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American Sniper

American Sniper

America? Fuck Yeah!
Coming again to save the motherfuckin' day, yeah!

dir: Clint Eastwood


I know there’s a lot of controversy surrounding this flick. There are probably some ethical and moral arguments to be listened to and appreciated. Whenever American right-wing nutjobs start praising something to the high heavens, and attacking people who have issues with it as being commies and traitors, I reflexively think the thing they’re praising most likely has to be a piece of shit that pushes all the right buttons that so need pressing.

Well, the nutters are out in all their nutty glory about this flick, and it has made a ridiculous amount of money thus far. I still want to approach it from as objective a perspective as I can.

Thing is, I can’t. I can’t be objective about it. I love snipers too much. I know how shallow this is going to make me sound, but of all the slayers on the battlefield, American or not, it’s the sniper I’ve always thought had the hardest and ‘coolest’ job.

One of my favourite war movies ever is Enemy at the Gate. It’s still my favourite, because this flick doesn’t supplant it one bit.

I think American Sniper has its boosters seeing what they want to see in it (and ignoring the inconvenient aspects), and its detractors doing the same. I don’t feel any particular need to be either for or against it, so I can appreciate it or not solely as a Clint Eastwood film.

Chris Kyle was a real person, and he killed a whole bunch of people with a sniper rifle. A lot of people. He was a Texan, he became a Navy SEAL, he went to Iraq, he shot a bunch of people. He wrote a book, as in, he yelled some stuff across a room at some ghostwriters on laptops, and the book sold really well.

At least, it started selling really well once Kyle appeared on cable channels being lauded as a true hero and patriot, telling his favourite anecdote about punching out Jesse ‘The Body’ Ventura at a fellow SEAL buddy’s funeral.

I know that sentence seems bizarre, but it’s an actual thing. It happened.

Oh no, I don’t mean the story he told actually happened, I mean he devoted a chapter in his book to telling a story about punching out the former professional wrestler, governor of Minnesota and actor (he was legendary in Predator). The problem is, and of course it’s not in the movie, is because not only did it never happen, but he’s never even met Ventura. The courts decided in Ventura’s favour, to the tune of millions, and the courts never get anything wrong, do they?

Paging Mr Zimmerman, paging Mr George Zimmerman?

He lied about killing some car jackers at a service station. He lied about killing a bunch of looters just after Hurricane Katrina. He probably lied about a few other things, like that he was an actual tall dude, and that he wasn’t two midgets standing on each other’s shoulders wearing a long coat.

But what’s odd is that he didn’t lie about killing hundreds and hundreds of people in a time of war to protect his fellow American troops.

Before we even get to the film, we have some very divergent perspectives on who this man was. Was he a total and absolute hero who saved countless American lives by using his God-given skills in the service of his country? Was he a compulsive liar and psychopath who delighted in killing people he saw as sub-human, who relished the opportunity that war provides because it meant fun times were ahead?

I will never know. If you believe his statements in his book, the ones that he hasn’t had to backtrack over, he loved shooting these enemies of America, and didn’t feel a single goddamn qualm about it. His only regret is that he didn’t kill more of those jerks.

If you believe this film, with each trigger pull, with each hard decision on whether to shoot or not, a burden was laid on this man’s shoulders, and the deaths of those around him only added to the incredible burden he carried. That by the end he was so numbed, so soulless, that he was practically a ghost even off the battlefield.

One sounds rah-rah. The other sounds more real. But I’m not sure that the Eastwood version is necessarily any more accurate.

And, let’s be honest, I don’t really care. Chris Kyle is dead now. Slain not by jihadi IEDs or from an assassin’s bullet. He was killed, as the film tells us at its end, in the States, at a firing range, by a mentally unbalanced Iraq war veteran who Kyle was trying to ‘help’.

Now that’s irony. Surviving all that crap, and handing the weapon to the guy who shoots you. Handing the weapon to a mentally ill guy who you know is mentally ill with the hope that it’ll somehow heal them, magically, because guns really can’t do any wrong.

People will bring their own preconceptions to this film, like any other, but they’ll use that to draw from Bradley Cooper’s performance whatever they want. You can look at Kyle’s terse, laconic manner and see him as a John Wayne-like man of few words but of action who tolerates no bullshit and never quakes in the face of danger.

You can see his simplistic statements about why he volunteers to fight in Iraq such as “I want to protect America because America is the greatest country in the world” and either shake your head at such simple-mindedness, or applaud because some things in this life really are that straightforward.

Politics aside, there really is no such thing as an apolitical film, especially not an apolitical war film. I know that the right winger nutjobs in the States are praising this to the high heavens, but I don’t really think it’s in any way more rah rah than The Hurt Locker or Zero Dark Thirty were. Hurt Locker was fiction, but similarly posited a hero who only felt alive in battle, and who couldn’t stand to be sent back home.

I don’t think you necessarily have to see the character Cooper plays here as being a recruitment tool for imperialist blah blah blah America Fuck Yeah! type stuff.

I watched it feeling sad for the character, for his fallen and horribly wounded comrades, for his family, and for all the Iraqis who otherwise wouldn’t have needed to die at his hands had the States not invaded. I can understand why he felt personally responsible for saving the soldiers/marines/fellow SEALs around him, and why their deaths affected him so much. But it’s also impossible not to loathe the enemy as depicted here as well.

Sure, some of them you could argue are defending their homes, fighting the Christian invader/oppressor, but the ones butchering their own people in order to get them to not help the Americans are so loathsome that you’d think a high-powered bullet is far too simple a fate for them.

Of course I know that all of that stuff is contrived, and never happened necessarily to Chris Kyle, that he wasn’t involved in some rivalry with an expert Olympian gold medallist (?) sniper called Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) and that it wasn’t his job to personally collar Al Zarkawi or his drill wielding right hand man known as The Butcher (Mido Hamada). But, you know, it might have happened? Somewhere? To some other American hero?

This is, I’m aware, how propaganda works, but that doesn’t mean much of this isn’t still true. Some of the worst atrocities committed during the whatever the hell you call that conflict in Iraq from 2003 onwards, were perpetrated by Shia versus Sunni and vice versa, independent of Chris Kyle and His Merry Men slaughtering their way through Fallujah or Sadr City.

These embellishments are known as ways to make a film more enjoyable, to make a yarn more exciting, and at the very least they are entertaining. There are also a bunch of war movie clichés introduced into the flick that let you know someone’s about to bite the big one. Those clichés are so old that they’re valuable antiques, and it makes sense that a man of Eastwood’s advanced years would feel comfortable with them around.

There are also some hilariously fake babies, and someone making a phone call at the worst possible time, none of which looked remotely real, but hell, Eastwood’s in his 80s, what are you going to do?

The various fire fights and engagements are tense and well shot, and it really does capture both the terror of urban conflict and the gloomy, horrible feeling that a potential enemy lurks around every corner, and that it’s not just the ‘army age males’ you have to worry about. It’s also all their kids and their mothers, too.

It’s horrible, but it’s true. You have a job to do, a hard job, but a Real Man gets the job done, no matter how horrible or how many kids need to be shot.

Because that’s what Real Men do, and that’s why this film has been such a success, in my opinion. Chris Kyle has come to represent this resurgent figure of a man unburdened by political correctness, a questioning conscience or any doubts whatsoever. Black is black and white is white, and never the twain should meet.

Wouldn’t it be liberating to no longer have doubts as to the righteousness of your cause? Wouldn’t it be freeing to just shoot a bunch of motherfuckers legally without having to apologise, just like a Real Man would in a perfect world?

I give Eastwood the benefit of the doubt when it comes to this kind of stuff. I allow for there to be more ambiguity to this portrayal than either its boosters or critics allow. My reasoning is, when he made those two WWII movies Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima in 2006, he covered so many of the aspects to do with war itself, with the impact on the soldiers themselves, on the need for or uses of propaganda, on what a horrible waste it is, that I can’t just see him making mindless jingoistic crap for the sake of it or for a paycheck.

There’s nothing I see in this flick that screams “War is Awesome and there should be more of it!” I do see the film saying that if there is a war, you want someone like Chris Kyle on your side, because he was great at what he did, and that can’t be disputed.

It can’t be disputed, because, look at the scoreboard?

He was a great sniper. All those kills maybe weighed on him, maybe they didn’t. The Kyle portrayed here is burdened, and doesn’t possess the language or the emotional resources to alleviate that burden himself except in either killing more people or trying to help out his fellow vets, many of whom were even more damaged than he was.

He makes a lot of simplistic statements that seem like he has certainty, but I didn't find them believable. At least in the portrayal, there is something akin to doubt. And if there isn't, then there's almost a pitiable aspect to him. That enhances the characterisation for me.

He’s dead, so these arguments seem a bit pointless to me now. He can be a hero, a jerk, someone who chose not to examine why he put himself in the places he did in order to do the things he did and what it really said about him; he can be a father, a dessert topping and a floor cleaner that slices and dices; in short, he can be all things to all people.

Watching this film I felt a bunch of emotions, not all of them enjoyable, but I was confronted and disturbed in all the ways that I’d demand from such a flick, and I think much of the last part once he returns to the States and gives in to his wife’s nagging (a thankless role for Sienna Miller) as he struggles to reconnect with his family and reaches out to other vets goes a long way towards making him seem like more of a human and less of a killing machine.

He made mistakes like the rest of us, and like us, couldn’t always admit it (except in court perhaps). He’s certainly a compelling character, and may he rest in peace.

7 times I wonder whether some of the reason why Bradley Cooper speaks in such short clipped sentences is because of the difficulty doing a Texan accent out of 10

“I was just protecting my guys, they were trying to kill... our soldiers and I... I'm willing to meet my Creator and answer for every shot that I took.” – American Sniper