Initially I wasn’t sure if I wanted to see American Sniper because I work part time at a veteran bar. My patrons’ film preferences for what constitutes great cinema are titles such as The Passion of the Christ and Heaven Is For Real. This film is their new favourite. It wasn’t until a discussion with a friend made me realize that as an Austin, Texas resident/ex Muslim/non white/European immigrant/grandson of a World War II veteran I do have a unique ability to view American politics and mentality from a neutral point of view. I moved to the United States a year after 9/11 and I immediately saw the two ends of the spectrum the American public was divided into. Of course there are always the few exceptions who exist somewhere in the middle, but for the most part there’s a “conservative vs liberals” culture that exists in the United States. The other interesting aspect of American culture that I’ve discovered since moving here was the fact that after Vietnam, those who were drafted and didn’t have a say in having to fight in a war came back and were belittled and abandoned by everyone, but now it seems like everyone who enlists of their own choice is praised regardless of their reasons or intentions for enlisting. This personal discovery lead me to wanting to watch this film.
Conservative and Liberal – Ideaologies, Not Realities
In my 12 years as an American resident, I have noticed the average American conservative tends to be a blind patriot, who suffers from extreme xenophobia, obsesses over the fact that their country stands above all others, and must protect their country’s Christian values from outsiders, immigrants, or any other possible threat. If anyone should dare question that, or anything anyone wearing a uniform does, they must obviously be working with terrorists and communists while plotting the demise of the greatest nation in the world. On the opposite side stands your average liberal that opposes what a conservative stands for and sometimes sides with what the opposition is against just for the sake of argument. A lot of American liberals defended Muslims after the Charlie Hebdo shooting, defending Islam while Islam often stands against most liberal values. We’ve also seen Bill Maher under a lot of fire from liberals for his valid criticisms of Islam. As an outsider it is really easy to see that both sides have their extreme stances, which can be reduced to a common denominator of misplaced anger. A conservative yelling at immigrants when their family background can be traced to Ireland, and a liberal defending Islam, a religion that promotes inequality against women. Both sides come across as angry but are opposing/defending the wrong things just to get at their opposition, a common behavior I noticed first in grade school many years ago.
How American Sniper Manipulates the Audience for Ideology’s Sake
I’m fairly sure that this behavior isn’t noticed just by outsiders and aliens such as me, and that director Clint Eastwood had a good idea of the film he was making and how it would be received. If his ultimate goal was for this film to be successful at the box office, I would say he executed everything perfectly and succeeded. Eastwood is a successful entrepreneur in the film world. He has been since his early days and even though the quality of his films range, everyone knows his name and generally everything he does tends to sell at least well enough to open up more opportunities for him to do more. I’m a huge fan of his westerns, mainly his Man with No Name Trilogy, and there is no doubt whatsoever that he is a good filmmaker who has tackled a lot of genres successfully over the last four decades. That accomplishment in itself is not something to take lightly, but having said that, I do believe that the success of American Sniper has more to do with how the average blind patriot feels towards their country than it being a good film. The action scenes are well-filmed, the actors deliver good performances but the writing is pure cookie-cutter fantasy. The biggest selling point of the movie has been that it is based on a true story, a biography, and a human story, but the film consists mostly of fantastic elements that completely negate the biography part of it. The progression of the film is so formulaic that it’s hard to buy the fact that this is a “human story”. My question then is, if people are hyping this up as a true story, and it turns out to be complete fiction, why is it being praised and why is Chris Kyle being considered a “hero”? Is the American blind patriot really that gullible that they are willing to accept a fictional film as a true story? Americans got so wrapped up in this fictional story that the governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, made motions to declare February 2nd as “Chris Kyle Day”. I’ve always said that film has the power to take an existing story and spread it much wider than any other medium can, which is evident here. Kyle wrote his book years ago and died in 2013, yet it’s the film that has moved a politician to dedicate a day after the “deadliest sniper” in American history, so we’re reminded once a year of this mediocre film for the rest of our lives. Meanwhile all other veterans for all the other wars get lumped into celebrating a single day on November 11th, people who were drafted to Vietnam without being given a choice and people who enlisted for the right reasons to fight in World War II, to contribute their efforts to bring an end to global chaos.
Further evidence of Eastwood’s intellect when it comes to filmmaking is three seconds into the film as the Warner Brothers logo appears, the film opens with a sound clip of the Azan (the Arabic call to prayer). This immediately sets the stage for the blind patriot; they know the setting in which the film takes place, they know the mood the film will have, and they know who the antagonist of the film will be. Eastwood knows the switches and he hits them all before a single frame has even appeared on the screen. This is extremely clever on his part as a filmmaker and this isn’t just an assumption because when I sat down to watch the film, I didn’t expect that at all and for an ex-Muslim like me, the Azan in a film has always generated a chuckle, followed by a groan because of the childhood memories of being forced to pray. I can only imagine what that would do to a shell-shocked soldier who associates that sound with their time in hell, and even for the typical American who dislikes Muslims, that sound clip most likely serves as a trigger.
Of course shortly after the opening sequence we cut to Daddy Kyle telling his son “You’re gonna make a fine hunter some day” – if I were watching this film as an American liberal, I may take offense at the implication that what is being said is that the protagonist will grow up to become a hunter and hunt the antagonist (Muslims) like animals. If I’m watching this film as the blind patriot I’d probably be cheering that statement on because it’s compatible with my philosophy of being a citizen of the greatest nation on earth. Quickly after that follows some heavy biblical undertone with the whole speech about “there are sheep, wolves, sheep dogs, etc.”. I personally understand what this analogy was supposed to have meant by Eastwood and how it would give the blind patriot even more confirmation that their way is the right away. I can also see how this would annoy the liberal audiences with cramming religious subtext into the film. But I’m neither religious, nor patriotic, or overly political which is why that quote struck me later and my question of “I wonder which he will choose to be?” was answered; he chose to be the sheep by following what he was told to do rather than to question and come to his conclusions. Once he grows up and watches the bombing of an embassy on television, he says, “look what they did to us”, and the next shot is of him signing up at the American Armed Forces office. To me that defined his character almost instantly. He was told something by his dad and he chose to follow it without questioning. The protagonist of the film is a blind patriot who, at the first sign of a threat to his nation, enlists into a service that lets you legally murder people without any legal repercussions. This sort of pacing is indicative of more fiction than biography, there is no slow burn or build up to him enlisting or struggling to make his choices. It happens instantly, which reminded me a lot of Anakin Skywalker’s journey to the dark side in Revenge of the Sith.
Chris Kyle – An American Hero?
At this point in the film, I’m already starting to see where the film is failing to an audience like myself. Eastwood has stated that this is a “human story”, but so far all we’ve been given is a sheep for a protagonist who didn’t come up with his path, which makes me wonder why it’s even in question that he should have a day devoted to him alongside Martin Luther King and Abraham Lincoln. But if this is supposed to be a political story based on truth, then the writer has taken a complex issue and simplified it almost into a brainless action flick. Kyle’s character was pretty much established early on as a misogynistic bigot from Texas, but what stood out to me was when the misogyny continues later in the film when he finds out from his wife that he’s having a son. A real “hero” or even a good character shouldn’t be fixated on which gender his child will be. This is a common trait I’ve noticed in undereducated men who suffer from misogyny and an archaic mentality of needing a first born male to continue the bloodline. Fortunately we don’t live in times where we have to pass down the throne to our first born son, but that fixation seems to still linger in more places that one cares to see.
We also hear him talking to his wife complaining about how Americans are “going on about their simple lives” while there’s a war that should be on everyone’s mind. I found it rather ironic that our protagonist complains about the “simple” choices others have made, while he himself chose to believe in simple and small-minded philosophies that were thrown at him rather than deciding what’s right and wrong for himself. This also establishes how concrete his belief is, that his actions are justified and that everyone else should follow his philosophies. Generally a hero’s journey is full of self-doubt where the hero questions every decision and choice before finding a stable footing to become their own person. This is not the case here, which makes it extremely difficult to see Kyle as anything aside from someone who enlisted to become a government pawn.
For me, it’s extremely difficult to accept someone as a hero who keeps constantly referring to the antagonist as “fucking savages” – once again, a blind patriot would cheer at this and a liberal would be severely offended at it. If this is supposed to be a human story, then the writer has not shown me the protagonist in a light in which I like to see my heroes treat others. If this is a political story, then referring to someone you’re at war with as a “savage” suggests a conqueror’s mentality, advocating that American soldiers will bring American values to properly civilize them.
The religious undertone continues when there is a mention of “putting the fear of god into them” (them being the Muslims of course). As much as Islam is on crossfire on American television, of course this film will be well received by those who already have a predisposition to hating Muslims. Examples such as “you want him to come to San Diego or New York” or “there’s evil here” is just more classic brainwashed soldier speech. If we think about it, how many people have died in all the wars because of that mentality? How many cities have been destroyed over this? And yet this is what the hero believes is the answer to all the problems without questioning a single aspect of all this – and we are supposed to side with him?
Punisher Tattoos – Let’s Make Em Pay for What They DId
I found the “Punisher” skulls painted on the soldiers very interesting. The story of Frank Castle, the anti-hero of The Punisher comics and films, is one of revenge. The mob kills his family so he goes after them to seek vengeance. Seeing these tattoos on multiple soldiers made me think that perhaps they too were there to seek vengeance, not restore justice. Kyle tells one of his injured buddies “you’re my brother and they are gonna pay for what they did to you”, which makes me believe that I may not have misread into why the Punisher logo was represented there. Kyle then takes out the rival sniper in a classic Hollywood stand-off not unlike Luke Skywalker turning off his targeting system to blow up the Death Star. Most people will probably buy this scene as accurate to “how it happened, why Kyle is amazing, why he’s a hero, and that’s why we need to dedicate a day to him”. Personally, I believe it to be a problem when a person enlists “to fight a personal war as a vendetta and misplaced anger against whoever may be the enemy at the time”, and that is why I’m unable to respect Chris Kyle as a hero if this is to be a biography, and not care for him as protagonist if this is to be an action film.
Shellshock and Civilization
There is a slight contradiction that reveals itself when Kyle states, “I’m just protecting my guys”. The way his character has been built up so far was always leaning towards revenge and vengeance in the name of God and country. Now he claims that he’s protecting his guys. All of Kyle’s action thus far had been motivated by vengeance. Changing his position to one of a protector now makes him sound like a hypocrite who has little idea of what direction he’s going or the path he wants to choose. Once again, this makes someone like me unable to identify with the protagonist, whether he was a real person or not. Kyle’s character suffers from severe misplaced idealism and blind patriotism, and had it not been for his skillful killing spree during his tours, he would have been just been just another soldier, not a caricature of a hero.
When Kyle returns home, the film shifts its tone completely. As Kyle struggles with being able to fit back into “civilized” society – yelling at a nurse to tend to his daughter or almost killing a dog who shows aggression to passersby – the film now expects us to sympathize with a man who has been scarred by what he has seen. Had American Sniper earned the right to do this in its previous acts, I may have been able to have some emotional attachment towards the protagonist. Instead, I questioned what the film was trying to achieve. Let’s use a far superior film like First Blood to contrast. First Blood starts with a war veteran trying to cope with life back home and doing his best to keep his shell-shock at bay. There is very little Vietnam war footage so the film focuses on his mental breakdown by portraying how American society mistreats him. This ultimately ignites John Rambo’s reversion back to the killing machine enlisting in the army made him to be. In American Sniper, it’s almost the opposite. Kyle is a bigot who willingly went to fight. He comes back and keeps getting praises for the amount of people he murdered, which of course makes him feel his actions were justified. He also comes back to wife and a home, but his war-mongering urges keep taking him back to the warzone. This makes me wonder how or why I should even sympathize or respect anyone who craves violence but is unable to handle the consequences.
Ultimately the story of Chris Kyle as portrayed by American Sniper isn’t the story of a hero. It’s actually a sad tale of how a simple mind can be brainwashed and programmed by overly enthusiastic patriotism to the point where a person becomes unable (or unwilling) to see the gray areas in life. Once you start dealing in absolutes you are no longer able to empathize with others. Your perception will always tell you that people are either with you or against you. This is where the writer fails to create a hero in this story; a hero without empathy, sympathy, compassion, selflessness and a sense of true justice is no hero at all.
The film would’ve scored a higher rating for me if it had been daring enough to show how Chris Kyle was killed. With nothing more than a simple sentence explaining that he was killed, the film neglects to leave us with any semblance of what Kyle’s experiences have taught him. What did he say to his shooter? Was there a struggle? Did Kyle suspect the shooter’s intent? What can we take away from the shooter’s actions? I understand that his death was left out to focus on his accomplishments rather than remembering his demise, but considering that the film is mostly Hollywood action fiction, should we really look to this film as the truth? Much like the blind patriot, this film picks and chooses what it wants to show as “truth” and what would look better as “fiction”, which is how most films are told that claim to be “based on a true story.” Then again most films also don’t end up generating enough buzz to move politicians to declare a national day dedicated to the “hero” of the story.
American Sniper is the Flavour of the Moment, Nothing More
American Sniper is a fairly simple film with extremely simple methods of storytelling overhyped by the current political state of America. Had a film like this been released before 9/11 I doubt it would have been nearly as popular, and it surely would not have received any Oscar nominations. This is also not a film that will be remembered past its media hype shelf life. It doesn’t rank up there with First Blood, Schindler’s List, Black Hawk Down, The Great Escape or even The Dirty Dozen. The average film audience likes to get wrapped up in whatever is the latest and greatest. Once that has worn off and something new and shiny gets their attention, it will be time to move on, especially if it’s well advertised. I do believe that Eastwood’s goal was to make a film that would sell, and I would say he has accomplished that goal. The Oscars absolutely love biographies and sometimes it’s just an automatic win. The blind patriots in America absolutely love war movies because it satisfies their simple needs and if Eastwood slaps his name on anything it will at least make enough money for the studios to keep going back to him for more. My respect to you Mr. Eastwood for turning something mediocre into a critically acclaimed box office hit that polarized an entire nation and turned an average Joe into a national hero.