Back in 1979, reviewers liked to point out that Frances Ford Coppala’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now was so plagued with difficulty and confusion (the star suffered a heart attack during shooting and a devastating typhoon destroyed all the sets) that the making of the film paralleled the reality of the Vietnam War itself.
A similar observation might be made of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper about Iraq. Like the Iraq War itself, Eastwood’s movie begins by exploiting a historically inaccurate delusion and, then, sustains itself for two hours on the mission to protect US soldiers against the insurgency that arose in opposition to the US invasion and occupation based on the initial delusion.
The film opens with a black screen and a muezzin chanting the Islamic adham, or call to prayer, from a minaret. The words “Allahu Akbar” are very distinguishable in the chant. Islam is very much in the news, especially after the Charlie Hebdo killings, and the phrase “Allahu Akbar” is by now familiar with popular US audiences. Such a subliminal opening felt ideologically heavy-handed to me, intimating an unseen evil lurking in the dark. The narrative quickly sketches in Chris Kyle’s introduction to hunting animals, his recruitment and training as a Navy SEAL and how he met his future wife, Taya, at a bar. This leads to an emotional scene of the two lovers watching on TV as the twin towers are knocked down. Then -- wham! -- we’re in Iraq and sniper Kyle is confronted with the dilemma of having to shoot a mother and son to protect an advancing Marine platoon.
Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle doing his job in Iraq
Any honest skeptic equipped with even a cursory understanding of the antecedents to the Iraq War will see what’s going on here. It’s not a debatable issue: We know now for sure that Iraq had absolutely nothing -- nada, zilch -- to do with the downing of the twin towers in New York. Dick Cheney’s persistent claims to the contrary, the secular Muslim Saddam Hussein, once our ally, was a bitter enemy of al Qaeda. But in 2014, the film’s producer, writer and director decided on a clean and efficient plot line that hinges on the highly emotional image of the towers falling. The real Chris Kyle may have absolutely believed in this fictional connection, but a protagonist's delusion is not a defense for emotionally perpetuating such a costly fiction (many call it a "lie") in a narrative film about the war. But, then, that’s what “popular” filmmaking is all about, and Eastwood is, if nothing else, a maestro of popular American storytelling. Whether or not one respects such a corrupt decision, the fact is American Sniper is an extremely well-made movie.
Following spaghetti western acclaim, Eastwood, now 84, moved on to Dirty Harry movies; the first entry is a classic made by director Don Siegel, who was known for manly, efficient filmmaking. Eastwood picked up this style and became famous, himself, for directing movies effectively and fast. Cut the crap; shoot a scene and move onto the next one. Over the years, he has honed this very masculine style and become a popular film director exploring the American psyche mostly from the reactionary right -- though his films are always a dialogue with issues on the left. American Sniper is no different with its limited contrapuntal theme of PTSD and homefront family adjustment.
All that storytelling talent is on the screen in American Sniper. Like the war itself, the film is aggressive, masculine and highly kinetic. The film’s sound effects are rich and thundering in the theater; its camera work is direct and bold. There’s a real “shock and awe” feel to the piece. MRAPs roar out of the FOB with a menacing hugeness. Any sense of reflection is missing, and historical and political context are willfully left out of the story. When confronted with leftist criticism suggesting the film got the Iraq War wrong, producer and star Bradley Cooper reportedly said, “It’s not a film about debating the war; it’s a character study.”
Cooper is right: The film is a character study -- a highly controlled character study that clearly leaves a lot out. But all it takes is watching Fox News champ Sean Hannity’s groveling before the film for a full hour special to realize Cooper may be a likable, talented actor, but he’s dead wrong when he says the film isn’t part of the debate about the Iraq War. In a larger context, it’s also very much about violence and militarism in America in these very complicated and troubling times.
By avoiding contextual issues -- specifically, the reasons SEAL sniper Chris Kyle was in Iraq killing those 160 Iraqi insurgents -- the film is art that operates as propaganda in a cultural context. Film-making skills are not to be sneezed at, but to use a classically egregious example, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of the Nation was also an extremely well-made film. As for Iraq War films, to contrast Eastwood’s film, the plot that drives the Matt Damon film Green Zone is getting to the bottom of all the things that don’t add up in the search for WMDs. In that film, making sense of the war’s confusing context is the goal, while in American Sniper, the goal is hero worship and avoidance of anything that sullies that story.
On TV, Wayne Kyle, SEAL sniper Chris’ father, comes off as a serious, gun-loving Texas tough guy. He told Sean Hannity that when he met Eastwood and Cooper he let them know, “Chris was doing what he loved to do, and if you do anything to dishonor my son, I’ll open the gates of Hell on you.” He smiled when he said it to Hannity, so it seems he knew he wouldn’t have to follow up on the remark. Chris’ wife Taya, whose anxiety at her husband’s repeated tours to Iraq (he did four) is part of the film’s drama, made an interesting remark to Hannity concerning Chris’ February 2013 murder at his Texas shooting range by another veteran. “Maybe it was always to be that he was going to die the way he lived.” The movie ends as Chris meets his killer. The killer's trial is scheduled to begin next month. While in the military, Kyle was awarded two silver stars, five bronze stars and a purple heart.
The film raises a host of questions. When considered in the light of George Orwell’s statement quoted at the top, does the fact there’s so much compelling evidence that the reasons for the invasion and occupation of Iraq were delusional and dishonest mitigate the heroism of an exceptional killer like Chris Kyle? Before this question can be adequately answered one has to consider how the loosing of men like Kyle on Iraqi communities has contributed to the fury and desire for vengeance among Sunni Iraqis that leads inexorably to the rise of ISIS, or the Islamic State, in western Iraq. If as American Sniper and its defenders declare, Chris Kyle’s actions were heroic and only about saving American lives, how does one respond to the fact that the war the Bush administration gave to America has led to a much more dangerous world for Americans than the one in early 2003.
Maybe I’ve read too much for my own good, or maybe I shouldn’t have made those trips through the Anbar desert to Baghdad in 2003 and 2004. But I can’t avoid seeing a direct line of causation from the March 2003 invasion and subsequent occupation (with Chris Kyle a highly competent and enthusiastic component of that effort) without seeing the rise of the Islamic State and the recent be-headings as a perverse response to such a poorly conceived war and the incredible killing it entailed.
These are not popular questions to raise; they are certainly not the sort that a popular film director like Clint Eastwood would touch with a ten-foot pole. The same goes for these questions: Who is more about “saving” American lives here? Those who blithely set the dogs of war loose on flimsy or bogus reasons? Those like Kyle who, once the dogs are loosed, are naturally good at killing insurgents, many simply defending their communities? Or those who opposed the war in the first place? Why isn't it true that thousands of US lives lost would have been saved if the US had worked with other nations on a wise containment policy instead of an invasion and occupation?
Clint Eastwood, today at age 84, and as Dirty Harry Callahan
Harry Callahan was famous for whacking creeps who deserved to die with his long, phallic .44 magnum. It was great cinema. The formula was simple: Feature a good guy who hates bureaucrats, loves to cut corners and is a man comfortable with violence and put him at odds with bad guyswho are absolute perverted creeps whose death at the hands of the good guy would be cheered by an audience shoving popcorn down its gullet. The films were realistic in the sense of being harsh, brutal and loud. But they were far from realistic in the sense of being complex, morally gray, contradictory and confusing -- like life itself.
American Sniper perfectly employs this formula. The fictional, cinematic Chris Kyle in the film is a good guy to the max in the traditions of popular American culture. He’s a great family man. As a kid, he steals a Bible, which he carries to Iraq. The mise-en-scene of the film’s urban warzone setting presents one wrecked and devastated community after another. Kyle’s comrades emphasize how disgusting the place is and how “savage” the people are as doors are kicked in and people are shoved around in a state of “harsh-up” hollering. Never is it pointed out whose artillery and whose aircraft has wrecked these communities. If any sensitivity at all to that sort of thing had been allowed to seep into the film’s construction it might have gone a long way to explain why the people in these neighborhoods were such “savages.” But that would have infected the Dirty Harry formula with the fatal disease of complexity. It also would have meant not allowing the forces of forgetting in the culture to do their work.
American Sniper is a classic example of how American culture latches on ways to officially forget the horrors and the cruelties we have perpetuated on others. In order to move on, we love to thump our national chest, in love with our own exceptionalism. It’s exactly the same state-of-mind the US government and Pentagon are employing right now to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Vietnam War. March 2015 will be 50 years, based on the Marine landing in DaNang in March 1965. The US went wrong vis-à-vis Vietnam in 1945, but that’s another story, one that incorporates complex political reality into the mix. The official commemoration of the war features a timeline that emphasizes first and foremost the awarding of Congressional Medals of Honor for bravery. As if the Vietnam War was only about individual US heroism. The horrors wrought upon the Vietnamese people from decades of mechanized war by a superpower military is an unrecognized shame in this country. The Vietnamese people never threatened the United States, and following WWII, when they were our ally, they borrowed the words of our Declaration of Independence to be free of the French colonial yoke. None of that historical complexity makes it into the 50th Commemoration website.
Actor-turned-director John Wayne did his own propaganda movie on the Vietnam War called The Green Berets. Wayne was a terrible storyteller and film director, and that film is considered one of Hollywood’s most laughable bombs. The same can’t be said for Clint Eastwood. The actor who made homicidal cops sexy and fashionable has made a classic pro-war paean to the American military killer. With a righteously bloody history of Manifest Destiny noted for the slaughter of savages and the lawless entrepreneurial spirit of places like Deadwood, South Dakota, during the gold rush, D.H Lawrence characterized “the essential white America” this way: “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer.” In 1973, Richard Slotkin wrote a now-famous book on the mythology of the American frontier called Regeneration Through Violence.
“The first colonists,” he wrote, “saw in America an opportunity to regenerate their fortunes, their spirits, and the power of their church and nation; but the means to that regeneration ultimately became the means of violence, and the myth of regeneration through violence became the structuring metaphor of the American experience.”
At a time US decline is in the wind, that spirit of regeneration through violence proudly roars in American Sniper.