could helm a film that is, as The New Yorker called it, “both a devastating war movie and a devastating antiwar movie.”

But American Sniper isn’t a documentary. Like Lone Survivor, it’s a sanitized slice of Hollywood entertainment that’s heavy on hero worship, and light on history. It’s Clint’s Call of Duty. Hooyah.