For a number of years there has been considerable critical palaver about the “ambiguities” of Clint Eastwood’s ideology, with monographs and essays on the topic published at a regular pace. Eastwood himself once said “I do the stuff John Wayne would never do,” meaning he, as Old Hollywood’s last macho superstar, was unafraid to undermine the image created for him by Sergio Leone (the squint, the raspy whispered speech) by playing possibly psycho cops (Tightrope), horsing around with Orangutans (Every Which Way But Loose), portraying buffoons (Bronco Billy) or incompetent jerks (A Perfect World). There are other examples, none of which have much to do with ideology.
One would have thought the case for Eastwood’s ambiguity would have been closed for good by his dreadful performance at the 2012 Republican National Convention, where he endorsed Mitt Romney President of the United States. Romney was and is one of the more deplorable representatives (in a very crowded field) of corporate power in the US. Eastwood’s endorsement consisted of a spectacularly misconceived comic skit involving him talking to an empty chair which we were supposed to imagine contained Barack Obama. Only a veteran comedian could have pulled off this stunt, and Eastwood’s comic talents were limited when he was in his prime as an actor. This moment might not be the sum total of Eastwood’s political convictions, but I think it revelatory.
Eastwood’s most recent artistic dismissal of the “ambiguity” argument comes in the form of American Sniper, a film he directed about Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), who was, according to the poster blurb, “the most lethal sniper in American history” (this is a person’s most praiseworthy credential?). The film is now an Oscar contender. It is a shoot-‘em-up showing Kyle’s war experiences in a devastated, post-invasion Iraq, as he tallies up killings of “counterinsurgents,” soon earning the nickname “Legend.” His Navy SEALs outfit uses the logo of The Punisher, a comic book character, on their clothes and hardware. The Iraq scenes are intercut with moments of Kyle’s somewhat distraught, but ultimately good, family life. Kyle is eventually killed in 2013, in a scene not shown, by a traumatized veteran he was assisting. The final scenes consist of newsreels showing his mammoth funeral tributes in Texas and elsewhere.
The film’s combat scenes are unproblematical. The soldiers’ kills are all “righteous,” if a bit complicated (children are killed). Citizens of Iraq, “counterinsurgents” (an Orwellian word for people who don’t like their country invaded) or otherwise, are usually portrayed in shadow, as hysterical exotics, as the greasy Other, with electronica on the soundtrack to remind us of the strange perils of the East. Names of Iraqi cities like Fallujah are mentioned, but not their profound importance to human history, nor the devastating massacres that took place within them. Nor is there any suggestion that Iraq was reduced to blighted third-world status by the 1992 Gulf War, or that Iraq has since been torn to shreds, making it fertile soil for the most vicious reactionary organizations.
There is a moment when Kyle meets his addled brother in Iraq; the brother curses the country as he boards a plane, puzzling Kyle. Aside from showing a little of Kyle’s post-traumatic stress, which his therapist recommends he treat by assisting wounded veterans (he does so by taking two amputees target shooting, a moment of grotesquerie out of Tod Browning), there is absolutely no critical position in the film. The wife/mother (Sienna Miller) is a frightened but stalwart sort who challenges Kyle’s decisions but stands by her man – at the film’s end, there is an unnerving moment when Kyle points a gun at his wife, making one think that we wants to kill her and his entire family. But no, he is just being playful (in violating the first law of gun-handling: never point a gun, loaded or unloaded, at someone unless you want to kill them). He tells her “Drop them drawers,” as he points the Colt .45. The scene is sex play evoking all too common scenes of the rape and murder of women.
The early scenes of the film, showing Kyle and his brothers with their father, might have been central to a critical position toward Kyle’s narrative, but the point of view is anything but critical. The father of the Kyle brothers teaches Chris never to leave his gun in the dirt, and, more crucially, to be a sheep dog rather than a sheep, to fight off bullies and the like. There is a moment when one might guess the father is psychotic, but such is not the case: near the end of the film we see Chris Kyle on a hunting trip with his son, teaching the same lessons, passing on similar knowledge. The scene brings to mind an ad for a famous insurance company, wherein generations of men pass down the same word of wisdom, father to son, son to grandson.
Kyle is a natural-born sharpshooter, an heir to Fenimore Cooper characters, and the kind of fictional heroes Eastwood incarnated, like Dirty Harry. When he does poorly at the SEALs target range, he shoots a snake in the far distance, telling the instructor that he prefers “shooting things that breathe.” So he likes to kill life, perhaps all life.
Eastwood does exactly what John Wayne did: praise war and warriors, with no comment whatsoever on the premises of warfare, even one as patently amoral as the US attack on Iraq, a client state of the US. Today everyone acknowledges, if only tacitly in some realms, that the war happened to protect large private interests, particularly the nation’s huge oil reserves, pursued by the Western powers for generations. The occasionally liberal MSNBC TV channel has offered a late-in-the-game documentary, hosted by the less-than-progressive, sometimes bizarre Rachel Maddow, Why We Did It: The Invasion of Iraq. The film’s conclusion: “we” wanted to control the oil tap, according to state documents. Not quite a revelation, but perhaps a needed coda.
Any film about war, about men forced to kill each other under state authority, needs to interrogate premises. Yes, this is true of works dealing with all wars, including the “good war” against European and Japanese fascism. This can be done economically, in a masterpiece like Kubrick’s Paths of Glory, or a modest combat film like Don Siegel’s Hell is for Heroes, where the hero (here screen legend Steve McQueen) is a psychotic. There is no need to see the “enemy,” since we are forced in Siegel’s film certainly, to extrapolate: war in general is about deforming men.
A refusal to question war in the most conscientious terms is an act of profound immorality, which is why I condemn Eastwood’s project. Yes, I know, this is a human interest story about one soldier and his contribution. I respect Chris Kyle as a human being, but condemn what he became. We cannot separate “warriors” from the craft they practice, often voluntarily, and certainly not for the excuse that our “freedom” is at risk. Our freedom, a concept that needs analysis, can be cancelled out in the current age only by nuclear apocalypse, which many in US politics admittedly seem rushing to commence. The freedom of the peoples of the Middle East may have been cancelled many years ago, since the US after World War II systematically destroyed every progressive democratic organization that might have permitted genuine economic-political freedom, leaving behind only tyranny (in the form of our proxy clients) and now fanaticism.
American Sniper may clean up at the Oscars. If so, we might meditate on what we and our film culture have become.
Christopher Sharrett is Professor of Communication and Film Studies at Seton Hall University. He writes often for Film International.