The Measure of a Man
by Chris Wisniewski
Dir. Clint Eastwood, U.S., Warner Bros.
American Sniper opens with a fairly horrifying sequence. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, the titular hero, played with a mix of quiet resolve and vulnerability by Bradley Cooper, stakes out a house in a war-torn Iraqi city. A woman and child leave the home and begin heading in the direction of a group of American marines. Kyle suspects that the woman, whose arms donâ€™t move as she walks, is carrying somethingâ€”a hunch confirmed when she hands a grenade to the young boy. And so the child becomes the sniperâ€™s target.
This is provocative stuff. American Sniperâ€™s most vocal detractors have railed against what they perceive as its schematic, simplistic, and jingoistic political approach to its subject and moral point of view. There can be no doubt, though, that the opening of Clint Eastwoodâ€™s movie intends to challenge and disturb. The movieâ€™s Kyleâ€”however strongly he feels his soldierly dutyâ€”recognizes that the child he has in his crosshairs is just a boy. He feels a responsibility to pull the trigger, to take the boyâ€™s life in order to save those of his fellow soldiers, but the action comes at a price. Eastwood interrupts the sequence with an extended flashback tracking Kyle from boyhood, through his SEAL training and the courtship of his wife (Sienna Miller), to the Iraq War. In the process, it establishes an insistent attachment to Kyleâ€™s subjective perspective. Reading the movie with this opening movement in mind, one might say that American Sniper probes the psychological experience of the contemporary American soldier, examining the physical and moral challenges s/he confronts and the psychological toll exacted by the battlefield.
But the movie doesnâ€™t explicitly problematize or critique this perspective. The killing of the child is meant to be awful, and it contributes to an overall sense that Kyleâ€™s experiences in Iraq cause significant damage to his mental health. The movie does not ask its audience, however, to question Kyleâ€™s decision to take the shot. In aligning our perspective with his, it asks us to accept the soldierâ€™s calculus, his sense that he has no choice in the matter.
American Sniper ends with documentary footage depicting the massive outpouring of public tributes to Kyle after he was killed by a fellow veteran in Texas in early 2014. If the beginning establishes Kyleâ€™s point of view as the movieâ€™s structuring logic, this ending seems to upend the coherence of the filmâ€™s approach. The switch to a nonfiction mode marks a move to a mythologization of the fallen hero soldier. No longer a complicated living and breathing character, Kyle becomes instead a symbol of American military triumphalism.
Between its mismatched bookends, American Sniper unfolds as equal parts war thriller and domestic melodrama. On both the Iraq and domestic fronts, it showcases the most expertly efficient and compelling filmmaking from Eastwood since 2006â€™s Letters from Iwo Jima. It has no interest, though, in examining the wider geopolitical context of the (now quite unpopular) Iraq War, instead taking Kyleâ€™s moral and political convictions as its starting point. Thereâ€™s been a lot of hand-wringing about American Sniperâ€™s tacit acceptance of Kyleâ€™s perspective as an endorsement of the political ideology that underlies it. The resulting debate already feels reductive, played out, and trumped upâ€”American Sniperâ€™s defenders have basically staked out ground as formalists, while its detractors have made both weak and strong claims about the â€śresponsibilityâ€ť filmmakers have to a certain amount of ethical rigor and political engagement when making a film about an actual military conflict. In both instances, one gets the sense of smart people backing into positions based on a strong reaction to the movie, rather than applying a set of logically consistent standards to a particular film. Itâ€™s like theyâ€™re moving from the particular to the general rather than the other way around.
There are a litany of assumptions and taken-for-granteds underlying either point of viewâ€”ranging from the notion that â€śweâ€ť (liberal film critics and audiences) share a common moral opposition to the war to the equally dubious assertion that movies that are deeply embedded in a historical and political discourse can exempt themselves from historical and political scrutiny on the force of their cinematic virtues. There are multiple questions that have been elided in the process. Maybe, though, it is best to start with this: Before we can consider if American Sniper can be â€śtaken on its own terms,â€ť perhaps we should ask what terms it sets for itself and how it does soâ€”or fails to do so.
Based on a memoir written by Kyle and adapted by screenwriter Jason Hall, the movie tells the story of the most lethal sniper in U.S. history using autobiography as its starting point. Kyle publicly projected a dogmatic conviction in the justness of the military efforts in which he participated; a dismissiveness toward those whose lives he took that some have seen as racist; and, as has been widely reported, a propensity for sometimes embellishing the truth, if not lying outright. For some, then, the movieâ€™s source material is highly suspect to say the least, an exercise in self-mythologizing that seeks to justify the nickname Kyle earned in combat, â€śLegend,â€ť without surveying his military record with anything approaching objectivity or even critical distance.
In Eastwoodâ€™s and Hallâ€™s hands, Kyleâ€™s story becomes a sort of 21st-century Sergeant York. That 1941 Howard Hawks film tells the true story of the neâ€™er-do-well Tennessean with a gift as a marksman who enlisted as a soldier in World War I, reluctantly embracing his soldierly duties despite religious reservations and eventually earning the Medal of Honor for leading a small band of soldiers to victory over a 132-person-strong German force. Like the Hawks film, Eastwoodâ€™s examines the life of a military hero from his humble origins throughâ€”and pastâ€”his larger-than-life military triumphs. Both movies are concerned as much, if not more, with their heroesâ€™ beginnings and with how they adapt to life back home after returning from war as they are with the military feats that earn them a place in the popular American imagination. Classical storytelling in Sergeant York and American Sniper has the effect of decentralizing military accomplishment; their biopic forms locate their hero figures within larger but fairly ordinary cultural contexts defined by guns, alcohol, religion, heterosexual partnership, family, and community.
After its prologue, American Sniper returns to Kyleâ€™s childhood, with scenes in which Kyleâ€™s father teaches him to hunt and, later, schools him on the responsibility he has to punish threatening forces and protect the weak, with a monologue that frames the world as divided into sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. This rigid worldview becomes foundational for Kyle, but the scene in which it is imparted includes a small disruption, a bit of resistance from Kyleâ€™s mother who hesitates at the physical force with which her husband brandishes his views of masculine responsibility. When the movie flashes forward to pick up with an adult Chris Kyle, it does so with a scene of masculine humiliation in which he surprises his live-in girlfriend one evening, only to find himself cuckolded. The threat of Islamic extremism later motivates his decision to enlist as a SEAL, and Kyle then meets his future wife and marries her on the day heâ€™s called up to Iraq.
The first act thus establishes three central ideas that make easy political arguments about the film hard to fully sustain: first, that Kyle is a preternaturally gifted marksman, like Alvin York, who grew up in a culture where guns were taken for granted and the appropriate question was not if to use them but how to do so responsibly; second, that he saw the world, like his father, in black-and-white moral terms that he mapped easily onto the Iraq conflict as a war between the democratic West and the terrorist forces of Islamofascism; and third, that prior to enlisting, he had in one way or another failed to assume a functional masculine identity figured in terms of heterosexual marriage and domesticityâ€”and even, perhaps, that doing so might have stood at odds with the masculine soldierly ideal to which he held himself. Here, American Sniper becomes, almost unexpectedly, an auteur text, though seeing it as such requires that we forget about Eastwood the public figureâ€”whose famous speech to an empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention has tainted his reputationâ€”and instead focus on Eastwood the filmmaker. The incommensurability of American masculinity, American attitudes toward (gun) violence, and domesticity is perhaps Eastwoodâ€™s sturdiest theme, running from Unforgiven to Mystic River to Flags of Our Fathers.
Eastwood the icon has long stood at odds with Eastwood the filmmaker, who has demonstrated an unrelenting ambivalence toward male violence and its corrosive effect on the hero figure. Similarly, in American Sniper, Kyle the icon (Legend) stands at odds with Kyle the character, who struggles mightily to connect to the people he loves in socially acceptable ways. In one scene, Kyle visits his newborn daughter in the hospital nursery and erupts into physical rage when the nurses fail to tend to her cries. In another, he demonstrates visible discomfort when a soldier he saved on the battlefield accosts him and his son at an auto body shop. Near the end of the movie, Kyle almost kills the family dog, overreacting to its playful aggression at a cookout. These are the actions of a broken manâ€”perhaps a failed manâ€”and in tracing the origins of his masculine crisis to his military service and even back to his childhood, the movie disrupts easy cause-and-effect with greater nuance than it might superficially appear to bring to its subject.
By contrast, the war sequences of American Sniper seem only to reify the hero worship and buttress the ideology Kyle spouts. Eastwood and Hall depict him throughout as an uncommonly effective and brilliant soldier who makes difficult kills, sniffs out treacherous Iraqi behavior, and comes, time and again, to the rescue of his fellow soldiers. The movie even invents a â€śdark doubleâ€ť for Kyle, a Syrian Olympian turned sniper mentioned briefly in the book who becomes the filmâ€™s principal antagonist. A silent embodiment of the enemy, this figure is the â€śwolfâ€ť to Kyleâ€™s â€śsheepdog,â€ť with Kyleâ€™s American comrades, who are largely undifferentiated, cast as â€śsheep.â€ť In the movieâ€™s logic, Kyle re-enlists repeatedly, in part, because he feels compelled to vanquish this figure before retiring. This is Eastwoodâ€™s biggest â€śhave your cake and eat it tooâ€ť bit of posturing. Though itâ€™s clear the movieâ€™s Kyle goes back to Iraq because he cannot tackle the difficult work of carving out an identity as a husband, father, and veteran on the home front, this Syrian bogeyman gives him a heroâ€™s excuse to keep returning. The mechanics of classical storytelling demand resolution and the victory of the hero over this abstracted villain.
To whatever extent Eastwoodâ€™s movie dramatizes the horrible effect of war on the soldierâ€™s psyche and depicts its fictionalized Kyle as a compromised protagonist, it nevertheless indulges its impulse to satisfy. This, coupled with an epilogue that tracks Kyle through his rehabilitation as a veteran and culminates in his heroâ€™s funeral, does much to undermine the psychological sophistication Eastwood, Hall, and a never-better Cooper bring to the material. That sophistication alone is enough to discount the charge that American Sniper is mere propaganda. Patriotism and jingoism arenâ€™t the same, and Eastwoodâ€™s film is too accomplished and too slippery to warrant blanket dismissal or repudiation. But it canâ€™t be denied that the movie concludes on a note of comfort and uplift that would seem to offer fodder for the most retrograde conservative political currents in the culture at large. Which leaves one last, unanswerable question that may well lie at the heart of the matter: whatever their intentions, how responsible are Eastwood and his collaborators for their movieâ€™s effect and for what it means to the people who see it? I wouldnâ€™t presume to offer an answer to that question here, but those who see American Sniperâ€”and if you take American popular cinema seriously, you shouldâ€”are obliged to ask it for themselves.