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.