Watching Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2015) reminded me of Sunday nights spent in front of the television with my parents in the late seventies and early eighties. It was a time before the plethora of viewing options available now and the Sunday movie was a big deal, sometimes the highlight of the week’s viewing. Commercial television was my parent’s drug of choice. More often than not, it seemed, the movie on offer was a war film.
American Sniper is about the life of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), a former US Navy Seal and one of the most lethal snipers in US military history. It is recorded that he had as many as a 160 ‘confirmed kills’, which were accumulated during four tours of duty in the second Iraq war. The film is based on a bestselling book of the same name that Kyle helped write (which I have not read). Prior to watching the film, I’d heard about the controversy around it, including numerous claims it is little more than a pro-Iraq war, Republican Hawk propaganda piece. I am always sceptical when such sweeping statements are used to describe a film. Indeed, despite his conservative views, Eastwood is a veteran director with a proven ability to create a reasonably nuanced depiction of America’s involvement in war. One need only cite Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, both of which appeared in 2006. They tell the story of the World War Two battle on the Pacific island of Iwo Jima from the US and Japanese sides respectively.
I didn’t like American Sniper (more on that later), but it did get me thinking about all those war films I watched on Sunday nights and the question of what makes a particular war film, for want of a better way of expressing it ‘good’ or ‘bad’. I suspect it is similar to many of the qualities that make any film well-made and engaging regardless of the side of the conflict it portrays.
Those Sunday night war films ran the gamut from entertaining, B-grade trash to big budget, mainstream spectaculars. But that doesn’t mean some of them didn’t have themes that ran deep. Director David Lean’s 1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai, which regularly appeared on Sunday night TV, is a beautifully shot, well-acted film, with a strong story that is all the more powerful for its portrayal of both ‘sides’.This balance is seen in the conflict between Japanese commander, Colonel Saito (Sessue Hayakawa), and Lt. Colonel Nicholson (Alec Guiness), the officer in charge of the allied prisoners.
The more radical Apocalypse Now (dir. Francis Ford Coppola, 1979) was also shown on a Sunday Night. It is correctly seen as a classic war film despite being partly based on a script by the notoriously right-wing Hollywood writer John Milius. I’d argue this status is due to Milius’ militarism being cut by a sense of the counter-cultural and the anti-war sentiment of the period and because the chaos and excess in its production, apparent in the movie, mirrored that of America’s actual involvement in Vietnam.
Another Sunday night favourite was director Jack Cardiff’s 1968 movie, Dark of the Sun, about a group of mercenaries hired by the president of a teetering African state (the Congo) and his European mining overlord. In it the mercenaries travel to a remote jungle town and retrieve millions of dollars in diamonds before it is overrun by rebel forces. An action movie, it is also surprisingly effective in exploring themes of racism and imperialism in Africa.
On a more contemporary note, there are several excellent films about the second Iraq war. Director Paul Haggis’ The Valley of Elah (2007) depicts a retired military investigator and a female police detective who form an uneasy alliance to uncover the truth behind the disappearance of the man’s traumatised son following his return from Iraq. Oren Moverman’s The Messenger (2009) is the story of an American serviceman who, on his return from Iraq, is assigned the job, with another soldier, of notifying people about the death of their next of kin in combat. My memory of the film is that it didn’t take a particularly overt position either way about the war, but allowed the story to unfold through the reactions of the men and women to the news their loved ones had died.
American Sniper lacks the complexity of any of these movies. The film has two interweaving plot strands – whether Kyle will make it home, both physically and psychologically, and his obsession with tracking down and eliminating an enemy sniper. Aside from Kyle and his wife watching images of the September 11 attack on TV, the film lacks virtually any context about the conflict. I’m not saying the film needed a detailed examination of how aggressive US foreign policy and Arab petro dollars have contributed to the military and humanitarian disaster in Iraq today. But, to go to the other extreme, the film lacks virtually any context about the conflict.
It does, however, have some moments of genuine tension. This includes the opening scene where Kyle deliberates whether or not to shoot a female civilian and small boy who suddenly step out from a building in the face of advancing US troops in Fallujah. As disturbing as this is, it is one of the few scenes that attempts to grapple with the lived experience, for better or for worse, of what it must be like to be a sniper. On the whole though there are only a few glimpses into Kyle’s worldview. One of these is his perplexed reaction when another American soldier asks him: ‘Do you ever think what happens if there’s the wrong person at the end of that gun?’ Aside from that, the film simply strings together the standard war film tropes – brutal military training, the best friend who is badly wounded, and the anguish of Kyle’s wife who cannot understand what is happening to her husband.
American Sniper’s myopia is total. ‘I want you to put the fear of god into these savages’ Kyle’s commanding officer tells him at one point. It is not clear who these ‘savages’ are – foreign insurgents, Iraqi civilians opposed to the American occupation of their country or someone else. The film spends little time exploring that question. However, considerable screen time is devoted to documenting the shocking atrocities committed by the enemy, including the murder, using a power drill, of a small boy whose father has been forced to help the American marines. I am not going to argue that such things did or didn’t happen in reality, but the counterpoint to this barbarism, local resistance to a technologically sophisticated invading army with massive fire power, bursting into people’s homes, guns drawn and the skull symbol of the US cartoon character, Punisher (a Vietnam veteran turned vigilante), stencilled on their body armour, is unexamined.
Perhaps it is a reliance on the source material or maybe the historical proximity of the conflict that made it difficult for Eastwood to inject any nuance or balance into the film. Maybe he deliberately set out to make an overtly jingoistic pro-war film. The only parallel that comes readily to my mind is another film I watched on a Sunday night years ago, namely The Green Berets (1968). The Green Berets is a crude, revisionist portrayal of the conflict in South Vietnam, directed by and starring John Wayne. Wayne requested and was given full US military cooperation in the production of the film, which he made expressly to counter the growing strength of the anti-war movement. Much like American Sniper, The Green Berets polarised critical opinion but did well at the box office.
One other aspect of American Sniper that warrants further comment is how prevalent firearms are, not only in Iraq, but in Texas where Kyle is from. In a flashback early in the film Kyle’s father takes him on a hunting expedition during which the future sniper kills his first deer. In this scene, Eastwood implies, Kyle realises he has a talent with guns. Kyle replicates this scene with his own son later on. At another point in the film, he jokingly pulls a gun on his wife and holds it while they hug.
Not surprisingly, Kyle finds the transition to civilian life after Iraq difficult. He de-pressurises by assisting other Iraq veterans who are experiencing problems, many of who have sustained permanent physical injuries. The most successful form of therapy appears to be taking these men to a shooting range, which indirectly resulted in Kyle’s death in real life. On 2 February 2013 he was shot and killed at a shooting range by one of the veterans he was trying to help. The motive is unclear. The man accused of killing him is currently awaiting trial for murder.
Looked at in one way, American Sniper can be seen as one of a trickle of US films about unstable veterans with access to high-powered weaponry. Targets, Peter Bogdanovich’s little known first feature in 1968, concerned a Vietnam vet who murders his young wife, his mother and a grocery deliveryman before going on a shooting spree. The 1975 made for television film The Deadly Tower (dir. Jerry Jameson) was based on the real life case of Charles Whitman, who in August 1966 shot and killed 16 people and wounded 32 others at the Austin campus of the University of Texas. Prior to this he murdered his wife and mother. The son of a firearms enthusiast, Whitman was taught to shoot from an early age and trained in the US army as a sniper. The crime is referenced in the 1987 Stanley Kubrick directed film Full Metal Jacket when the drill instructor opens the course on target practice by asking the troops whether they have ever heard of Whitman and Lee Harvey Oswald, stating: ‘Those individuals showed what one motivated marine and his rifle can do.’
Eastwood doesn’t show the immediate events leading up to Kyle’s death. American Sniper concludes with what looks like documentary film footage of people lining the roadside to pay their respects as Kyle’s funeral procession moves past. Perhaps there were legal reasons why Eastwood couldn’t show the actual killing. If so it is startling that a filmmaker of his ability did not find a way to explore this key part of the story in more detail. I found it a totally perplexing directorial decision, possibly the most political one in the film. It speaks volumes that Eastwood chooses not to depict the domestic blowback of the war in Iraq and America’s out of control gun culture, but instead wallows in grainy images of patriotism.
Thanks to Des Barry and Athas Zafiris for help with this article.