war on the rocks

Why American Sniper isn’t a Great War Film

February 4, 2015

American Sniper has been nominated for six Academy Awards and, according to initial viewing figures, is likely to be one of the most successful war films of all time. In the first 10 days of release, the film grossed over $200 million. A biopic of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, America’s most successful sniper, the film is an explosive depiction of the insurgency in the Sunni Triangle between 2004 and 2007.

Yet, the most powerful scene in this film is completely silent. It consists of 15 words in plain white font on a black background which appear at the very end of the film: “Chris Kyle was killed later that day by the marine he was trying to help.” On his return from his last tour in Iraq, Chris Kyle, perhaps as part of his own therapy, began to help physically and mentally wounded veterans, counseling them by taking them shooting. On one of these trips, he was murdered by a psychologically disturbed veteran. After all the simplistic heroism of the previous two hours, the stillness of Kyle’s epitaph is devastating. It is a brilliant moment of filmmaking, inverting what had seemed to be a righteous statement about war into a question. It introduces doubt where there had been only certainty.

The effect is palpable. Having survived four tours of Iraq, Kyle is destroyed by a random act of insanity by a fellow American soldier. A stunned silence descends on the theatre: the audience shocked by the unexpected futility of Kyle’s end.

It is a great regret then that Eastwood fails to recognize what he has done with those words. He wastes their effect—utterly and immediately. Instead of simply moving to the credits, exploiting the extraordinary pathos he has created, Eastwood cuts to actual footage of Kyle’s funeral. Flag-waving and saluting crowds, including a wheel-chaired veteran pirouetting on the empty highway, watch as his cortege is driven to Arlington National Cemetery. Marines drill around his coffin, which his SEAL-team comrades emboss with the SEAL insignia, and the stars and stripes are folded for his widow. We see the lapidary photographs of Chris Kyle and images of Kyle with his wife. Memorial services for Chris Kyle at subsequent football games and rodeos appear. The movie sadly confirms what it always threatened to be: a one-dimensional celebration of American patriotism and the 9/11 Wars.

Eastwood’s inability as an artist to handle personal and political ambiguity ensures that American Sniper can never be remembered as a great war film, still less a great film. Although some of the action scenes are remarkably realistic, especially the choreographed urban tactics of Kyle’s SEAL Team as it clears buildings, the failure of the film can be traced to its reliance on a sanitized version of the Western genre.

Inevitably, directed by Eastwood, the film draws heavily on the Western movie. Kyle was originally a cowboy, working as a range-hand while attempting to make it as a professional rodeo rider. The echoes of Shane, High Noon and, indeed, Pale Rider in which Eastwood himself starred, are very strong in this film; Kyle wears a dirty pale baseball cap, his enemies black head-scarves. However, American Sniper fails because it fatally distorts a critical motif in these films. In the classic Western, a rugged American individualist, untamed by civil society, saves a frontier community from the predations of bandits and thieves before returning back into the landscape from which he came. The gun-fighter’s eventual disappearance is necessary precisely because the characteristics that allow him to protect society also make him incapable of ever being part of it. He is as anti-social as the enemies he defeats.

Chris Kyle is a 21st century Shane, as implacable as the Tetons which provided the symbolic backdrop to that film. Yet, of course unlike the Western hero, today’s American hero is always part of society and must be re-integrated into it. Kyle is not a mythical—but flawed—protector but a real soldier and an actual father. There is an obvious problem with this amendment of the Western genre. The tragedy of the lone gun-fighter, who, like Lohengrin, must always leave, dissipates into monochrome sentimentality. Kyle is a tediously perfect Paladin on a pure and simple quest. Even though his end offers the opportunity for genuine tragedy, Eastwood re-incorporates him unproblematically into society.

As a result, except for that the final extraordinary blank screen, the film descends into absorbing but facile superficiality. It becomes a Spielberg film in which good and evil, hero and villain are self-evident. Indeed, the film was originally going to be directed by Steven Spielberg and, while Eastwood replaced him, Spielberg’s influence remains. In almost all cases, Spielberg’s films address the question of fatherhood. Despite his thematic versatility as a director, Jaws, ET, Indiana Jones, Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Hook, War of the Worlds and Munich were all ultimately about fatherhood. Typically, they plot either the development of the main character into a good father (or father figure) or his reconciliation with a bad father.

Fatherhood is the central theme in American Sniper. Indeed, the paternalist principle at the heart of the film is articulated by Kyle’s father in an early scene. Following the beating of Kyle’s brother by a school bully, Kyle’s father explains his patriarchal philosophy of human existence to his young sons at Sunday dinner: there are sheep, who are weak and do not know themselves; there are wolves who predate on the sheep; and there are sheep-dogs who protect the sheep. He insists that his sons be sheep-dogs; they must protect defenseless flocks against the ravages of wolves. The film is a morality tale about how Chris Kyle became a shepherd, protecting both his nation and his family. Biblical absolutism may be attractive and useful but it ignores the confused complexity of real human existence.

The massive audiences for American Sniper are evidence that this is a popular movie, precisely because it draws on established genres and conventional certainties. However, it demonstrates an obvious absence. We are still waiting for a great Hollywood war film about the 9/11 wars. We are still waiting for a U.S. film that explores the tragic irony of those final 15 words; perhaps, the most profound and moving obsequy for all those who have fought and died in Iraq and Afghanistan.

 

Anthony King is a professor of sociology at the University of Exeter. His most recent publications are The Transformation of Europe’s Armed Forces: from the Rhine to Afghanistan (Cambridge University Press) and The Combat Soldier: infantry tactics and cohesion in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (Oxford University Press, 2013). His new book, Frontline: combat and cohesion in the twenty-first century (Oxford University Press) is out next year. He is currently working on the evolution of the divisional headquarters from the First World War to the present. He has been a mentor and adviser to the armed forces for a number of years, working in the Prism Cell of ISAF’s Regional Command (South) in 2009-10.