Our hero, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) stands statuesque and heroic on a windswept battlefield. Shrouded by an American flag, he stares into the far distance determinedly.
The poster for American Sniper certainly does nothing to lessen its growing reputation as militaristic propaganda. Following in the footsteps of last year’s Lone Survivor, the film aims squarely for the U.S republican heartland audience. It certainly reached this market with a $90 million opening weekend putting it on track to surpass Saving Private Ryan as the highest grossing war movie ever. This perceived pandering brought a substantial backlash with critics accusing the film of racism and, in the case of Seth Rogan, comparing it to Quentin Tarantino’s fictional Nazi propaganda short: Nation’s Pride. Certainly the film appears to portray the actions of its Navy SEAL protagonists as unashamedly heroic, but the overall picture may not be quite so simple.
Despite recent high profile endorsements (and a memorable public disagreement with an empty chair), director Clint Eastwood is not the poster boy for the American Far-Right that some have suggested. Recent films have addressed issues outside the republican wheelhouse ( J.Edgar’s study of a lifelong homosexual relationship, Gran Torino’s anti-gun leanings) with nuance and sensitivity. Throughout his filmography he has returned numerous times to the harsh effects of violence (at war or otherwise) and American Sniper is no exception. Iraq here is depicted as a hellish wasteland where death can come at any time. Any audience cheering the climactic kill of this movie is ignoring the disturbingly frequent killing of children on both sides that Eastwood uncompromisingly depicts.
Eastwood refrains from delving too deeply into Kyle’s psyche, leaving his actions open for the audience to draw their own conclusions
But then we have the antagonists. Fictional sniper, Mustafa is treated like a Marvel villain, wordlessly parkouring across rooftops to strike. Considering original director Steven Spielberg’s take on the story expanded this character as a mirror to Kyle, Eastwood’s decision to strip away all back-story turns him into a plot device and nothing more. Worse still is The Butcher, a ridiculously evil, drill-wielding enforcer who would be a step too far in a Die Hard movie. Whilst atrocities were undoubtedly committed in Iraq, inventing a narrative where Kyle single-handedly take out the “savages” responsible strips away any ambiguity, creating a just crusade out of a much more complex war.
The debate fundamentally boils down to the depiction of Chris Kyle himself. The real life Kyle was evidently a complex man (savior of numerous soldiers, court proven liar) however Eastwood refrains from delving too deeply leaving his motivations and actions for us to judge: audience members expecting an American hero will receive just that. For more discerning viewers, Kyle is a deeply flawed man. Like Jeremy Renner’s character in a superior Iraq-set blockbuster, The Hurt Locker, he enlists for four tours of duty (and leaves his frightened family) not just out of selfless heroism (although he may convince himself that is the reason) but because he is addicted to the thrill of his violent work. Eastwood leave the final verdict on the man to the audience.
So are the accusations of jingoism justified? To an extent, yes. Despite the film’s depiction of the horrors of war, the representation of the Iraqi army as broad, cartoonish villains uncomfortably pits Kyle against a force of unambiguous evil. For a war as divisive as Iraq, this is an extremely controversial choice and uncharacteristic for a director who went to great lengths to humanise the Japanese in his fantastic World War II film: Letters from Iwo Jima. As for Kyle himself, perhaps his ambiguity is intended to allow viewers to examine their own outlook on a deeply uncertain period. Yet for much of the American audience the answers (and Kyle’s heroism) are clear.
Images: Warner Bros Pictures