No, Eastwood's 'American Sniper' Does Not Romanticize Patriotism

Do we really need a historical context or overt criticism to satisfy our need for protest and outrage? Don’t these arise on their own from the movie itself?

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Bradley Cooper in 'American Sniper.'
Bradley Cooper in 'American Sniper.'Credit: AP

American Sniper Directed by Clint Eastwood; written by Jason Hall; with Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, Luke Grimes, Jake McDorman, Cory Hardrict, Keir O’Donnell

Clint Eastwood has gone through a difficult time of late. He was mocked for talking to a chair at the Republican Convention, and was further made fun of when his wife – now his ex-wife – insisted on making a reality show about their family, over his objections and despite his refusal to participate. His recent movie and first-ever musical, “Jersey Boys,” based on the hit show, failed at the box office and was coolly received by critics (it was therefore not distributed in Israel).

But even at 84, Eastwood is Eastwood; the story of his difficult rise to success and recognition as a filmmaker remains one of the most impressive of all. The same year that he released “Jersey Boys” he also made “American Sniper,” which critics loved and which is among the eight contenders in this year’s Best Picture Oscar race. “American Sniper” is the fifth Eastwood movie to be nominated for that honor; he has won it twice, for “Unforgiven” in 1992 and “Million Dollar Baby” in 2004. I don’t expect he will win again this time, but the nomination alone offers yet more proof of the incredible endurance of this longtime actor and filmmaker.

“American Sniper” seems to emerge from the very depths of Eastwood’s oeuvre as a director and an actor. It tells the story of Chris Kyle, who did four tours in Iraq and was considered the best sniper in U.S. military history. In the movie, based on the best-selling memoir Kyle co-wrote with Scott McEwen and James Defelice, Eastwood gives us a closeup look at his professional activities, but keeps his distance when it comes to taking an emotional and moral position about them.

“American Sniper” joins Eastwood’s twin 2006 war movies, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima,” which dealt with one of World War II’s most decisive and mythic battles, first from the American side and then from the Japanese one. Together, the two films created the dialectical ambivalence that comes up whenever Eastwood deals with masculinity, professionalism, violence, American history and American mythology. The same ambivalence now floods with special force into “American Sniper.”

Because of his sharpshooting skills, Kyle was nicknamed “Legend” by his friends. While watching the movie I found myself constantly thinking back to one of the best-known closing lines in movie history – that which sums up “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance,” John Ford’s masterful 1962 Western (Ford is one of Eastwood’s idols and strongest influences). That movie focused on the mystery of who took the shot that killed the villain mentioned in the title; when the truth comes out, the journalist investigating the case is asked whether he will publish it. “This is the West,” he declares in reply (a statement that always reminded me of the declaration “It’s Chinatown,” which ends Roman Polanski’s movie), adding: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Not just any hero

In “American Sniper” it’s not the West, it’s the Midwest; but the ambivalent blend of fact and myth, and the price the American hero (whether real or imagined) pays for it, nourishes the movie just as it did many of Eastwood’s previous films, whether Westerns or those in which he played an officer of the law. “American Sniper” is a war movie that documents operational activity with a dry, violent intimacy. Instead of the broad expanses of the West, we have the rooftops and narrow alleyways of Iraq, but the movie’s handling of brutal male professionalism has certain touches of the Western in it. This becomes evident, for example, when the U.S. troops are told that there is an equally skillful Iraqi sniper out there; this fact – or is it a legend? – is Western in essence, positioning the hero as it does vis-à-vis a worthy adversary.

But the hero of “American Sniper” – a title that moves the film from the private level to that of allegory – is not just any hero. Serial killers were part of several movies in which Eastwood has appeared, including Don Siegel’s “Dirty Harry” and Richard Tuggle’s “Tightrope,” in which he played a cop who begins to suspect that he himself might be the murderer he is trying to catch. In contrast to these and Eastwood’s own movies about psychopathic criminals, “American Sniper” tells us the story of a “serial assassin” – if we choose to avoid the word “killer” – who does what he does under the auspices of the law, the military and the government. According to the official count, Kyle killed 160 people, including women and children, during his four tours in Iraq; by unofficial counts, the number is actually much higher.

Eastwood’s most significant movies have exposed the dark side of America’s awed fascination with masculinity, professionalism and violence and of the heroes to which this worship gives rise (he often starred as one of those heroes, thus implicating himself in the same darkness). In “American Sniper,” because of the story’s backdrop and the nature of its main protagonist, Eastwood’s handling of these themes is especially bold. As a filmmaker, he has occasionally blurred the lines between lawmen and the criminals they pursue. In “American Sniper” every bit of dialectical ambivalence about masculinity, professionalism and violence flows into a single figure, the hero. With the help of Bradley Cooper’s fine performance, Eastwood gives Kyle a colorless, almost anonymous presence, letting him disappear into the human and physical background.

The movie’s detractors will claim that Eastwood avoids placing the war in Iraq in historical context and that he does not offer criticism of that war, which President George W. Bush embarked on in response to the September 11 attacks (which are also the reason why Kyle himself enlists). They will also say that the Iraqis in the movie are no more than moving targets. But does “American Sniper” really need to give us fuller portraits of a few token individuals among Iraqi citizens and Kyle’s victims, all from a humanist position filled with emotional opportunism? Isn’t the scene in which Kyle directs his rifle at a woman and child powerful and effective precisely because of the physical and emotional distance with which it is presented? Would we prefer for the movie to bemoan the violence to which America “has” to resort – a direction toward which, given Kyle’s fate, it could easily go – or, conversely, for it to show us, in its taut style and with uncompromising dryness, the price of war, any war?

Eastwood’s conservative political views are well known, but they have never found facile expression in his movies. He is too intelligent an artist for that. “American Sniper” has an inevitable patriotic dimension; those who dislike it might even say that its lack of context and criticism makes it propaganda. But because of the way Eastwood crafts his hero, and moreover, because of that hero’s place in the director’s overall work, the result, while nationalistic, does not romanticize patriotism. I can’t remember another American movie that managed to avoid doing that quite so successfully. And do we really need a historical context or overt criticism to satisfy our need for protest and outrage? Don’t these arise on their own from the movie itself?

“American Sniper” is the work of a veteran director who knows exactly what he is
doing. It charges ahead efficiently without a single extraneous shot. Only the scenes in which Kyle is seen on leave with his wife (Sienna Miller) and family, from whom his experiences in Iraq have gradually alienated him, are occasionally a bit artificial. But the movie’s final part makes up for it, and the story unfolds toward its end with the appropriate restraint and decency.

All this is not to say that “American Sniper” is not disturbing. But movies that cause us that kind of unease are often preferable to those that soothe us: they are far more challenging and demanding, and they create an experience to which we must react, as long as it is intelligent and not manipulative. Eastwood’s latest is a perfect example. “American Sniper” is, first and foremost, an American film, and its concern is the historical, mythological, ideological and moral implications and meanings of the term “American.” That already makes it a work that plunges deep into the nation’s heart, offered by a man who has been, for the last four decades, one of the most important and prolific American filmmakers.