Destroy All Monsters: Faster, AMERICAN SNIPER! Kill! Kill!

Contributor; Toronto, Canada (@tederick)
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Destroy All Monsters: Faster, AMERICAN SNIPER! Kill! Kill!

Warning: Spoilers for American Sniper below.

If Twitter is anything to go by, the liberal side of the population is never even going to attempt to understand why American Sniper cleared a gargantuan $107M over the Martin Luther King weekend, except in diminutive or reductive terms. That's to their detriment.

Sure, the film is a terrifying specter of the world as we generally do not want it to be (even beyond the Rubber Baby fracas, or the somewhat more unnerving fact that in the same scene, Sienna Miller apparently can't locate her own nipple). American Sniper is nakedly jingoistic, unabashedly racist, incendiary in its xenophobia, and blind to the enormous homeland crises that do, in effect, create its whole narrative.

To wit: among other things, American Sniper is a film about a mental health crisis that is so true to current American form that it outright refuses to even acknowledge that there a crisis at all. Chris Kyle bottles up any of the emotional consequences of his job as "the deadliest sniper in American military history" until one facile scene, late in the movie, which ties off the plot thread by connecting Kyle to other vets he can help.

At the end of the film, Kyle is killed by a white American male with post-traumatic stress disorder. This is covered in a fade to black and an intertitle. After all we have witnessed up to that point, the death of American Sniper's main character must be the only killing in the whole film that takes place offscreen, but it's not the sort of death that American Sniper is about. The rest of the time, American Sniper is about killing brown people. Lots of 'em.

It is about killing them in a drab, predictable manner. This is probably because Clint Eastwood is a practical, unostentatious filmmaker / is completely checked out, creatively. (Use whichever version of that sentence best services your narrative on Eastwood as a director. See above re: baby.)

As such, here is how American Sniper continuously visualizes Chris Kyle's profession: Kyle has one eye to his sniper scope and his other eye open. We see a telephoto-lens representation of what Kyle sees through his scope. A brown person enters the frame. We see Kyle decide whether or not to kill the brown person. If he decides to kill the brown person, we see the brown person get killed. If he decides not to kill the brown person, we see the brown person leave the frame / scope / potential to be killed.

This latter point is worth underlining: in American Sniper, existing within the frame of Chris Kyle's scope unilaterally equals death. He is, after all, the deadliest sniper in American military history. This is Kyle's particular gift, and Sniper does not mince words (or more accurately, frames) on the subject. If you enter that scope shot, your life is Kyle's.

When Kyle engages in gun combat with assailants who he is not able to kill (or able to kill immediately), we do not enter the scope shot; we frame his actions in conventional action-movie poses. The scope shot is saved for sequences where Kyle has absolute control of what will happen, even the "impossible shot" of the enemy sniper at the climax. The scope shot, always, is death.

"They think they're invincible if you're up there," one of Kyle's comrades mentions as his squad goes out on a mission. "They're not," Kyle is quick to point out. (One of American Sniper's greatest strengths is the simple pragmatism it awards Kyle. Bradley Cooper's performance is thoughtful and sure-footed, and credible to a soldier's view of his profession.)

"They are [invincible] if they think they are," Kyle's comrade replies, cementing the value of "The Legend" of Chris Kyle. His actual effectiveness as a sniper is unquestionable; his symbolic value as the Hand of God protecting his brethren from above is the larger point of the inquiry in American Sniper. As we will see.

If there are black people in the American military in American Sniper, we rarely see them. There is a black drill instructor as Chris Kyle is going through training. There may be some other black military officers when Kyle is on the ground in Iraq. They are not focused upon.

In American Sniper - as is almost always the case in "American _______" movies, as Anton Sirius pointed out on the weekend - "American" = white. The American military = white. The "other guys" in American Sniper = not white.

Given the racialization, and given the Middle Eastern milieu, and given lines like "I want you to put the fear of god into these savages," American Sniper lends to the American military effort in Iraq the uncanny veneer of a modern Crusade. There is no dimensionality to the enemy combatants in Iraq in this film; they are just fucking evil, man, and they are very nearly the only Iraqis we ever see. There is exactly one sequence which concerns itself at any length with an Iraqi family and their point of view; that family is, one scene later, used as vengeance fuel for Kyle and his squadron when enemy soldiers torture and murder them.

We see the enemy as Chris Kyle sees them - which, from a narrative construction standpoint, is arguably correct. They are just fucking evil, and "we" are there to stop them. Kill them. Protect our people from them, both abroad and at home.

There is no complexity to the dialogue in American Sniper because it is designed to ensure that no audience member can fail to take its meaning. On the subject of the type of American he would like to raise, Chris Kyle's father describes men "blessed with the gift of aggression and the overpowering need to protect the flock." It's not subtle. But I bet you a million bucks that those words will adorn a custom rifle stock or two this year.

Clint Eastwood discovered the license to print money with this thing. Give them a movie about how the American military is a courageous sheepdog, and it will fall directly into a deficit in uncomplicated mythmaking that complex and deadly efforts like the war in Iraq need just as desperately as every other war.

And if that movie just happens to built on a titanium spine of a white American male shooting a nearly uncountable number of brown people, it apparently becomes one for the January record-books.

American Sniper is based, I assume accurately, on the true accounts of Chris Kyle. Shooting people is what he did. He performed his service to his country faithfully and with great skill, and died tragically in the midst of further service to his brothers-at-arms.

The enemy combatants Chris Kyle shot, in this case, just happened to be brown people. The film's defenders will tell me that American Sniper therefore must be about this (of course it does), without allowing for any questions about how it chooses to be about it.

This line of reasoning holds that a "true story" removes from itself the burden to question why a movie is telling its story the way it is. I suspect these people also believe that documentaries are real, and that news programs present "the truth."


Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown is in Toronto and on Twitter.

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American SniperBradley CooperClint EastwoodJason HallChris KyleScott McEwenJim DeFeliceKyle GallnerCole KonisBen ReedActionBiographyDrama

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GarthDJanuary 21, 2015 10:20 AM

What a wonderfully succinct piece of confirmation bias this is.

Do you always make up your mind about what a movie is before seeing it, then mold it to fit into your preconceived notions, or is it just when you see an opportunity to troll and produce clickbait?

The Halsall BrothersJanuary 21, 2015 10:38 AM

Hit the nail on the head. It is scary to see how film makers are engaging with the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have never felt more disturbed in a cinema than I did watching this film. Its morality was truly terrifying and its refusal to present a single 'brown' person as anything other than a terrorist was haunting.

The bigger question here is not so much about the film but about how Chris Kyle became such an icon in the first place. This is a guy that killed over 300 people - women and children included. Yet after watching these peoples head's explode he still revered to them as 'savages.' He was a psychopath that was given the license to operate freely in a morally questionable conflict and eventually came back to an enamoured american public.

The dark irony in all of this is the fact it was the PTSD that he bottled up and never addressed that ultimately killed him. Not a 'Towel head'. Not a 'Sand N***r'. Did Eastwood's film begin to address what was ultimately the most telling and relevant part of this man's life story? Course not...

RegJanuary 21, 2015 10:42 AM

An embarrassingly juvenile teen level rant that ends up saying far more about the writer than it does the movie. The more Joe Public looks at articles like yours the more they will conclude that not only are pundits like you irrational but that American Sniper must be well worth seeing.

Matt BrownJanuary 21, 2015 10:51 AM

I think American Sniper is well worth seeing.

Matt BrownJanuary 21, 2015 10:52 AM

This is absolutely not the movie I expected to see, if that's helpful to you.

KurtJanuary 21, 2015 11:08 AM

So this is Clint's PASSION OF THE CHRIST then?

GarthDJanuary 21, 2015 11:23 AM

Well, it reads like you absolutely didn't watch the movie, if that's helpful.

GarthDJanuary 21, 2015 11:24 AM

"Did Eastwood's film begin to address what was ultimately the most telling and relevant part of this man's life story?"

Actually, it very much did. Unfortunately it didn't pound you over the head with it, but I guess that's what you need in order to be able to understand what a film is saying.

The Halsall BrothersJanuary 21, 2015 11:33 AM

Cool your right I don't know much about films. Silly me.

Anyway how did you think the film addressed Chris's death at the hands of a soldier suffering from PTSD?

GarthDJanuary 21, 2015 11:38 AM

*you're

MichaelJanuary 21, 2015 11:45 AM

I watched the same movie with little or no expectations and came away repulsed, too.

GarthDJanuary 21, 2015 11:49 AM

It handled the difficulty Kyle had readjusting to civilian life and how he dealt with that. It showed how Kyle was affected by his service and also how other soldiers were affected. It's not difficult to draw a line from Kyle to his killer and understand what he was going through. As I said, unfortunately you need to be bludgeoned over the head with the point being made. That's not the movie's problem, it's yours.

Did it deal specifically with the other soldier? No, of course it didn't because a) Kyle's death was a post-script to the story being told, and b) the movie is about Chris Kyle, not about one of the random vets he was working with. This is the story of Chris Kyle's career in the military, not the biopic of Kyle's killer. Again, it's not the movie's problem, it's your problem for demanding the movie be something that it isn't.

Complaining about not going into enough detail about Kyle's killer is like complaining that The Imitation Game didn't go enough into the personal life of the police officer who interviewed Alan Turing after his house was broken into.

The Halsall BrothersJanuary 21, 2015 12:12 PM


'It handled the difficulty Kyle had readjusting to civilian life and how he dealt with that. It showed how Kyle was affected by his service and also how other soldiers were affected. It's not difficult to draw a line from Kyle to his killer and understand what he was going through. '

I totally disagree for me it dealt with the trauma Kyle was dealing with in an extremely superficial way. The odd bit of gunfire to punctuate the sound design of seemingly domestic bliss, didn't really do much for me. Didn't show how he dealt with anything, he just moped around looking troubled.
I'm not complaining about the fact it didn't address who it was who killed him. I'm complaining that it looked at a serious issue i.e WAR and didn't bother showing us what we can learn about WAR from this person's life, this person being the person who the film is about innit, a right lad called Chris who killed 160 towel heads.
If you remove emotion from the issue and look at it objectively the facts are -
American male kills over 160 people including women and children.
Goes through some shit you know. Bit of drinking and stuff. It is tough being a mass murderer.
Writes book about it and forgives himself for his actions justifying them by referring to those he killed as savages. He essentially reduces what was a morally complex war and situation to something that is pretty basic good vs evil stuff.
Eventually convinces himself everything is fine. Safe in America not a terrorist in sight!!!!!
Despite all the death and trauma he has seen. He still loves hanging out with guns and the guys.

Then BOOM after denying that he had anything to be guilty about. Another soldier suffering from PTSD kills him. Not the enemy that he thought was out to get him but one of his own men,,,,,, INNIT LIKE THAT IS MENTAL
There is a moral in their somewhere about the reality of war and who the real enemy is, am I right? Is it just me .... wait don't answer that!

Jason GrayJanuary 21, 2015 12:44 PM

Where are you quoting 'Towel head' and 'Sand N***r' from?

Matt BrownJanuary 21, 2015 1:27 PM

Really? I tried to include as much screen-specific detail as I could. Maybe when the blu-ray comes out I'll revise the article with minute-to-minute timings to help.

Matt BrownJanuary 21, 2015 1:28 PM

I always love the "you had a different experience than me so it must be because you watched the movie wrong" argument. ;)

StuJanuary 21, 2015 4:50 PM

Am I the only one who gets a bit of a DW Griffith vibe from a lot of Eastwood's directing efforts? He's an undeniable master of the story-telling craft, but rather…naive… in his treatment of the real world's human complexity.

The Halsall BrothersJanuary 21, 2015 7:45 PM
Jason GrayJanuary 21, 2015 10:48 PM

Oh, OK -- you were using what some racist nobodies on Twitter thought to help express your views on the film. I thought you were quoting dialogue.

Carry on...

The Halsall BrothersJanuary 22, 2015 12:08 AM

In the film the Iraqis are referred to multiple times as 'savages.' Dehumanising them in very much the same way the phrases 'towel head' and 'sand ni**er' do.

The way people have reacted to the film on twitter and seen it as a piece supportive of their racism confirms this.

J'accuseteauJanuary 22, 2015 1:40 AM

"You didn't watch the movie" has become the lazy way of saying "I disagree with you!"

J'accuseteauJanuary 22, 2015 1:46 AM

Actually, both this and The Imitation Game have the exact same problem: burying the lede in a postscript. In both films, the circumstances of their subject's demise figure greatly into who they were, and neither film has the guts to face it.

servusJanuary 22, 2015 2:10 AM

All right, I get it and agree that patriotism can be the last refuge of the scoundrel, but Matt misses a lot of points that should be brought up and falls back on the first refuge of some scoundrels: trying to inject near-histrionic claims of racism into every discussion (no, I'm not calling Matt a scoundrel). Just look at the cries for war with Russia-those pasty white people. How can it be that they aren't brown? It just isn't fair to break our simplistic paradigm! Does anyone remember the left justifying the wars with vague claims of promoting womens rights and so forth? The right isn't the only side we should be blaming here. Both sides were two sides of the same coin promoting the same failed wars.
I'll come out and say it: I saw the movie after being pestered by a half dozen people to do so, and I thought it was a rather silly affair, but not because "brown" people were being shot, which was simply due to the fact that that war took place in the middle east where most of the people are, ironically, more than a little "white". The fact is that Chris Kyle was sued for defamation and lost, posthumously, to the tune of 1.8 million dollars against a SEAL who left the service and began speaking out against the wars; hence, his credibility is out the window. To assume that a Hollywood film is based accurately on any book or historical event is pretty credulous. The "boss" sniper Mustafa scarcely took up a page in the book. There was no "butcher" character in the book. The movie is nothing more than melodramatic pap. The movie probably had a smidgen more veracity As for Kyle bragging, yes he bragged incessantly. He was a SEAL and that's how they generally are: sociopaths. You can't really be an effective killing machine without a lack of empathy, at least towards the enemy. Military killers are trained to kill targets and humans have a natural dislike of taking the lives of other humans, as the book "On Killing" illustrates; homicide, justifiable or not, is not a normal act and either requires that part of you to be trained into compliance or to be dead to start with. Hence, Soldiers, regardless of their affiliation, dehumanize the enemy. If you want a picture of how Kyle's enemy perceives us, take a gander at the Islamic extremist magazine "Insight", which has some ridiculously cartoonish depictions of non-extremist muslims. As for a lack of "brown" military folk, that is the one thing that is fairly accurate in combat arms specialities. There is a preponderance of "white" Soldiers in those specialties, which ironically is a poor career choice-practically speaking. We should focus less on imagined racism (whose claims do little more than divide us) and more on injustice period; we could bring up the spate of cops committing murders stateside, which are more or less colorblind (yes, they're killing "white" and "brown" people and not discriminating) . Otherwise, we are playing to the whims of the machine by being enthralled by a mere sideshow. I'll admit I was deluded by it and was an infantry soldier. But when I listened and educated myself, I left the military and am ashamed of the mess we made. Are military guys heroes? I don't really think so. We're just cogs in the machine who end up missing the forest for the trees by focusing on the safety of our battle buddies rather than the actual issues, since after you're in it's really the only thing you have the power to do until your contract is up, after which you can try and show your peers the way and point out that our wars are typically not fought for any sort of national defense.

Niels AndersenJanuary 22, 2015 9:09 AM

You might disagree with his points, but it is very far from juvenile.

Niels AndersenJanuary 22, 2015 9:10 AM

Nuttin´ but a glorified killer.

Todd BrownJanuary 22, 2015 10:13 AM

I'd say it's more the lazy way of saying, "I'm not capable of having an actual conversation with people who disagree with me so I'm just going to throw out a blanket statement to try and invalidate everything they may have to say rather than actually engaging and having to evaluate which points may actually be correct and reconsider my own positions and biases in the process."

This sort of position isn't about disagreement, it's about trying to invalidate anybody who doesn't already share an opinion, thus removing the need to engage with any alternate thinking or self evaluation in the first place. It's intellectual cowardice.

VyceVictusJanuary 23, 2015 1:35 AM

Re: Indoctrinated Dehumanisation- Even with that all said, I think there is a good deal of dehumanizing already bred inside a lot of young recruits before they ever even sign the contract, based on a mix of factors such as their geographical location, economic disposition, and family/cultural/religious biases. Even now, in 2014, I meet kids coming out of the school house who never met a black person until they got to high school. Some never met one until Basic. The point being, turning the average middle america redblooded white male into a brown people murder machine isnt as hard as it seems since a good deal of them are already predisposed to thinking of non-whites as "the other". Which is to say, the racism is not "imagined", it is part of the same process that allows soldiers to kill so easily. And I'd go so far as to say that this film has the propensity to further that vicious machine cycle.

Gopal NatarajanJanuary 23, 2015 3:15 AM

"American Sniper is based, I assume accurately, on the true accounts of Chris Kyle."

Not having seen the film, I'm curious - since the film is based on Kyle's autobiography, did it address the 'tales of heroism' Kyle included in the book (beating up Jesse Ventura; killing two car-jackers at a gas station John McClane-style; going to New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and sniping 30 'looters' from atop the Superdome), all of which have been proven demonstrably false (and led to Ventura winning a $1.8 million defamation judgement against Kyle and likely more damages from the publisher of Kyle's book)?

If this movie is supposed to be the apolitical, non-War movie character study of Kyle that Eastwood and Cooper so earnestly contend it is (no doubt attempting to de-politicize the atmosphere as they troll for Oscar votes), then exploring why Kyle would spin these tales would have added great depth to our understanding of Kyle's psyche.

My guess is that none of this is addressed in the film. I suppose Eastwood and Cooper may have also been cowed by the threats made by Kyle's father regarding the inclusion of any unflattering material in the film (http://www.dailymail.co.uk/new....

servusJanuary 25, 2015 1:58 AM

I agree that there is already a lot of dehumanizing already inside young recruits. Video games and the media contribute towards that. It isn't hard turning the "average middle America redblooded white male into a brown people murder machine" just as it isn't hard to turn the average middle America redblooded black or brown male into a brown people murder machine. Several of my superiors were "brown" and "black" and the most racist guy I ever knew was a black Islamic African who naturalized and bought into the mythos. They just wanted to kill people and didn't care what their color was. My experience with Soldiers was nothing more than a transferral of frustration with our country and its faults onto whatever the enemy of the day was, regardless of their imagined "race". Let us be honest. The Nazis were allies with the middle east, and the imagined qualities of being "brown people" were rejected by them. After all, their embrace of Iranian (Arian) identity shows this. This film, just like Tarrantino's "Basterds" and the spate of other war movies furthers the cycle, further demonstrating that the issue is not so much racial as cultural. To boil everything down to racism betrays a naïve acceptance of the dominant paradigm and ignores the reality of the situation. I know it is more simple to simply say it is all about racism, but that is the easy way out and ends up playing into the hands of the elite. Just because one position is the other side of the coin does not mean it is not a part of the same coin. We have to wake up instead of trying to force reality into the viewpoint of cultural Marxism..