Clint Eastwood's American Sniper has amassed a staggering $200 million as of this week. Adapted from the best-selling memoir by Chris Kyle, the most prolific sniper in US military history, the biopic has become the highest grossing film about the Iraq War. The debate surrounding the film and the phenomena of its success has been apoplectic, prompting renewed conversation about the war and its human costs.
Critical attitudes towards the film's content have been divergent, ranging from the Hollywood establishment praising what it sees as an honest portrayal of the US combat "everyman," to scathing condemnation based on Kyle's story, the film's one-dimensional rendering of Iraqi civilians, and its omission of the geopolitical forces that led to the invasion and occupation.
The film isn't quite the glorification of war as some critics have suggested—such a work would need to romanticize the effects of armed conflicts—but it does cast aside larger questions about American motivations that contextualize the war zone to which Kyle and his unit deployed. Nowhere is there any real sense of what the war felt like to people on the receiving end of US combat power. The film dwells in the psychological traumas endured by Kyle during his four tours of duty and in his restored civilian life, where he struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Much of the critical ire stems from Eastwood and leading man Bradley Cooper's assertions that the film is "apolitical" by design. Depoliticized seems more of an appropriate term to categorize Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall's approach, evidenced not only by an unwillingness to engage with the factors that drove military action, but also given that the portrayal of Kyle, apart from a few instances where he refers to insurgents as "savages," is largely bereft of the racist rhetoric and bloodlust found in abundance in his memoir.
In the book, Kyle says that he loved war and found joy in killing. The Kyle we see on the screen has a solemn confidence in his abilities as a killer, but this never takes a sadistic turn. In one early scene, Kyle holds his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) as they watch the World Trade Center collapsing in 2001. Deeply affected by these events, we see Kyle enlist in the Navy, undergo the strenuous "A" School SEAL selection course, and eventually deploy to Iraq. The film makes these events appear seamless, a narrative ploy that turns the weighty symbolism of 9/11 into an implied justification for US military involvement in Iraq. There's no mention of the fabricated claim about Weapons of Mass Destruction, de-Ba'athification, or any real inclination as to why the Iraqi civilian population was being subjugated by force.
With threats against Muslims multiplying since the film's release, it's not unreasonable to question if there is a moral duplicity to films like these, or whether filmmakers have an ethical obligation to avoid narratives that herald the US military at the expense of a subjugated other. The critical onslaught has rightly focused on these sorts of discrepancies, but few have sought to locate the film within what's often dubbed the "military entertainment complex," or the ways in which this brand of war film resonates with the distinctly American imagination.
Film is the medium best suited to shape and solidify public attitudes about misunderstood conflicts, and while American Sniper is not explicitly pro-war, it reinvents Iraq as a "good war," a justified struggle against nebulous "evil" forces that is made to appear natural and integral to the human condition. American Sniper is a "band of brothers" film, one of many in a lineage of post-Vietnam War cinema that are equal parts obfuscations of political history as they are explorations of combatant psyches. The success of these films largely depend on navigating war through individual experiences of soldiers set apart from the forces that control them. The film is pro-military, valorizing a culture of service and hegemonic masculinity that is sustained by violence in the field and made vulnerable by haunting memories of the war at home. Bradley Cooper's performance of Chris Kyle is pure Eastwood. He is the understated, virtuous white defender of the nation. The confluence of these elements in an "apolitical" war film like this transform the "raw" experiences of soldiers that are intended to be above political discourse into ciphers for larger political projects.
The trope of the veteran embodied by Kyle becomes an opportunity for mass catharsis - a space for politicians, institutions, and the media at large to escape the weight of foreign policy disasters in which they are complicit, ridding themselves of the literal skeletons as they delve out praises for individual strengh and sacrifice. (And speaking of ridding oneself of culpability, it must be noted that the psychological treatment Kyle undergoes towards the end of the film is a relative luxury. PTSD diagnoses and benefits have been systematically withheld from many returning combat veterans.)
There also exists a long history of collaboration between Hollywood filmmakers and the US government, who see American military depictions in film as powerful advertising and a weapon in today's information war. Entertainment is a useful conduit for management about conflict and the way it's historicized on the home front. It's unclear if the Pentagon had a direct role in advising or shaping the content of American Sniper, but it wouldn't be uncommon if this turned out to be true. The most public example of this integration of the military, national security, and entertainment is the CIA's "Entertainment Industry Liaison," which in its quest for perception management has funded and consulted for numerous film and television projects in the US. Katheryn Bigelow's controversial Zero Dark Thirty frequently consulted the Pentagon and CIA, sparking criticism that the film's alleged "pro-torture" position was sculpted by government forces that have a strong interest in muting debate about interrogation policies.
The Pentagon was similarly involved in the making of Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, but withdrew their support before the film's completion due to content concerns. Notably, top Hollywood executives met with Karl Rove and other Bush Administration officials at Beverly Hills in 2001 to discuss the possibilities of cooperation in the post-9/11 era. The industry communicated that they had zero interest in churning out obvious propaganda pieces so the administration suggested more documentary and cinema vérité style works about terrorism and security. Even though the meeting didn't result in substantial projects or internal changes within Hollywood, it did concretize government expectations about cultural production and representation of the US abroad in film. War today is just as much a battle of meta-narratives and their global dissemination as it is a battle of physical violence.
In a flashback in American Sniper, the viewer sees Kyle's father inculcate a worldview of pure good and pure evil, the organizing logic of this "good war" film, where people are either sheep (innocents in need of protection), wolves (evil-doers), or sheepdogs (chivalrous protectors of the sheep). This guiding analogy and the film's strategic embrace by both the liberal and conservative establishments in the US—the film is now an Oscar nominee for Best Picture—are symptomatic of how limited the national conversation surrounding the Iraq War remains, mired in a tendency towards hero-making and reckoning with the war's consequences in a way that elides the experiences of the Iraqis and their suffering.
Since the gradual withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq (prior to their 2014 reentry against ISIL), years of occupation and insurgency have become a footnote, cast aside from the national consciousness as Americans weathered recession. The asymmetric conflicts that have arisen since then have evolved. ISIL has rapidly redrawn the borders of Iraq and shifted political agendas. The US military increasingly relies on drones and other advanced standoff technologies that minimize the need for human operators as it multiplies its incursions across the globe. On the US mainland, domestic police forces sporting surplus military equipment from the war on terror clash with civilians protesting racist violence. The CIA Torture Report was released. This political moment is the ideal terrain for American Sniper's cinematic rupture and reframing of the war as a nation-building enterprise carried out by brave men. The film delivers a reassuring, low-tech dose of American exceptionalism for uncertain times.
The film would succeed as an existential portrait of a soldier in combat if it was stronger on a formal level. Eastwood is known for his impatience and desire to complete filming within as few takes as possible in order to capture the spontaneity of actors' performances. As an actor himself he understands the pain of repeat takes. Before filming wrapped, Eastwood noted that the film would be "made in the editing room," and this becomes painfully obvious in battle sequences that are compromised by awkward crosscuts and poor transitions. The film is short on compositional nuance, and even the few impassioned moments of Bradley Cooper's performance are incapable of salvaging the film. So many of the scenes, particularly those taking place when Kyle is back stateside with his wife—the passive feminine foil amidst all of the machismo—have little dramatic impact and are marred by cheesy dialogue.
Kyle's narrative becomes especially fraught when mapped onto a landscape like Fallujah during its second siege, where the armed groups and their competing political interests were numerous and completely ignored by the film's simplistic treatment. The complete disruption of social space that the city endured is sidelined in favor of Eastwood's trademark rapid-fire pacing. Ross Caputi, founder of the Islah Reparations Project and a former US Marine who participated in the operation, recently wrote about what the film leaves out:
It was not the actions of individuals that made the 2nd siege of Fallujah the atrocity that was. It was the way the mission was structured and orchestrated. The US did not treat military action as a last resort. The peace negotiations with the leadership in Fallujah were canceled by the US. And almost no effort was taken to make a distinction between civilian men and combatants. In fact, in many instances civilians and combatants were deliberately conflated. All military aged males were forced to stay within the city limits of Fallujah (women and children were warned to flee the city) regardless of whether there was any evidence that they had picked up arms against the Americans. Also, water and electricity was cut to the entire city, and humanitarian aid was turned away. Thus, an estimated 50,000 civilians were trapped in their city during this month long siege without water or electricity and very limited supplies of food. They also had to survive a ground siege that was conducted with indiscriminate tactics and weapons, like the use of reconnaissance-by-fire, white phosphorous, and the bombing of residential neighborhoods. The main hospital was also treated as a military target. The end result was a human tragedy, an event that should be remembered alongside other US atrocities like the massacres at Wounded Knee or My Lai.
Despite the shortcomings, there is some fidelity to American Sniper's framing of the story. As a special operations marksman, Kyle's combat experiences were characterized by spatial detachment. Kyle was intimate with his targets insofar as he could survey them at a distance through high-powered optics. Eastwood maintained that he needed to align his directorial approach with this distanced perspective. The ethos of the sniper is one of a precise, static, and calculated warrior. Kyle is the lethal overseer for the door-to-door raids and close quarters fighting taking place below him. He fights a war within a war. This ethos characterizes Kyle in battle, the capable "sheepdog" who reduces the sprawl of Fallujah and the social dynamics brought on by the siege to the field of his rifle's scope. This ethos is also present, although to a far less-developed extent, in "Mustafa."
Mustafa is a fictional, decorated Olympic marksman hailing from Syria, the "wolf" fighting with Al-Qaeda in Iraq (AQI) and serving as Kyle's double and nemesis in the film. Mustafa has a wife and is, like Kyle, a father, but the viewer isn't able to discern much about these furtive characters outside of a few perfunctory scenes. It was this doubling that Steven Spielberg, originally tapped to direct American Sniper, sought to emphasize. Spielberg wanted to use Mustafa to convey how war creates a mirroring, a space where "both sides" are locked in a self-perpetuating cycle of violence. He envisioned this double/mirror as a suitable microcosm in which to frame the Iraq war. It's anyone's guess as to how this classic narrative approach would have strengthened the film. It's likely that this approach too—playing to notions of moral equivalence and violence that is timeless, universal, and unhinged from historical specificity—would afford limited space to reveal the ambiguities of the insurgency, if that was Spielberg's intention and if we believe critics who toy with the idea that this focus on a violent double would have made the film a more worthy undertaking.
The film's conclusion, a real-life compilation of memorializing and scenes from Chris Kyle's funeral procession, presents the viewer with an easy interpretative closure. "This Is Iraq." The real Chris Kyle and his fictional self become one to crudely transform the war into a pyrrhic victory. In reckoning with wars of the past, American Sniper's popular and critical success emboldens a legacy of American resistance to cultural production that encompasses more than just "our dead," "our sacrifices," "our heroes." While it is no direct fault of the filmmakers that their work has been hitched to political bandwagons and appropriated by "red state" talking heads to further their culture of fear and bigotry, a different cinema of Iraq is possible—one of rigor and historical fullness, a cinema that recognizes the trauma of US combat personnel without permitting a dissociation from the experiences of those Iraqis intimately marked by the violence of occupation.
Jason Huettner is Blogs Editor for Warscapes. Twitter @jasonhuettner