Last week, as American Sniper—Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of Chris Kyle’s memoir about his Iraq War service—became a financial success beyond all expectations, it also became an item of public debate, Much of the conversation was ugly, some of it was confusing, and some of it was just confused. Michael Moore tweeted about snipers being cowards, then suggested he wasn’t talking about American Sniper at all. This led to harsh words from Kid Rock and Sarah Palin, the latter using it as an occasion to attack “Hollywood leftists.” Elsewhere on Twitter, Seth Rogen likened American Sniper to the Nazi propaganda film in the final act of Inglourious Basterds, but insisted he liked it. More recently, Gary Sinise weighed in, replying to a Howard Dean comment that suggested that the success of American Sniper was bolstered by angry members of the Tea Party. (Maybe? Sort of?)
In all honestly, it’s tough to make much sense of the American Sniper clatter, in part—as usually happens when art and politics intersect—because the conversation got loud and insulting quickly. And just as quickly, it ran to extremes. Depending on who’s doing the talking, American Sniper is a piece of right-wing propaganda that only bloodthirsty racist warmongers could love, or it’s a movie that honors the sacrifices of American soldiers so well that anyone who found fault in it for any reason doesn’t love America. It’s a case where the usual truism about the truth lying somewhere in between just doesn’t apply. There is no in-between here. These are, for the most part, the noises made by people who see American Sniper as another platform on which they can stand to voice their positions.
The conversation has needed people who pay close attention to the film itself. It’s needed film critics, and it’s been heartening to follow the quieter, more rigorous conversation about this film among those whose job it is to treat it as a film, not a political talking point.
To get this out of the way early on: I wrote the review of American Sniper for The Dissolve, and I have mixed feelings about the film. To my eyes, it opens as a film deeply concerned about the ambiguity of warfare, and it contains a lot of powerful moments, and a terrific Bradley Cooper performance as Kyle. But I also think it lumbers and stumbles along the way, that its portrayal of the Iraqi people is troublingly one-note, and that its final act, in which Kyle suffers from PTSD, then essentially shrugs it off, sells short the cost of war. I also believe it’s a film of note, one worth grappling with even though I found it flawed. I was eager to read others’ thoughts on the film, and I haven’t been disappointed.
The best defenses I’ve read about the film attempt to place it in a larger context, both in terms of Clint Eastwood’s career and other war movies. They’ve also focused tightly on the film itself. At RogerEbert.com, Glenn Kenny’s review offered this succinct summary of why the movie worked for him:
Eastwood’s handling of various battle scenarios, including those in which Kyle is compelled to take down women and children, is typically anti-elaborate for the director. Grim, purposeful, compelling. Violence and its relation to both American history and the American character is one of Eastwood’s great themes as both a filmmaker and a film actor. But he is not a director of an overly analytical or intellectualizing bent, and this turns out to be one of this movie’s great strengths. It has nothing to say about whether the war in Iraq was a good or bad idea. It simply IS, and Kyle is an actor in it, and he’s also a devoted husband and father. But Kyle is more than just an actor in the war: he’s a true believer in what he’s doing, and his intensity in this respect bleeds into his relationships back at home in ways that can’t help but be unsettling.
For Kenny, the film succeeds because it’s locked in so tightly on Kyle’s perspective that all other concerns fall away. The Chris Kyle of the film believes in the justice of his cause, works hard to protect his fellow soldiers, and can’t always put those duties away when he goes back home.
Bringing more into it risks looking too far outside the scope of the film. One criticism leveled at American Sniper, by AlterNet’s Zaid Jilani and Salon’s Sophia McClennen, is that it draws a link between 9/11 and the war in Iraq. In truth, it does no such thing. American Sniper jumps from 9/11 to fighting in Iraq, just as we did as a country, whether it was the right move or not. As a soldier, Kyle has no choice, and the film simply follows him, leaving the leap open to interpretation: Is this an endorsement of the war in Iraq as a necessary continuation of the retaliatory action following 9/11, or is the way it moves so seamlessly from one to the other a grim sort of irony?
Salon has turned finding new disapproving angles on the film into a fixture lately, including an Elias Isquith piece that begins, “Let me begin with a disclosure: I have not yet had the chance to experience American Sniper…” When writing about a movie, watching it is usually a good place to start. But Isquith isn’t alone: The New Republic’s Dennis Jett watched the trailer and wrote about the issues surrounding American Sniper without seeing the film. (He does manage to bring a simplistic—and in my view, wrongheaded—read on Zero Dark Thirty, a film he presumably has seen, into the piece.) It’s not that those issues don’t deserve discussion. The real Chris Kyle was, by all accounts, a less sympathetic character than the Chris Kyle of the film, one to prone to unvarnished Islamophobia and exaggerations of his own feats of violence. That matters, sure. But when talking about the film, the film itself matters more.
Take Scott Foundas’ deep dive at Variety, which locates American Sniper on a continuum of Clint Eastwood films, as a director and a star, with conflicted attitudes toward violence dating back to Dirty Harry, a film Pauline Kael described as a “right-wing fantasy.” Foundas disagrees:
As usual, Kael had her finger on something: She sensed how the hard-driving Inspector Harry Callahan might be transformed by the mass audience into a kind of establishment folk hero, restoring law and order to America’s streets after the Manson-era flameout of the flower-power ’60s. But taken on its own terms, Siegel’s movie was far from a fascist tome, and far more ambiguous about its antihero’s actions than the era’s overtly valedictory vigilante picture, Death Wish.
At Slate, Dana Stevens’ review latched on to the same ambiguity:
It’s an existential critique of violent machismo that doubles as a celebration of violence. With more cinematic craft than he’s displayed in a while, Eastwood makes the viewer alternate between fear for Kyle’s life and fear for the lives of the people who cross through his gun sights—more than once, women or children, whom he must decide whether or not to shoot based only on fragments of unreliable information.
Michael Phillips at the Chicago Tribune took a more skeptical approach in his review, drawing less-flattering connections to Eastwood’s war movies, which depict the hardship of military life while “leaving the anguish to other souls, other moviemakers.” “There’s a difference,” Phillips concludes, “between a film about a man reluctant to acknowledge the psychological toll of what he endured and a movie that basically doesn’t want to talk about it or question it, or think about it, period.”
These are all critics doing the critic’s job of digging into a film and trying to make sense of what’s there. That means putting it in a larger context that includes, in this case, the life that inspired it and the history around that life. But it also means focusing on the film’s aesthetics. What for instance, is meant by the scenes where Kyle puts a mother and her child in the crosshairs? It’s good work that’s come to strikingly different conclusions, which is what happens when smart people who know what they’re talking about engage with a movie meaningfully. It’s also, especially when a film like American Sniper comes along, work that matters. Films mean something, and they deserve better than snap judgments and pre-determined, agenda-serving conclusions. None of the writers above, or the many others who’ve engaged with Eastwood’s film, have become the loudest voices in the conversation. But they’re necessary voices, and they’ll be the voices that last, the cooler heads that prevail long after the flames have faded.