“I will never win an Oscar,” says Clint Eastwood in Patrick McGilligan’s 1999 biography, Clint. “First of all, because I’m not Jewish. Secondly, because I make too much money for all those old farts in the Academy. Thirdly, and most importantly, because I don’t give a fuck.”
That, of course, was before 1993 and Unforgiven. Since then, Eastwood has apparently gotten past his problems with Jews and the Academy’s old farts, and, more importantly, he gives a fuck.
Two years ago, Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty was the favorite to win Best Picture at the Oscars but lost support when liberals deserted her in mass over the film’s implications that torture facilitated the killing of Osama Bin Laden. What a difference two years makes. On February 22, Eastwood may pick up yet another statue, this one for a film in which the real life inspiration, Chris Kyle, wrote in his autobiography, “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis.”
When I saw American Sniper, I was struck by the simple clarity of its message. Chris Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper, watches the airliners strike the Twin Towers on TV and enlists for service in the Republican war in Iraq. (Karl Rove’s description, btw, not mine.) Nowhere in 132 minutes did I see a hint that American Sniper is about anything less than an endorsement of the Bush and Cheney’s war.
To my surprise, though, Eastwood is being touted by a number of critics for the Nobel Peace Prize. Salon’s Andrew O’Hehir wrote, “It’s almost as unfair to describe American Sniper as nationalistic war propaganda as to describe Selma as anti-white historical revisionism.” (I love that use of “almost” and the neat trick of tying two movies together, as if you can’t criticize one without criticizing both.)
The real subject of the film, argues O’Hehir, is “the lingering trauma of violence and the difficulty of overcoming it,” a theme he sees common to Eastwood’s “better” films, from High Plains Drifter to Sudden Impact to Unforgiven to Grand Torino. Curiously, O’Hehir does not put Eastwood’s one truly great film, Mystic River, on this list; curious because it is the only Eastwood film about overcoming violence.
“American Sniper, the movie, is a character study about a guy who sees himself as fundamentally honorable and decent but whose simplistic moral code turns out to be exceptionally poor preparation for the real world and real warfare.” Say what? O’Hehir is careful to say “American Sniper, the movie” because the real Kyle described killing as “fun” and something he “loved.” He wrote in his book, “I like war.”
Nowhere does Kyle make a distinction between Iraqi terrorists and other Iraqis: “I don’t shoot people with Korans,” he told an Army investigator, “I’d like to, but I don’t.” To Kyle, they were all “savages.” How could he tell that the first woman he killed from hundreds of yards away was a terrorist? Well, she could have been.
Kyle claims to have killed hundreds of people which includes, by the way, more than 30 looters—Americans, let’s remember—in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I am reminded of the helicopter gunner in Full Metal Jacket who tells Matthew Modine how he identifies the enemy: “Anyone who runs is a VC [Viet Cong]. Anyone who stands still is a well-disciplined VC.”
In a piece on The New Yorker online, Richard Brody calls American Sniper “a cinematic tragedy in the deepest and most classical sense of the term,” maintaining that Eastwood “dramatizes the use of state power in the light of great philosophical ideas …” Another title for the film he suggests, contrasting it with Richard Linklater’s great film, is Manhood.
I don’t know about the philosophical ideas Brody refers to unless he means those of Carl von Clausewitz, nor am I sure from where he derives his concept of manhood, but there are many moments in American Sniper which echo throughout Eastwood’s career. Some of them were identified by The New Yorker’s own Pauline Kael in her 1986 review of Eastwood’s Heartbreak Ridge:
“This should be the portrait of a pathetic vulgarian militarist with terrible anal-aggressive problems, but Eastwood presents him as a great fighting man, a relic of a time when men were men.”
Eastwood “greatly admires, even reveres, the warrior even as he hates war,” though Brody says “the lies behind the rush to war are never explored explicitly.” He’s right—they aren’t explored at all. One thing I’ve never seen expressed in any Clint Eastwood movie is a hatred of war.
In The Daily Beast, Asawin Suebsaeng maintains that “Clint Eastwood is incredibly anti-war,” quoting Eastwood that “Contrary to public opinion, I abhor violence.” He offers as evidence Eastwood’s own words from the 2012 Republican convention where “He somehow got the audience to applaud his dovish criticism of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.”
Here are Eastwood’s words as delivered to an empty chair standing in for Obama: “I know you were against the war in Iraq, and that’s okay. But you thought the war in Afghanistan was okay. You thought that was something worth doing. We didn’t check with the Russians to see how they did there for the ten years.”
Eastwood wasn’t being dovish: he was dumping responsibility for the war in Afghanistan on Obama, and that’s what the Republicans were applauding him for. That despite the fact that Bush and Cheney began that war seven years before Obama was elected.
What exactly are Eastwood’s “anti-war” credentials? That he was for the invasion of Iraq but not of Afghanistan (though he declined to say so publicly)? Did Eastwood call The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) “an anti-war picture”? Let’s take a quick look back.
The film was adapted from a novel by Forrest Carter, aka Asa Carter, one-time speech writer for George Wallace, white supremacist, and paramilitarist. Josey Wales, a super projection of Carter’s fantasy heroes Jesse James and Cole Younger, is hunted relentlessly out of Missouri through Texas and into Mexico by a vengeful Union army that can’t forgive him for refusing, like Carter, to be reconstructed.
In Carter’s paranoid fantasy, the “fed-rul guv’mint” is the enemy. His Josey Wales novels were his way of keeping the spirit of the Confederacy alive, a theme that the film’s original director, Philp Kaufman, was uneasy with. Eastwood, who was not, fired Kaufman (who went on to direct The Right Stuff and The Unbearable Lightness of Being, among others) and with scarcely an airbrush to Carter’s text brought his hysterical lost- cause vision to the screen.
Gunnery Sergeant Tom Highway in Heartbreak Ridge (1986) is the spiritual descendant of Josey Wales. Highway fought in Korea, which he regards as a tie for the U.S. and Vietnam, which he counts as a loss, or rather a war we could have won if not for the cowardice of politicians. He’s anxious to fight in the invasion of Grenada so he can even his record to “1-1-1.” Grenada cancels out Vietnam.
He isn’t anti-war, he’s against not going all out to win a war. Kael again: “It would take a board of inquiry made up of gods to determine whether this picture is more offensive aesthetically, psychologically, morally, or politically.”
Bradley Cooper, who is now defending American Sniper in a way that Eastwood isn’t, claims that, “It’s a discussion about the reality. And the reality is that people are coming home [from war] and we have to take care of them.” It’s understandable that Cooper would sympathize with his character and interpret the film this way, but as far as I can see, except for taking another swipe at the fed-rul guv’mint for not caring enough about its soldiers, Eastwood shows little interest in the case Cooper and Eastwood fans are making. American Sniper isn’t a movie about a soldier who can’t readjust to civilian life—it’s a movie about a soldier who can’t live without war.
If Americans really wanted an inside view of what the Afghan and Iraqi wars have done to soldiers and their families, they’d have flocked to see a much better film, Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker (2009). But The Hurt Locker did less than $16 million at the box office, a fraction of what American Sniper pulled in on opening night. The Hurt Locker wasn’t political, at least not in the way American Sniper is, a way that gets audiences clapping and cheering.
In the screening I attended near my home in New Jersey, the audience was particularly fired up by an ongoing rooftop-to-rooftop duel between Kyle and a sinister Iraqi sniper named Mustafa that never happened. The idea of two snipers dueling it out is probably pilfered from Enemy at the Gates, a 2001 film where a Nazi sharp shooter (Ed Harris) and a Russian (Jude Law) hunt each other in war-ravaged Stalingrad. The difference is that in Enemy at the Gates the hero was defending his country from a foreign invader. It never occurs to Kyle in his book or to Eastwood in the film that some Iraqis might have felt a patriotic duty to defend their country from foreign invaders like Kyle.
At least the fans cheering in the theaters are doing what a great many film critics are not: reacting to American Sniper for what it so obviously is, a well-crafted film built around the politics of John Wayne in The Green Berets and Stallone as Rambo. Eastwood is doing now what he has done before. He’s trying to redeem yet another disastrous war that we should never have fought in the first place.