The Old Wild West in the New Middle East
IM Review of “American Sniper”
The title of this review reflects a line from American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s reverent biopic of Chris Kyle, a sniper during the Iraq War credited with 160 kills, the most in American military history. It also reflects iconic films from Eastwood’s career. He, of course, is famous for his roles in westerns, portraying lone dispensers of justice in a world beset by evil. “In the universe of his films,” writes N.Y. Times critic A.O. Scott, “— a universe where the existence of evil is a given — violence is a moral necessity, albeit one that often exacts a cost from those who must wield it in the service of good.”
The narrative goes like this:
- People are besieged by pure evil in the form of villains with no conscience who will stop at nothing to destroy what is good.
- Most of the good people are impotent to stop the evil ones.
- One man rises up (or rides into town) with extraordinary gravitas and courage to take a stand. He will not be persuaded to do otherwise.
- Evil does its best to compromise or destroy him.
- However, the good man is better and more skilled at dispensing violence, and thus evil is conquered.
- He is also able to come to terms with himself and the impact evil has made on him.
American Sniper is, at its heart, a cowboy movie. It’s a great one too, a well-acted, gripping old-fashioned shoot-em-up that will have you cheering when the good guys win and the bad guys bite the dust. Its morality reflects pure black and white. It’s a hero pic with hordes of faceless enemies and one grand villain (though he is not characterized beyond a few mentions of his backstory). The dusty streets and rooftops could pass for the wild west, Kyle has a “posse” of faithful sidekicks, and his woman waits nervously at home, wondering if he will ever make it back to her.
Chris Kyle is played by Bradley Cooper, who does a stellar job portraying Kyle as a gentle giant with a job to do to preserve the American way of life. His character was formed by a daddy who raised him well, teaching him to shoot and take care of his gun, and giving him a simple, compelling moral view of the world. He tells him there are three kinds of people: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Most people are sheep, they need protecting from the wolves that threaten them. The boy better not think of being anything but a sheepdog — strong, protective, using whatever means necessary to guarantee the safety of his own.
And that about sums up the depth of insight we gain into Kyle’s character. He has no demons of his own, only those inflicted upon him by his contacts with evil. Honorable from youth, he bides his time riding rodeo until the events of 9/11 move him to join the military. He serves four tours in Iraq. Some of his kills involve women and children and we see the pain this causes him. On his trips home between deployments, Kyle’s wife struggles with how distant he has become. The aftereffects from combat leave him increasingly estranged, and on occasion he shows a few signs of PTSD. But these are wounds inflicted from without, by his engagement with evil. He is not like some of Eastwood’s other characters, dark, mysterious men who have secrets in their hearts and past. Chris Kyle is a pure hero.
One of the weaknesses of American Sniper is that it doesn’t develop any other characters. Even Kyle’s wife, played by Sienna Miller, who gets the most screen time, is given the limited role of worrying about her man, keeping the home fires burning, and expressing hope that one day he will come all the way back and devote himself to the family again. Kyle’s buddies trade banter with him, there’s a lot of talk about “team,” and you know he’s there for them but it doesn’t get much beyond that. Eastwood’s Chris Kyle is truly the lone “Legend” in this film — set apart from everybody else.
The movie has been a huge box office success, and has generated a fair amount of political controversy. However, American Sniper ignores politics altogether to focus on this one man doing his duty. I, for one, am glad of that, because soldiers like Chris Kyle and his mates should not be caught in the middle of political wrangling. If you want to argue politics, let’s talk about the people who sent them to Iraq and the policies they enacted which made it necessary for young men and women to go into harm’s way.
No, American Sniper is not political, it’s something else. It’s mythical. That is why audiences are filling theaters to see it. Here, in the conservative heartland where I live, the movie house was packed and it was hard to find a seat. People hunger to see something with moral clarity and heroes, a story which validates their underlying beliefs. It doesn’t matter to them if it is 100% accurate or reflects all the complexities of war or the human psyche. Literalists will never understand this, but people are more shaped by their mythos and ethos than they are by analysis and reasoning based on facts. Chris Kyle represents a deeply ingrained American myth, one upon which director Clint Eastwood has built his entire career:
Doing his job.
Standing for justice.
Protecting others from evil.
Resorting to violence when necessary.
Coming to terms with himself.