Anyone dismissing Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper as a cacophony of American propaganda has nothing interesting to say about the film. To confine it within terms like “pro-war” or “anti-war” or “liberal” or “conservative” is gravely reductive and promotes a disengagement with any given text that does not align with one’s prescribed worldview. Rather, what Eastwood submits is a messy exercise in empathy. He acknowledges the dangers and inherent bravery of soldiers in a warzone while addressing the startling set of ethics required for survival. To suggest the film as primitive is not a slight against American Sniper but rather contextualizes its philosophical framework, whereby the theater of war promotes the mantra of survival as “kill or be killed”. It’s rudimentary, and an (ethically, politically, and socially) fuzzy philosophy that lays the foundation for Eastwood’s deconstruction of hero-dom and the process of American mythmaking.
In this adaption of Chris Kyle’s biography, American Sniper follows a young Texas boy who will grow into America’s deadliest sniper. Raised under the pretenses of a strict Christian ideology, one can see Kyle’s upbringing as a case study of patriotic conditioning. Much of the first act is dedicated to understanding the origins of this ideology, rooted deeply in tough paternal discipline and the virtues of blue-collared living. As the film probes Kyle’s adulthood (played with surprising nuance by Bradley Cooper), we see the evocation of that upbringing seep into all of his decisions. These narrative building blocks, setting up the touchstones of childhood and its unshakable influence into adulthood, are told with remarkable economy and bookended within the confines of the battlefield. You can see the bookend in the film’s trailer, where Kyle stares through the sight of his rifle, preparing to slay a child and mother. The decision, finger on the trigger, prompts the immediate narrative to deconstruct how Kyle has arrived at this point.
One could argue that this deconstruction is simplistic and ill-informing of the subsequent killings that Kyle commits. Or that it simply does not offer justification for the act itself. Yet is it the film’s intent to condone Kyle’s actions? While the film’s writing implies a sense of rationalization to this perceived patriotic duty, both Cooper and Eastwood compose a more complicated portrait for an uncomplicated man.
Eastwood’s history has suggested a keen awareness of the vicarious gap found in witnessing violence and experiencing it. Given the bookended nature of American Sniper’s first act, one can derive a sense of cause and effect; violence begets violence. Within Kyle’s philosophy, the purveyors of violence embrace a Manichaean worldview whereby good and evil are distinct and oppositional forces. There’s no room for grays in Kyle’s worldview. Eastwood’s tonal response to this is remarkably sophisticated. Through the lens of Kyle’s scope, the audience inherits a burden of implication - we witness a bullet’s immediate effect and experience the fatalism of slaying the decried opposition. The effect is not all too dissimilar from other exercises in violent voyeurism, whether they are John Carpenter’s Halloween or Michael Powell’s Pepping Tom. But Eastwood’s implication forces the audience to bring their political and social baggage, thereby filling the contextual space left vacant by those aforementioned films.
The body count escalates and Eastwood maintains this rigid formality: through the scope, audience and Kyle are bound. When Kyle’s doppelgänger is introduced, a Syrian sharpshooter of Olympian decoration, Eastwood maintains the same visual construction and editing pattern. Narratively, the suggestion is that these two are oppositional forces, but everything that mounts between the two only highlights their similarities: their skill, their familial unit, and their resolute dedication to their patriotic cause. It’s Manichaean politics at its most relative. The oppositional dichotomy that’s forged between these characters problematizes our interpretation of what constitutes an antagonist and protagonist. And it’s only after Kyle slays his doppelgänger, in the film’s most striking and clearest metaphor of serpentine fluidity in American politics, does he concede to returning to his family. There is no catharsis to be found, with Kyle and his weapons lost amidst a sandstorm, effectively rendering the frame an arenaceous still of chaos.
Yet there’s the ending. The final half hour of American Sniper is difficult to reconcile, the proverbial jigsaw piece that does not fit. Left to his solitude in a bar, Kyle receives a call from his wife (Sienna Miller, in what’s ultimately a serviceable role). The call prompts Kyle’s singular moment of self-awareness, where his battered psyche can no longer maintain its hardened integrity. A great film would end at this sequence, but what follows is a rushed attempt at addressing Kyle’s strained rehabilitation. Eastwood recalibrates his focus on the manner in which Kyle denies his self-mythology only to embrace actions that would ultimately cater to his image as an all-American hero. From retreating to his rural roots to maintaining a steadfast dedication to his country, a mythology swirls around the man who is a rationalized murderer. But this ultimately does not become reflective of Kyle himself, but rather a critique on the values embraced by an entire nation. The film concludes with footage of Kyle’s procession, where his home state mourns his death. There’s something clearly disturbing about this outright embrace of perceived heroics and at times Eastwood seems to question our wide-eyed adoration for a man with such a questionable code of ethics. I won’t pretend to understand it, though I am certain that there’s a tangible obloquy that echoes through American Sniper that defies simple evaluation.