American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s brazen portrayal of Navy Seal Chris Kyle, sent off 2014 with a divisive bang. The film sparked controversy throughout the nation, polarizing the affronted left against the proud right. The former held that the film offended their liberal sensibilities through glorifying violence and brutality in a war that they found to be inherently unjust; the latter remained prideful of the film, praising Kyle’s valor and prodigious skill as a marksman.
The controversy did not center on the quality of the film, necessarily. American Sniper has been met with universal acclaim, nominated for six Academy Awards including Best Film and Best Actor. The controversy surrounds the implications of the film — the portrayal of Islamic folk as savages with no options for pacification apart from brute force, and the exaltation of this violence as unequivocally heroic.
Public figures such as Michael Moore and Seth Rogen have been pinned at the helm of the dispute. Moore publicly lambasted snipers as cowards, a remark that caused a number of veteran snipers to lash out, such as Green Beret Sniper Bryan Sikes, who referred to Moore as a “waste of space.” Rogen was chastised for writing an underhanded tweet in which he likened American Sniper to Nation’s Pride, the meta-fictitious film shown in Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds that highlighted Nazi military action. Rogen later rescinded the comment after much criticism.
American Sniper has an undeniably jingoistic angle. The film feels like an injection of adrenaline from the opening scene where Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper, is positioned on a rooftop in a smoldering section of Baghdad with a sniper rifle, hell-bent on protecting his ground soldiers. A mother and small child come out behind a building standing directly in front of an abandoned rocket-propelled grenade (RPG). Kyle shoots the mother as she attempts to reach for the weapon, the small boy then picks up the RPG and aims it at the American soldiers. In a traumatic moment, Kyle has no choice but to take aim at the child.
As his rifle is fixed on the child, the scene cuts and we are taken back to Kyle’s childhood in rural Texas where a young Chris Kyle is lectured by his father on the nature of his character as a man. The senior Kyle elucidates three archetypes, the “sheep” who is too weak to defend himself, the “wolf” who is malicious and preys on the sheep, and the “sheepdog,” the tenacious defender of the sheep against the wolf.
This metaphor seems to serve as the foundational justification and reason for military intervention in Eastwood’s mind. America is the sheepdog; not only are they warranted in their action, it is lauded.
As international politics and policy rapidly change due to globalization, American Sniper feels strangely antiquated and reactionary. The film appeals to our bravado rather than our intellect. While Chris Kyle is largely silent throughout, the subtext is the “Make My Day” disposition that characterized many of Eastwood’s earlier films. In Dirty Harry’s time this may have made sense; however, in the globally interdependent world of today, it is not a tenable approach.
American Sniper is a good film though narrow-minded in scope. While enthralling and attractive, the movie is ultimately counterproductive.