Thirty five feature films in 44 years means that Clint Eastwood is one of the most prolific filmmakers working in/around Hollywood today.
Violence, including violence during wartime, is an issue that is never too far from Eastwood’s mind, with titles like Unforgiven (USA, 1992), Flags of Our Fathers (USA, 2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (USA, 2006) most clearly demonstrating this.
American Sniper, then, is Eastwood’s first take on the recent conflicts in the Middle East, specifically in this case Iraq. It tells the story of a former rodeo cowboy, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), who, appalled at the news of attacks on American embassies by Islamic fundamentalists, enlists and, at the age of 30, joins the Navy SEALs.
After 11 September 2001, Chris then does four tours of Iraq, during which time he becomes known as The Legend as a result of 160 confirmed kills (with an estimated further 95 unconfirmed).
In the film, Chris’ tours are motivated both by his desire to save Americans from the murderous Iraqis that we see (as he repeatedly asserts), but also to put an end to the evil work of two people, The Butcher (Mido Hamada) and a Syrian sniper working for the Iraqi insurgents, Mustafa (Sammy Sheik).
This he eventually does, but even having achieved his goal, Chris seems to be – in Eastwood’s film – somewhat ill-at-ease at home with his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and his children.
I don’t particularly care to comment on certain aspects of this film. Briefly, though, the movie gives a lot of opportunity for Americans to describe Iraqis as evil and Iraq as a nasty place. Chris’ first kill in the film is of a child and then a woman who are trying to throw a Russian hand grenade at advancing soldiers. ‘Good job,’ he is told. These people are evil; even the women and children are bred simply to hate Americans.
That said, just as Chris pulls the trigger on the child, the film cuts to a flashback of him killing his first deer with his father. Is this suggesting that war is sport? (Or that war is sport for Chris? That the real reason he is out in Iraq is because he likes killing people? Or that he kills to please his ‘father’/the USA?) It is hard to tell – but there is something troubling in this cut – but something that I am not sure will trouble many viewers, who simply see a hero doing his job.
Furthermore, while the juxtaposition of family life and conflict in Iraq is possibly intended to suggest that Chris is over there saving his family from being killed eventually by Iraqis – ‘eventually’ because they’d have to travel 6,000 miles from Baghdad to Washington DC (or further into the USA) in order to do so in the way that Chris at one points describes them as wanting to do it, namely, in person – it also seems to suggest that family gets in the way of war.
Chris no doubt is traumatised by the war, as Eastwood suggests by his paranoia when a truck follows him too closely, when he reacts confusedly to car alarms going off in the background, and when a dog gets too feisty at a children’s birthday party.
And Chris seems to be uncomfortable with the adulation that he receives as a result of being The Legend – modest chap as he is.
In short, then, Chris is not simplistic, Cooper’s performance is nuanced, and Chris Kyle surely was a war hero, especially in the eyes of many Americans (and perhaps others).
But a day before I am teaching a class on Caché/Hidden (Michael Haneke, France/Austria/Germany/Italy/USA, 2005), to see American Sniper reminds of a line that Majid (Maurice Bénachou) says in Haneke’s film to Georges Laurent (Daniel Auteuil): ‘Kicking my ass won’t leave you any wiser about me.’
All that said, I only really want to comment on two moments from Eastwood’s film, both of which are in the film’s second half.
The first is when Chris is home shortly after the birth of his second child, daughter McKenna. Both Chris and Taya hold McKenna at various points in this scene – during which it becomes apparent that the baby is not a real baby, but a doll with perhaps some computer generated imagery (CGI) added to give it some dynamic movement.
Whether intentionally or not, the veracity of this moment is destroyed as a result of the fakery of the baby. It is not that Chris Kyle in real life did not have a daughter McKenna, but Eastwood’s film here troubles our understanding of Chris’ family life; is his family in fact a simulation, a fake, something in which he does not really believe?
The second moment comes later on when Chris is sat in front of a TV – from which we hear emanate sounds from moments of conflict in which Chris has earlier been involved. However, as Eastwood’s camera slowly moves around Chris, it transpires that the TV screen is blank – and that Chris is probably just remembering these sounds.
This latter is a complex moment. In terms of images like it from other films, it naturally recalls the famous moment in All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, USA, 1955), in which widowed mother Cary Scott (Jane Wyman) has been offered a television by her son Ned (William Reynolds) – as some sort of replacement relationship figure for gardener Ron Kirby (Rock Hudson), with whom Ned does not want his mother to be – mainly because as a gardener Ron is from lower stock than Ned.
(This creates another intertext, oddly enough, with Caché: on a visit to see his mother (Anne Girardot), Georges asks her whether she is lonely stuck out in her remote family home, to which she replies: ‘Are you less lonely because you can sit in the garden? Do you feel less lonely in the Métro than at home? [Georges shakes his head.] Well then. Anyway, I have my family friend… with remote control [i.e. the television].)
To return: as we see Cary reflected in the television screen in All That Heaven Allows, so do we see Chris reflected in the television screen in American Sniper. In the former film, the image seems to suggest that Cary’s domestic life is a void without other people; television is no replacement for physical human contact. In the latter film, however, we get the sense that Chris’ life is a void, despite being surrounded by other people. What is more, even though the television screen is blank, that the sounds of war emanate from it suggests that the screen actually does help fill the void that is life.
All That Heaven Allows is a melodrama and American Sniper is a war film. Nonetheless, the comparison to me seems apt. What is more, in the 50 years that have elapsed between the release of the two films, much has changed in terms of how we understand the role that television plays in everyday life.
That is, while Sirk might in 1955 have seen already that television is a trap for keeping women on their own and away from anything real, Eastwood in 2014/2015 sees that television has perhaps replaced reality, meaning that Chris cannot engage with reality at all – but instead must engage with reality via the medium of the screen.
Perhaps his role as a sniper here is interesting; his is not direct combat, but combat that more often than not – in the film – is mediated by the lens of the rifle. (The television is also prominent in various other scenes set on American soil, but – mea culpa – I was not paying close enough attention to get to grips with how.)
Either way, in an age when the Gulf war apparently did not take place, the difference between Sirk and Eastwood is also timely.
No one has said that the Gulf War did not actually take place. However, what Jean Baudrillard argues in his essays on this topic is that the Gulf War was not really a war but an atrocity, and that the war was as much a media spectacle – with television at its core – as it was a real war. That is, war was presented as (quite probably an atrocious form of) entertainment, and not as war.
American Sniper, then, suggests in the television scene described above that the war paradoxically was real – as Kyle’s traumatic recollection and inability to forget it would suggest. What is more, Eastwood seems to suggest, in a shot of a blank television, that much of the blame for the evil wrought as a result of this war – in terms of casualties, but also in terms of psychological trauma inflicted on veterans – is not simply as a result of the ‘evil’ of Iraqi rebels, but as a result of the media circus that wanted and perpetuated this conflict.
As we continue to militarise our lives as much as possible – driving around in vehicles that shield us from the outside world rather than connecting us to it; bombarded by violent war-like noises all day every day in our urban environments – American Sniper perhaps even suggests this: the real trauma provoked by war is that war does indeed replace reality, and life is entirely militarised, suggesting that even a baby seems fake, composed of CGI, while we cannot get out of our heads the images of violence that we have seen via our screens and our gunsights.
In other words, it is not war that is the simulation to keep us domesticated and at home; the domestic has become the simulation in order to keep us in a state of perpetual war.
I think, ultimately, that Eastwood’s film both suffers and benefits from the suggestive power of these two – perhaps isolated – moments of his film.
It benefits, because in its ambiguity, the film encourages us to give pause to think.
It suffers, however, because in its ambiguous ambiguity, the film can be seen as (perhaps because it is) flag-waving propaganda that cannot tell the ideological war from the real war, because repeatedly we are told that all Iraqis are evil, and that the west was justified in what at times is literally presented as a crusade to eradicate them.
In short, then: does Eastwood share the belief that war is the true reality, and that domesticity is simulation, or does he point out how this is the case? On this score, the jury is perhaps still out. Either way, may the real Chris Kyle and all those who died as a result of the conflicts in Iraq rest in peace.