In writing about the film Fury, I praised it for its disinclination to engage in the usual false geopolitical assertion that America Saved The World from Nazism in 1945. Failing to speculate geopolitically is not a virtue in the case of Clint Eastwood’s new biopic American Sniper.
Although told with a cool efficiency that has become Eastwood’s signature as a director, and although it gives Bradley Cooper (who also produced) a chance to bulk up, so to speak, his already very impressive range as an actor, this film offers a blank in historical memory so egregious and so bold that you can’t look at it without feeling like you’re looking at a remake of Pork Chop Hill, or some other relic of the Cold War.
To make this film, Cooper has undergone one of those actor transformations that take your breath away. Playing the scion of a Texas rancher, he shows us a hardy man who has ambitions to be a bronc rider, an honourable plainspoken Texan Sergeant York, who seeing his country attacked, reacts quickly and resolutely to fight its attackers. He joins the Navy Seals (motto: “kill ‘em all and let God sort them out”) and, in the collage of training exercises that follows, shows how adept he is with a target rifle, thus marking him for that special cadre of soldiers whose imperative is to kill through a high-powered telescope.
The film’s parallel narratives focus on his soldiering and his relationship with his girlfriend/wife, very ably played by Sienna Miller portraying a gal who has so much pluck that it takes a hero to tame her. Their relationship, starting with their pissing contest over drinks at a bar (well, puking contest, it turns out, one which she loses) is the stuff of films like In Harm’s Way about the WW 2 navy that I watched as a kid: girl falls in love with sailor, girl releases him to his duty, girl must deal with the fact than that his duty is more important than her.
If this narrative sounds familiar, it is. Because of their reverence for the subject matter, which is precisely the life of one particular, and very real, American sniper, the writers and the director alike have chosen, with a stubbornness that is so marked as to be downright bullheaded, not to part from their main point. We are shown that Chris Kyle was a great American soldier (sailor, if you must), making the right soldierly moves at every turn, and paying a terrible price for his single-minded patriotism. In one of the film’s really gritty scenes, he must make the unmediated choice whether to shoot a mother and her child, and the harshness of the choice provides one of the film’s deepest moments.
However, what is virtuous in other films about other wars (Iwo Jima being an excellent example) seems like folly here. The best war films are about soldiers –this is however most true about distant wars whose politics are long settled. This was long a problem in making films about the Vietnam War. As the great documentarian John Pilger eloquently pointed out, any film about the Vietnam War that concerns itself only with the tribulations of the American soldier is very far from the point. Two million Vietnamese lost their lives in that conflict, mostly to bombing, mostly from vast heights; that’s an elephant in the closet that it’s hard to shut the door on. The historically crucial disconnect between the attack on the World Trade Center and Iraq is not dealt with in American Sniper; it is tacitly denied: Kyle watches the attack on TV, then goes to join the Seals, then is in combat. The Iraq war is justified by association.
The Iraq invasion was not D-Day; Saddam was a bastard, but he was not Hitler, and the darker motives for the Iraq war, its horrific cost, and its quite unfinished and ambiguous aims, these are similarly huge issues, and a narrative that demonizes all those Iraqis who resist American might makes me cringe. I found myself wondering not how much courage it took American marines to bust into houses in Iraq, but how much courage it took to fight back. If this had been one of the film’s intentions, I would laud it. But this film, Like Sergeant York or Pork Chop Hill, is not concerned with the humanity of the enemy—they are grouped together as mere targets, like the puppet Germans that York shoots in 1918, and demonized like “them slant-eyed Gooks” of Pork Chop Hill.
The most generous assessment of the invasion of Iraq is that it succeeded in removing one of the world’s psychos from power. Michael Moore aside, prominent historians of war and geopolitics alike have been unable to find further logic behind the Bush administration’s war aims in Iraq. It is at least safe to say that, addressing a nation full of righteous anger for the World Trade Center atrocity, one of the ugliest crimes of this or any other century, and persuading the United States with the lie of “weapons of mass destruction,” the Bush administration dragged that nation into a mire that not only resulted in the usual horrors wrought in the fog of war, but bankrupted the treasury for a nebulous and unknowable political end.
I apologize for the philippic against the Iraq War, but it seems to me that any film about a conflict so ill-conceived and disastrous cannot ignore this context. It is not necessary to insist that World War Two was fought for righteous reasons; to ignore utterly the moral issues of the Iraq adventure is to tacitly justify it..
This is a well made war film on many levels. It’s just about the wrong war, and for my money, the very real documentary footage (from Moore’s Fahrenheit 911) of young artillerymen listening to head-banger rock as they lob shells into Bagdad, killing from afar with no telescopic sight, laughing like Hell’s Angels at a beach party, remains a more important image by far than the flag draped over one American hero’s coffin.