Sean K. Cureton

Reluctant War Machines

In Movie Reviews: 2014 on February 7, 2015 at 10:46 am
Theatrical Poster

Theatrical Poster

American Sniper
Directed by Clint Eastwood
3 out of 4 stars

Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is the progeny of Kathryn Bigelow’s decidedly greater Iraq War dramas, both directors summarily concerned with the moral ambiguity tied up in the War on Terror, albeit via varying cinematic avenues, styles, and genres. In The Hurt Locker, Bigelow examined the turmoil of war as it affected an Explosive Ordinance Disposal team, soldiers tasked with disarming bombs in the midst of civil strife according to commands originating from America’s Commander in Chief, each individual’s willingness to go above and beyond the call of duty within the ranks of a military occupation instigated by religious zealotry begetting incomprehensible aggression and fear paving the way for unorthodox methods and questionable goals, the terror at the heart of international engagement as nebulous as the incentives for remaining overseas, save to forget the horrors of one’s actions through repetition, personal moral reflection negated via authoritatively capitulated action. As its spiritual successor, Zero Dark Thirty feels less personal and more reluctantly patriotic, the clandestine assassination of infamous Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden played off as an action-espionage thriller, the means by which American forces secured the information and whereabouts of the world’s most notorious international terrorist left open for question, Bigelow content to let the issue lie while garnering further critical acclaim, free from political indictment via artistic recognition. Given the tenuous territory in which Hollywood has tread before when attempting to represent America’s military engagement in the Middle East, it comes as a surprise that American Sniper is so bold in its complicity in propagating Right-wing propaganda, Eastwood’s representation of American Navy Seal Chris Kyle taking a non-condemnatory stance on Kyle’s public image as a war hero. Neither, for that matter, is Sniper’s Kyle character allowed any thematic engagement beyond the standard spy-versus-spy plot device that makes up the core of the film’s script, the numerous stand off sequences between Kyle and an opposing sniper standard Eastwood fare, the Western film genre superimposed over one of the most ethically complicated wars in American history, setting the film up for stern looks of disapproval from the politically correct Left-wing, even if the film itself is as amorally apolitical as Sergio Leone.

The most lethal sniper in American military history is the byline that Chris Kyle self-appointed in writing his tell-all memoir about his service overseas, an act of self-promotion as euphemistically defined as the war in which Kyle served, the accolades he has received for his service tied up in systematically killing his enemies unseen, itself an act of deception and subterfuge, two qualities not so closely aligned with a more classically defined heroism rooted in bravery and honor in the face of dire peril. In constructing his own narrative on his American Sniper, Eastwood chooses to depict the dubious heroism of Kyle through hyperrealism, the film less of a drama depicting the super heroics of an idealized mensch than it is a study on the reluctant arbiters of military engagement, Kyle and his fellow Seals entirely unfamiliar and consistently misinformed regarding the implications of their orders and actions as cogs in the machinations of war. Like Jean-Marc Vallee’s Dallas Buyers Club, Eastwood’s film engages in a visual style that feels less like that of an auteur taking the viewer on an immediately recognizable and personal journey than it does an incredibly capable film technician hiding behind the camera in order to lend the narrative a decidedly impersonal gaze, simultaneously visceral in its documentation of dramatic performances without the individual character of a cinematographer. However, where Vallee’s film is bolstered by a distinct engagement with a clearly articulated rhetoric on social rights activism arising from the personality present in the film’s script, American Sniper is comparatively clichéd, less of an examination of an individual sniper than it is a novelization of Kyle’s professional resume, each scene and sequence another bullet point under applicable job skills and experience. Instead of engaging the Chris Kyle character from the perspective of a director, Eastwood maintains a producer’s lack of vision that has come to define his entire career, his films less of a succession of personal statements via artistic expression than they are a slew of well made vehicles designed to appease an audience of conservative movie goers, American Sniper a compelling action film without the guts of a more spirited and independent filmmaker.

In choosing to not make a definitive statement on the objectively questionable aspects of Kyle’s military history, Eastwood ensures the more thrilling aspects of his film outweigh the potential unease surrounding the rather large public shadow that his subject has cast, American Sniper decidedly making a hero out of the man that Chris Kyle called into being through the power of his own story more personally told. A story, moreover, which Eastwood feels less than comfortable in telling himself, similar to the way in which Bigelow’s preceding dramas were largely sterile in their grandiose provocations of psychological instability in her post-war survivors, her films coming off less as dramatic vehicles for open political discussion on the ethics of international diplomacy than they were deftly crafted mythologies, manipulating the emotional impact of highly personal stories for purely aesthetic ends. Unfortunately for Eastwood, his film has no aesthetic lens through which to view the Chris Kyle character, resulting in a film which wishes to glorify its war machine without understanding the cogs that make it turn, the film unable to move beyond tacit patriotism, the script utterly devoid of the rhetoric by which to articulate a political statement of any kind. The fact that so many moviegoers and cultural commentators have reacted to the film so vehemently as being a pro-war propaganda piece, on both the political Right and Left, only serves to show how delicate the entire subject is when opened up to narrative reinterpretation, our own historical proximity to the events depicted as fiction on screen still too close to our every day reality, imbuing the film with more political power than it ever purports to hold. Chris Kyle may have been an ethically questionable character in real life, but the image presented on screen is only ever a reflection of the man, and a fictitious one at that, as accurate as the viewer holds the film accountable to being, our own reaction towards a semblance of Kyle’s life on screen as telling as anything presented in the film as sheer entertainment.

When Clint Eastwood’s Chris Kyle returns home for brief periods of time in between the four tours of duty which his living counterpart took part in, American Sniper begins to hint at an interiority denied by the memoir to which the film owes its name and surrounding cultural controversy. In life, Kyle appeared on numerous television programs, a guest to day time news anchors, political pundits, and late night talk show hosts, engaging in the construction of his own personal martyrdom, trading stories with Bill O’Reilly and Conan O’Brien in due turn, all without letting on that any of his purported actions have personally bothered him an iota. Instead of revealing anything about himself which might lend clarity to what makes the most lethal sniper in American military history tick, Kyle always appeared calm, cool, collected, and utterly without character. Presumably, much of this emotionless demeanor may have been born out of a trauma which he undoubtedly experienced, as evidenced in Eastwood’s film, but the fact remains that the individual who eventually became Eastwood’s American Sniper might not have been an entirely accurate depiction, the Chris Kyle we think we know the result of politically shaped, capitalistic propaganda, the conservative xenophobia of which the film has been accused the byproduct of a larger entity, the military-industrial complex personified. The fact that Eastwood’s film has been so heavily criticized for being immoral in its treatment of the Middle East is predictable, its own value as Hollywood entertainment secondary to its status as yet another reluctant war machine, signifying less than you might think.

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