Some thoughts on American Sniper












I saw American Sniper back in December at a WGA screening. I wasn’t expecting anything at all; I hadn’t enjoyed a Clint Eastwood movie for quite some time (and he’s one of my very favorite directors). I found the movie to be an unusually gripping, intense, brutal and morally complex character study. I also found it to be Clint Eastwood’s best movie, by a wide margin, since Unforgiven. I had no idea how it would do; Eastwood hasn’t had a hit in a while, so I assumed it would come and go.

Now it’s a huge success. More than a huge success, it’s a runaway smash phenomenon. It will make more in its first week than Eastwood’s second-highest-grossing movie, Gran Torino, made in its entire run. I don’t know how to account for that, I’m greatly surprised. (I kind of assumed Selma would own this particular weekend.) There’s nothing in any of AS’s elements (Iraq war, Eastwood, its star, its length) that would indicate it becoming a hit of this magnitude. This is a serious war drama doing Marvel numbers. (Oddly enough, there is a Punisher angle to the story, but I seriously doubt anyone went to the movie expecting a Frank Castle story.)

I’m not sure why, but my Facebook and Twitter feed keep telling me it’s an evil movie, racist and jingoistic war-mongering, that it’s Triumph of the Will for the US. I’m told that the movie glorifies its central character (which I guess it does, insofar as it’s a movie about him) at the expense of the truth (I’m told he was a racist and a sociopath who gloried at killing Iraqi “savages”). Well, that may be true. Movies do that. Even “true story” movies do that. Especially “true story” movies. Every bio-pic now in theaters, or ever in theaters, leaves things out, glosses over events, compresses time, creates conflicts that never existed, combines characters and, if it needs to, makes shit up for the sake of telling its story. The Imitation Game does it, The Theory of Everything does it. Unbroken does it. Foxcatcher does it. I’ll bet even Mr. Turner does it.

It’s true that the movie doesn’t have much to say about the cause of the Iraq war, or the blundering, stupid politics of the Bush administration, or the ongoing tragedy of the entire US involvement in the region. All that is absolutely true, and I yield to no man in my outrage against the US’s misadventures in Iraq.

But why would a comprehensive history of the war be the concern of drama? All the President’s Men doesn’t take time to show Watergate from Nixon’s point of view; that isn’t the story it has to tell. American Sniper tells the story of this one character and his experiences. If that story doesn’t appeal to you, and I can certainly see why it would not, don’t go to see it, problem solved. If you’re angry about American foreign policy, great! I am too, I just don’t see why it’s necessarily the job of a movie to dissect it.

My attention has also been directed to a handful of tweets that show that some audience members took the movie to be an invitation to kill Arabs. That’s depressing and lamentable, but I keep seeing the same five tweets posted over and over again. If something is a nationwide phenomenon and you can only find five idiotic tweets about it, you’re not looking very hard. I sense the hand of rival studios promoting the hatred of a few to get the edge on a movie they see as Oscar competition.

I’ve also been informed that Clint Eastwood is racist, which, sorry, doesn’t wash. The director of Invictus, Gran Torino, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima and Bird a racist? No. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what Eastwood’s politics are. Sure, he gave that ridiculous speech at the RNC that time, but when I watch movies like The Outlaw Josey Wales or Bronco Billy I’m struck by the artist’s tolerance, inclusiveness and humanity.

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9 Responses to “Some thoughts on American Sniper
  1. I liked the film, but didn’t love it. I don’t think it was rah-rah American Jingoist, but I think it missed a few opportunities to let a crack of light in the side. In two ways, in particular, I think Eastwood left himself open to legitimate critique that he was selling a dream, instead of telling a man’s story.

    1. Kyle had a darker side than the movie shows. He drank more — a lot more — and got into scuffles. He made claims, for example, that during the days after Katrina he went to New Orleans and picked off supposed “bad guys.” That he allegedly got in a scuffle with Jessie Ventura in a bar (a claim that Ventura sued on saying it was bullshit, and won). The Kyle in the movie was too sympathetic. We got no sense of the true richness of his character.

    2. That we go from watching the towers fall to his tour so closely glosses over the idea that the towers falling and the war in Iraq were only connected by fabrications of his commander-in-chief and his administration. I needed something — a nod, a line from a character that Kyle argues against — something that shows awareness of the context.

    Those two omissions conveniently erase doubt or ambiguity in Kyle, and make the portrait feel more like propaganda.

    But, there’s one scene that I think goes against what I’m arguing: it is the last one (so, spoilers alert!).

    When Kyle takes that massive revolver and points it at his wife, with the trigger cocked, in their kitchen, that to me runs counter to what anybody trained in firearms would do. Especially in front (or near) his kids. Add onto it the playful sexual coercion, which is playful only in that it’s consensual, and it seems that Eastwood was hinting at something here other than the menace outside the door.

    Then, what does he do with that pistol? He places it on a high-shelf, cocked, and ready to fire. Apparently unloaded, but how are we to know? He’s going shooting.

    I found this scene so strange, unnerving, and odd in context of the rest of the film, that that very last shot focusing on the eyes of the killer felt odd and tacked on. The real scene happened before he opened that door. I’m just not sure what Eastwood was trying to say.

    • Todd says:

      The screenwriter was at the screening when I saw it, and someone asked about that scene, because it is an odd note to end on. He admitted that nothing like that scene ever happened, on the last day of Kyle’s life or any other time. I think it’s an odd bit of misdirection, that we think maybe Kyle has lost his mind but then it turns out that, nope, this is just a scene of domestic horseplay. And then the movie ends on that weird, inconclusive note. I asked the screenwriter why the movie ended there and he mentioned that, because of the ongoing investigation and trial, they couldn’t say who the killer was or what his problem was. It was actually one of the things that made me think the movie wasn’t going to do well, because its ending is so unsatisfying.

      Although, interestingly enough, one of the things the movie does well is illuminate that kind of American household, where guns are just a fact of life. I wouldn’t want to live in a house like that, and I doubt I would get along well with Chris Kyle, or his wife, or any of his friends. But I have nothing against dramatizing life in those households.

      • Another thought I had, watching the film (with a packed house in Seattle, at Paul Allen’s cathedral of cinema: the Cinerama), that isn’t so much about this film as all war films: a very true, honest war about film could never be made. It would never make it to production, but even if it did, after production it would never make it past the ratings board.

        Perhaps that’s a foolish observation, in that one shouldn’t want their art to cause actual trauma to the person watching it (Irreversible, anyone?), but I was reading this great interview with Susan Sontag earlier in the day before I saw the film, and one thing she said stuck with me:

        “My subject is war, and anything about any war that does not show the appalling concreteness of destruction and death is a dangerous lie.”

        • Todd says:

          The soldiers of Normandy who went to see Saving Private Ryan seemed to think it was accurate enough. And the combat scenes in American Sniper are certainly gut-rattling enough. And I would argue that they meet Ms. Sontag’s criterion.

      • Curt_Holman says:

        I’m glad this came up — I remember how weird that last seen came, and how one of the last times you see Bradley Cooper in the film, he’s hugging his wife while holding a giant handgun. After the fact, I was wondering if the prominence of the gun was in some way foreshadowing the circumstances of his death. (The ‘misdirection’ aspect never occurred to me.)

        The interesting thing about ‘American Sniper’ to me is that it can be read as a straight up, propagandistic Bush Administration official narrative of the war (as Martin McClellan says above and David Edelstein says in this review), but individual scenes offer a more skeptical interpretation. When asked how he’s doing, Bradley Cooper’s character usually says “I’m fine” or words to that effect, but his delivery and body language suggest the opposite. As the film goes along, the U.S. forces become more technologically sophisticated (with satellite maps and other stuff), but the fighting that we see never seems to improve — the U.S. seldom seems to be ‘winning,’ Cooper’s success as a sniper notwithstanding. And there’s the ambiguous ending.

      • Doug Orleans says:

        Todd, do you know if the version you saw at the WGA screening was the final cut that is playing in the wide release? The version I just saw did not end on the eyes of the killer; there was a black screen with words saying that Kyle was killed that day by “a veteran he was trying to help”, and then there was a montage of crowds on highway bridges saluting Kyle’s funeral procession, followed by a brief scene with one of Kyle’s team members punching in a medal on his coffin; I think the final final shot was of the scores of medals on his coffin (as opposed to the 7 or so on the coffin in the funeral we saw earlier in the movie).

        I felt the same way that the jarring cut from him being alive to him being dead was awkward and a weird note (though now that I think about it it reminds me of a similar cut in the last episode of House of Cards, which I thought was brilliant), but the funeral sequence afterward seemed an appropriate conclusion for the tone of the movie: it showed all the people Kyle thought of himself as protecting by fighting in Iraq, and showed that they appreciated what he did. I agree with what others have been saying in that the film took a little too much for granted in the theme of his being a sheepdog protecting sheep from wolves, but as you say, it made for a consistent film with a clear story to tell.

        The thing that didn’t sit right with me was simply the cliched-ness of it all. Military hero has trouble integrating into civilian life, is transformed by war and gets addicted to the thrill of the mission, blah blah blah. And also the fabricated archvillain Mustafa the enemy counterpart super-sniper, and Kyle’s Paul Bunyan-esque feat of taking him out from over a mile away with a single shot. (Weirdly, the other villain, “The Butcher”, escapes and is never mentioned again… Is he going to show up in a sequel or something??)

        • Todd says:

          It sounds like I saw the same cut everyone else did. The thing that struck me as odd was the montage of real-life shots from Kyle’s funeral. The movie had played so much on his anonymity and difficulty fitting in (not to mention the anguish he must have felt being the father to a plastic baby), the closing montage seemed to be saying “and see? He was right all along,” when I didn’t think that was supposed to be the message of the movie at all.

  2. I found what you said about Eastwood in this post refreshing. True, Eastwood is Republican. Eastwood is also, however, fiercely committed to telling stories about real live human beings in ways that don’t cut corners or sacrifice complexity for the sake of making the audience feel good. So in a nation becoming increasingly divided by bipartisan politics isn’t that what we need on some level? Gran Torino was sublime. I haven’t seen American Sniper yet and I’m totally expecting to have the rug pulled out from under me when I do go see it again. Maybe be in ways that aren’t comfortable. But , from what I understand, this is about an extraordinary person who suffers due to circumstances beyond his control. And isn’t that kind of how good drama is built on, anyway? This New Yorker article about Kyle is pretty heavy but I’m glad that I read it first since I haven’t read the book and would like to have something to compare it with. If nothing else, it gives compelling evidence that more needs to be done to help military vets suffering from PTSD. Though the conclusion I drew from the article was that the guy who killed Kyle had a lot more wrong with him than just PTSD, I’m fine with a movie that focus’ on Kyle because of the same rationale you use when talking about All the President’s Men. Because we needed a movie that showed ‘hero journalists’ as you once referred to them. And can a nation that sends soldiers off to fight these kinds of wars, afford to limit itself to stuff that waters down complexity? By the way, here’s the New Yorker article link. I’ll obvi have more to say once I’ve actually seen American Sniper.

    • Todd says:

      Thanks for the link, I was unaware of that piece. In fact, I was unaware that Chris Kyle was dead until I saw the movie. The screenwriter mentioned that he had worked in close contact with Kyle while writing the screenplay (which he wrote at the same time that the book was being written by someone else), and that he, in fact, died the same day he finished reading the screenwriter’s first draft. We live in a weird world.