Making Sense of the Controversy Surrounding Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper”
Joseph L. Mankiewicz once said, “The difference between life and the movies is that a script has to make sense, and life doesn’t.” When I think about Clint Eastwood‘s “American Sniper,” which crushed the box-office last weekend with over $100 million in four days and garnered more Academy Award nominations than anyone expected, Mankiewicz’ words resonate all the clearer. The controversy this film ignited due to its success makes less sense than its incredible box-office numbers. Buckets of acid are being flung at the film’s supposed pro-American propagandist attitude, heroic celebration of its protagonist, and its rewriting of the Iraq war. The purported negative stigma of “American Sniper” can be summed up in this Storify page from independent journalist Rania Khalek, using reactions from certain audience members as fuel for her fiery accusations.
This fervent reaction is troubling because, within this whirlpool of flying dung, a lot of people seem to be forgetting a crucial factor: the movie itself. “American Sniper” is not a piece of pro-American propaganda, it doesn’t rewrite the Iraq occupation, it doesn’t celebrate Chris Kyle as a hero, it doesn’t downplay PTSD, and it doesn’t glorify war. The worst, legitimate, politicized accusation one can throw at the film is that its Iraqi characters are one-dimensional, pointing out one especially brutal scene featuring a drill and a terrorist nicknamed The Butcher that feels like a “24” episode guest-directed by Quentin Tarantino (even though, apparently, The Butcher is based on a real Shia warlord). Since the film’s primary focus isn’t an “us vs. them” mentality, but more a “man vs. war” one, the concern of depicting the villains as one-dimensional couldn’t have been a big one for Eastwood. It would have reportedly been for Steven Spielberg, the original director attached to the project. But once he stepped off, and Eastwood took over, a different kind of film was born. Since I’d take subtlety over sentimentality any day of the week, I’m pretty happy with how that went down.
What Eastwood does with “American Sniper” is take the politics of the Iraq war out of the equation, in order to portray the psychological effects of war and violence in a systematic, intimate, and subtle way. It’s similar to what Kathryn Bigelow did with her Oscar-winner, “The Hurt Locker,” in 2008. (Her follow-up, “Zero Dark Thirty,” is a different kettle of fish, though it went through its own scandalous pro-torture accusations). The reason “American Sniper” is getting more flensed than “The Hurt Locker,” however, is because it’s based on a real-life person; U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who has recorded the most confirmed sniper kills in U.S. military history. A lot of people who have read Kyle’s autobiography, or read about him, formed an opinion long before the film came out; they believe he was a notorious liar because some things he claims in his book have been refuted, a bigot because he refers to the Iraqis as “savages” in his book, and a ruthless war-hungry sadist because he enjoyed his job. Khalek’s Storify page shows highlighted passages from his book to prove what a gruesome guy he was.
Eastwood, screenwriter Jason Hall, and Bradley Cooper, who portrays Chris Kyle in the film, decided to strip down the story and the character to the bare facts, not include things that can’t be corroborated or personality traits that have little-to-nothing to do with the story they want to tell. Amy Nicholson calls the film the “most mendacious” of 2014 in a Slate article because it chooses to ignore Kyle’s lies, convincing “viewers that Chris Kyle is what heroism looks like: a great guy who shoots a lot of people and doesn’t think twice about it.” Even if the film depicts Kyle as a great guy (he loves his country, he takes the responsibility of protecting his fellow soldiers very seriously, he adores his wife, and he’s very attentive with war veterans), Nicholson loses me with her second assessment. Cooper’s Kyle thinks twice almost every time he pulls the trigger. His first two kills are a young boy and his mother who were about to suicide bomb American soldiers, and when a fellow soldier tries to congratulate him, his response is a brisk “get the fuck off me.” Later in the film, he almost vomits at the thought of killing another child who is threatening the lives of his fellow soldiers. If Nicholson was watching “American Sniper” as a Chris Kyle biopic, she would have a point in chastising the filmmakers for not including the more dubious side of the real life person. But, “American Sniper” is not a biopic. If outraged viewers like Nicholson, Khalek, and the rest have proof that Kyle didn’t love his country, didn’t love his wife, or actually loved to punch veterans in the face instead of help them, I would understand their outrage. But, I doubt they can. And there shouldn’t be so much worry for viewers getting a heroic impression, because those who consider Chris Kyle a war hero don’t need Eastwood’s film to confirm it. The real-life funeral procession that ends the film shows that the real Kyle, lies, bigotry and all, was sent off as a decorated hero of the Iraq war. There’s also the book, which is out there, with or without the film.
The underlining issue is that people can’t shake off their own, personal, opinions about a controversial real-life figure, and judge him only as he is depicted in the film. They can’t see him as Cooper’s Kyle. They can only see him as whoever they think Chris Kyle really was in real life (whether they knew him or not, which in most cases they didn’t). It doesn’t matter that every single scene featuring Kyle stateside after his first tour contains at least one instance, moment, conversation, or action that directly telegraphs his troubled psychological state and his PTSD. One that comes to mind is when he runs into a fellow soldier whose life he saved in Fallujah. Pay close attention to Bradley Cooper’s performance in this scene, and you’ll see how anti-heroic his portrayal is. His discomfort borders on shame at being called a hero. In another film, Cooper may have been directed to react violently or talk to his son afterward and say, “Listen son, forget what that dude said, I’m no hero.” When he talks with the war veterans towards the end, and they refer to his nickname “Legend,” he tells them; “that’s a title you don’t want, trust me.” If the scene’s mood is light, the pulse underneath is anything but. In another film, there may have been a close-up of Cooper articulating those words with a troubled look on his face. Eastwood and co. choose a subtler route. Kyle’s post-tour struggles are internalized because that’s the most realistic depiction of someone as blindly patriotic as Chris Kyle wrestling with PTSD. People who come with minds made up will inevitably fail to appreciate that.
Because Eastwood took out all the political motivations surrounding the Iraq war, and chose to show Kyle’s disdain of himself in a subtle way rather than an overt one, detractors claim that he’s “re-writing” history. So, they must think Bigelow also re-wrote the Iraq war with “The Hurt Locker.” Of course she didn’t, and of course Eastwood and Hall didn’t re-write anything. He’s depicting one man’s psychological rise and fall during the war, where the “why” and “how” of the war don’t factor into it. Chris Kyle grew up in Texas, went to church every Sunday, and had a father who taught him how to hunt and reared him to be a “sheepdog” (a protector of what he holds dear). That he grows up to be a hot-blooded patriot who believes it’s his duty to protect his country isn’t exactly a stretch. The politics of war don’t factor into the love someone like him feels for his country, which immediately exempts politics from playing a role in this movie. The film is a character study of how one man’s unwavering belief (one that he can’t even explain to his own wife, because how do you verbalize patriotism?) isn’t preparation enough for the psychological toll war and violence leaves you with.
The film’s opponents only seem to concentrate on the first part of that premise (the unwavering belief), ignoring the second part or claiming that the film downplays Kyle’s PTSD and the horridness of war. All the instances in the film that depict Kyle struggling with himself after taking someone’s life, others around him who lose faith in the war (his own little brother and Luke Grimes‘ Marc), his wife Taya’s (Sienna Miller) pleas, his return after the last tour, the climactic incident with the dog, and Cooper’s own performance; all of these things (and there’s actually more) appear to be lost on the people who find the film’s lack of politics and stripped-down characterization of this man as offensive, troubling, or (worst of all) propagandistic. Perhaps what a lot of these critics can’t get behind is an American protagonist who loves his country blindly and doesn’t question his government’s decisions. Everyone knows people like this exist in real life, I doubt anyone can deny that Kyle was exactly this kind of person, but hey, don’t show him on screen because that’s controversial! When was the last time Hollywood had a protagonist be this patriotic? Perhaps, this explains the impressive box-office numbers; movie goers are in the mood to watch non-politicized contemporary war films featuring patriots (see also: “Lone Survivor“) It’s worth considering. What this criticism also shows, moreover, is a lack of appreciation for subtle storytelling. If his PTSD was portrayed as something out “Jacob’s Ladder” or if Cooper pulled a Gary Sinise in “Forrest Gump,” maybe it wouldn’t have been so hard for people to ignore what to me is the film’s glaring message: killing other human beings comes at a grave psychological expense. “It’s a heck of a thing to stop a beating heart” Kyle tells his son towards the end of the film. It’s a line that sums up the film’s apolitical message brilliantly, and, again, comes in nice and subtle.
Of course, there is another major reason behind the hate “American Sniper” is getting, that isn’t due to the inability of separating one’s own personal or political thoughts, or not appreciating the art of subtlety. The film’s success is inadvertently destroying the chances of a smaller movie, one that’s depicting a much more pleasing and positive moment in U.S. history, in an intensely unsubtle way. Ava DuVernay‘s “Selma” is the first film told from Martin Luther King Jr’s perspective and, as such, is imbibed with significance and importance. Adding to that, DuVernay is a black female filmmaker, a huge minority in Hollywood (can’t get more opposite than Clint Eastwood), so just as “American Sniper” has grown out of proportion as a piece of war propaganda, “Selma” has grown out of proportion as a beacon for diversity issues. The narrative has become a David vs. Goliath one. “Selma’s” Best Picture nomination is seen as a small bone because the film failed to pick up any other major nominations, while ‘Sniper’ has Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay, and Best Editing to go with its Best Picture nom. The Best Actor category was especially under fire because it’s wildly believed that Cooper took David Oyelowo‘s spot. Personally, I think Oyelowo’s portrayal of MLK is “Selma’s” greatest virtue and I would vote him over Cooper, but (and it’s a big but) people are too quick to ignore the magnificence of Cooper’s performance. It’s a complete transformation in speech and mannerism, and for an actor who’s known to be eccentric, wild, and overtly charming (think; “The Hangover,” “American Hustle,” “Silver Linings Playbook“) to turn in such a subtle, nuanced, performance, where his internal torment so vividly resonates (especially on second viewing); it’s nothing short of emphatic and career-best stuff. The only reason he wouldn’t be in my own personal 5 is because the year has seen an abundance in revelatory male lead performances from the likes of Jake Gyllenhaal, Timothy Spall, and others.
The elephant in the room is that “American Sniper” doesn’t have any cinematic similarities with “Selma,” other than both being based on real events, but the current trend insists on ignoring it. It almost feels like if you enjoyed “American Sniper” more than “Selma,” you’re immediately labeled an ignorant America-loving racist who doesn’t care about Martin Luther King. That’s an extreme I dearly hope isn’t true, but judging from some reactions and conversations, it wouldn’t surprise me. If someone has seen both films and enjoyed one over the other, especially if it’s ‘Sniper’ over “Selma,” they shouldn’t be afraid to say so. People have to come to terms with the fact that filmmakers don’t have a responsibility to include every aspect of a real person’s life when they’re adapting a part of their story. Artistic liberties are taken, and it’s not the filmmaker’s responsibility if some audience members can’t understand subtle storytelling, and walk away with a misinterpretation. That’s their problem. Those same idiots who say “American Sniper” made them hate Muslims a thousand times more were bigots long before they saw the opening credits.
Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” depicts the consequences of being a model soldier on a man’s mental state and on his family, in a subtle, nuanced, but very present, way. It’s the kind of subject Eastwood has been concerned with for decades as a director, especially if you think of Navy SEALs as modern day gunslingers of the Wild West. Demanding anything more or less of the film, as determined by one own’s bias or thoughts about another film, wouldn’t make sense for the way Eastwood, Cooper, and Hall decided to tell their story. Let’s have the movies speak for themselves, and lampoon them only when they fail to make sense between the opening and closing credits. Let’s leave all our vitriol for the stuff that really doesn’t make sense.