American Sniper (2014)

*. A lot of what I’m going to say about American Sniper is going to repeat stuff I said about Black Hawk Down. We’re in Iraq here and not Somalia but I doubt it made a lot of difference to audiences. We still have American soldiers in generic urban war zones surrounded by hordes of murderous “savages.” And in the critical response there was much discussion of how political it all was.
*. As with Black Hawk Down there was lip service paid to the notion that American Sniper might have an anti-war message. Director Clint Eastwood thought the statement of war’s effects on those who fight it made it anti-war, but I don’t buy that. Kyle is still presented as a larger-than-life hero (his nickname is the “the Legend”), brought low not by his own PTSD but by a shaky-looking vet he is only trying to help. In the final scene Kyle seems to have adjusted to home life quite well, has got his mojo back and is having sex again, and is happily living his own version of the American Dream.
*. As for the politics, that again is pushed to the background but is still present. Note, for example, the direct link between Kyle watching the 9/11 attacks on TV and his enlisting and going on his revenge tours in Iraq. That Iraq was not behind the 9/11 attacks is never mentioned.
*. Basically Iraq becomes, again, a battle between paleface and redskin. We know what side we’re on from the moment Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) walks toward the camera wearing a white cowboy hat and the voiceover tells us that he now has a purpose in life (that purpose being his role as one of Plato’s specially trained guard dogs of the republic). On the other side of the world a sinister gunslinger shrouded in black named Mustafa (played by Lee Van Cleef . . . no, Sammy Sheik) lies in wait. It’s time for a showdown at the O.K. Corral.

*. Another link to Black Hawk Down is the siege paradigm. Despite thinking that it would be hard to work this into the plot, the climactic battle is in fact a siege, with the Americans on top of a group of buildings surrounded by the natives, waiting for the cavalry to arrive. It’s pretty much the same set-up as 13 Hours except in daylight. You even get all the satellite shots of the action, making it seem even more like a video game (the first-person shooter POV and the overhead tactical shot being the standard dual perspectives for a lot of violent video games).
*. What I couldn’t understand about the final battle is why, since there was only one way up to the roof, the defenders didn’t target the doorway at the top of the staircase. All of the bad guys have to come out of there, so why not just shoot them as they came out?
*. A larger question has to do with why Americans cast themselves in this role so quickly after 9/11: not as the leader of the free world, with military bases all over the globe, but as a tiny, vulnerable nation surrounded by enemies, fighting back against savages and sandstorm (both being represented as forces of nature that the outpost of civilization stands against here). Is it some kind of Israel complex? The U.S. is not Israel and I always find it weird when it presents itself in those terms.
*. Bradley Cooper strikes me as being very good playing the baffled brute. I wonder how sympathetically we’re supposed to view him though. Are we meant to discern some hidden depths beyond his love of country and reactionary brutality?
*. Much of the plot seems a dramatic heightening. Mustafa was made into a more central figure than he apparently was in real life because Kyle needed a foil. The Butcher was an invented character. The opening kill, with the woman and child facing down the tank, seemed highly improbable to me. They were just going to run right down the middle of the street at the tank with the grenade?
*. It was wildly successful at the box office, becoming the highest-grossing film of the year and the highest-grossing war film of all time, unadjusted for inflation. I’m not sure why. Sure it’s a jingoistic bit of popular entertainment, but it struck me as only professionally made. It’s never very interesting and I didn’t think any of the combat scenes were that well done. But people wanted real-life heroes I guess.
*. At the end of my notes on Black Hawk Down I remarked on how it presented a world where everyone was either a shooter or a target, and that these roles were largely interchangeable. When I wrote that I had a buzzing in the back of my head that I’d said something very similar before. When I did a little digging I found it in my notes on . . . Dirty Harry. There I said that the number of (camera) shots looking down the barrel of a gun (in both directions) leads to a certain kind of reductive politics and restricted world view, and how the shooter firing down from on high (as Chris Kyle does) becomes the scourge of God.
*. Well, whether Kyle is Blondie in a spaghetti Western or Harry Callahan taking out punks on the mean streets of Fallujah, Eastwood has clearly made this material his own. The thing is, he’s done it better in the past. Putting the politics aside, I just didn’t find this to be a very good movie. It’s watchable, but ultimately too bland for its own good. How it excited and upset so many people is a bit of a mystery to me.

2 thoughts on “American Sniper (2014)

  1. Tom Moody

    Re: “the direct link between Kyle watching the 9/11 attacks on TV and his enlisting and going on his revenge tours in Iraq.” This cognitive dissonance affected a broad swath of Americans. A young relative from a conservative Christian family had this experience. He came back after a tour of duty and now all anyone will say is “he doesn’t want to talk about it” and “he seems to have lost his faith in the church.” Clearly our education system is failing to give people the critical tools to “process” something like seeing the WTC towers falling on TV. Instead of asking questions that might lead to throwing Bush and Cheney out of office for incompetence, most of the nation went into a jingoistic, xenophobic fugue state. Eastwood caters to this still-prevailing Iraq denialism. Instead of The Deer Hunter or Platoon, he serves up The Green Berets (and the nation gobbles it whole).

    1. Alex Good Post author

      It really was remarkable how the disconnect between 9/11 and Iraq was so casually (and I guess successfully) elided at the time. In this movie it’s done so quickly you hardly notice it, which may have been the point. Or it may be that it was a distinction nobody wanted to make.


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