Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper: Aim Small
At least three times in American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s version of the life of Chris Kyle, “the deadliest sniper in American military history,” scriptwriter Jason Hall has a character repeat this maxim for military sharpshooters: “Aim small, miss small. Aim for a button, you’ll hit a shirt. Aim for a shirt, you’ll miss by feet.”
That admonition is the key to understanding Eastwood’s approach in American Sniper: By keeping the focus tight, at times claustrophobically so, on Chris Kyle’s life, values, and valor, Eastwood obliterates context and disposes of questions of ethics, morality, and politics.
Kyle was evidently one of those men who saw the world as simple, and Eastwood allows him to be simple—occasionally to the point of obtuseness. (When Kyle sees news coverage of the 1998 attacks on the U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar Es Salaam, his comment, cleansed of both insight and irony, is “Look what they have done to us.”)
At least according to Eastwood, Kyle’s life and actions were guided by immovable values that required no examination, ever. Right existed and wrong existed, and Kyle entertained not the smallest doubt that he knew where the line between them stood. As such, then, Kyle was truly “American” – in Eastwood’s covetous, agitprop deployment of the word.
Kyle, in short, was one of those men who, if the United States genuinely needed defending, you’d want on your side, and it’s difficult not to pull for him when he prevents his friends from being killed or returns to Iraq, despite the harm he intentionally inflicts upon his family and his own mental health, to hunt down and kill the Syrian sniper, Moustafa, who is stalking American troops.
In that sense, American Sniper is a classic good guys/bad guys movie of the variety kids of my generation grew up watching. And Americans – or cowboys, which was, notably, Kyle’s career before he became a sniper – were always the good guys.
But the point is: we did grow up. Eastwood’s perspective on American intervention in the Middle East has not.
Allow your gaze to widen even slightly, pull back even a few inches from that close focus on the gallantry and tragedy of Chris Kyle, and American Sniper instantly becomes the jingoistic propaganda film that Eastwood intended it to be.
What might be more accurate to say, however, is that Eastwood has ingeniously crafted a film that manages to give the appearance of being both pro-war and anti-war at the same time. Is American Sniper about the price “one war hero paid,” as the Hollywood Reporter put it, or is it a film about how the psychological damage and ethical compromises of war make it impossible for heroes to exist?
For audiences of “my country, right or wrong” Bush Americans, American Sniper requires no independent thought and will not challenge the customary talking points. For those who question American involvement in Iraq and the Middle East, meanwhile, American Sniper certainly doesn’t encourage a more nuanced perspective, but it doesn’t actively prevent one, either.
In other words, while material for a more critical view of Kyle and of his actions is present if you scratch the surface of American Sniper, you will probably need a rake.
But in the end, who can really dislike a guy like Kyle, who loved his country and loved his friends and was willing to put himself in harm’s way, to commit almost any act, to protect their lives? In the immediacy of kill-or-be-killed skirmishes, which is where Eastwood relentlessly compresses the film’s gaze, could anyone fail to do as Kyle did?
When we saw American Sniper, in fact, audience members cheered when Kyle killed Moustafa, as it was obvious from the first half-hour of the film he would, just in time to prevent him from picking off Marines caught in an ambush. For those rejoicing in the dark of the theater, Moustafa was simply and only a bad guy.
In real life, to the extent that reality is important to Eastwood’s saga, Kyle didn’t actually kill Moustafa, and the scene never appears in Kyle’s 2012 book (on which the film is based).
Such crass emotional manipulation, however – as though Kyle’s actions and, indeed, his ultimate fate existed outside of history, outside of politics, and outside of context – is what makes American Sniper so reactionary – and so false.
In creating an environment in which all that is manifest from one screen moment to the next is the confrontation between entirely legitimate good and utterly unjustifiable evil, Eastwood makes clear how little he cares whether audiences wonder what made Americans good guys and Iraqis bad guys in the first place.
He isn’t interested in having viewers consider whether the same motivations – defending one’s country against the enemy, exacting revenge for the deaths of friends, protecting one’s family, sacrificing oneself to prevent the deaths of others – did not apply in exactly the same terms to Iraqis who resisted the American presence in their country. (Is a Syrian Clint Eastwood even now considering a film about the exploits and heroism of Moustafa?)
Eastwood encourages no one to raise the kinds of complicated moral questions that come from considering the atrocities committed by al-Qaeda in light of those committed by Americans in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in the CIA torture chambers facilitated by the fifty-four countries that participated in our “extraordinary rendition” program.
In fact, though Kyle and a death squad leader known as “The Butcher” both murder a child in American Sniper, Eastwood provides Kyle’s act with a saving grace: Kyle shoots before the child can throw a grenade that would “probably have killed ten Marines.” “The Butcher,” in contrast, murders a child out of sheer evil; he is one of what Kyle calls (repeatedly) “the savages.”
Not long after 9/11, Susan Sontag wrote a famous commentary, published in the New Yorker, in which she argued against the then- (and still-) popular insistence on reducing the 9/11 attacks to a question of “good vs. evil” and dismissing the hijackers as “cowards.” Wrote Sontag:
The disconnect between last Tuesday’s monstrous dose of reality and the self-righteous drivel and outright deceptions being peddled by public figures and TV commentators is startling, depressing. The voices licensed to follow the event seem to have joined together in a campaign to infantilize the public. Where is the acknowledgment that this was not a “cowardly” attack on “civilization” or “liberty” or “humanity” or “the free world” but an attack on the world’s self-proclaimed superpower, undertaken as a consequence of specific American alliances and actions? [….] And if the word “cowardly” is to be used, it might be more aptly applied to those who kill from beyond the range of retaliation, high in the sky, than to those willing to die themselves in order to kill others. In the matter of courage (a morally neutral virtue): whatever may be said of the perpetrators of Tuesday’s slaughter, they were not cowards.
For Sontag, the use of pre-defined words like “evil” and “cowardly” permanently eliminated our ability to bring the event within any meaningful moral or ethical context.
As in the media approach that is Sontag’s subject, Eastwood’s language in American Sniper is preordained; the meaning of the experiences he depicts is predigested, predetermined, and devoid of subtlety. The placement of footage from Kyle’s actual funeral in the film’s final moments, for example, is pure orchestration and is no less cynical and manipulative — is no less self-righteous drivel — for all the shots of a miles-long motorcade or of thousands of weeping bystanders waving hundreds of American flags.
Eastwood has bet (correctly, it appears) that fourteen years of “infantilizing the public” about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would be sufficient to guarantee American Sniper its success.
In fact, Eastwood’s depiction of Kyle is so controlled and so resolutely free of context that viewers could be forgiven for leaving the theatre with no clear ability to judge what Kyle’s actions actually meant or what genuine moral meaning could be applied to his military and post-Iraq experiences.
Such an analysis is nearly impossible, in fact, when all you’re allowed to aim at is a button.