(Heads up: Here there be American Sniper spoilers. And, for that matter, spoilers for The Outlaw Josey Wales. Be forewarned.)
They'll be handing out Oscars this weekend, and that means we're seeing another big burst of debate about Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, the one major box-office hit among the Best Picture contenders. The movie's harshest critics damn it as bigoted war propaganda. (The peace group Code Pink even picketed the picture at a recent Directors Guild screening, carrying signs with such slogans as "American Sniper Fuels Racism & War.") The film's defenders frequently flip that accusation on its head, with the conservative site Breitbart.com calling it a "pro-War On Terror masterpiece." Either way, the viewer's love or hatred for the movie tracks closely with how he or she feels about Chris Kyle, the real-life Iraq-war sniper whose memoir gave the picture its plot.
This is, on the face of it, an odd way to think about the movie. American Sniper portrays Kyle as a Bible-toting Iraq hawk. Director Eastwood, meanwhile, is an agnostic who opposed the Iraq war and who used his appearance at the GOP's national convention three years ago to call for a withdrawal from Afghanistan. Screenwriter Jason Hall doesn't have Eastwood's long history of public comments on public issues, but he was ambivalent at best about invading Iraq and has said that "any war told realistically is an anti-war movie." Whatever else might be going on in this film, it isn't a simple translation of Kyle's worldview to the screen.
Like most movies, American Sniper is open to multiple readings; it's certainly possible to come away from it agreeing with Kyle's outlook. But I think there really is an underlying anti-war worldview here. It just isn't the anti-war worldview that either hawks or doves are used to seeing in Hollywood pictures. At a moment of intensifying U.S. involvement in another Middle Eastern war—and of agitation among the Republican presidential contenders for still more military intervention—this particular sort of war-weariness is a subject with relevance beyond the cineplex.
Let's start with a word that keeps recurring when people criticize the movie: savages. Here's Peter Maass in The Intercept, discussing both the film and the book that inspired it:
Just a few pages into "American Sniper," Chris Kyle used an epithet to describe the Arabs on the wrong side of his gun scope. "A lot of people, myself included, called the enemy 'savages,'" he wrote. "I only wish I had killed more. Not for bragging rights, but because I believe the world is a better place without savages out there taking American lives." A decorated Navy SEAL, Kyle killed more than 150 "savages" in Iraq, becoming the deadliest sniper in the annals of American warfare….
The film faithfully recycles Kyle's crude language, and while shocking to some viewers, his slurs are the least surprising or objectionable part. Dehumanizing the enemy is common in almost any conflict, particularly for snipers, who see their foes up close. If you regard your target as a savage or an infidel, it's easier to squeeze the trigger. Kyle's blinkered attitude was not unusual among the fighters I spent time with in Iraq. It's the truest part of the movie and belongs in it.
The problem is that the film makes no attempt to tell us anything beyond Kyle's limited comprehension of what was happening.
The word savages does pop up several times in the film. That is, I submit, not just a product of how snipers spoke in Iraq or how Kyle expressed himself in his book. There is a genre with a long history of using that word, a genre that Eastwood knows well. It's the western, and American Sniper is filled with allusions to it. There are the early scenes of Kyle on the rodeo circuit; there is the moment when Iraq is explicitly called the "wild west"; there is even the fact that the first bullet we see Kyle fire kills a deer, a sequence that calls to mind not just another controversial war film, Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter, but James Fenimore Cooper's The Deerslayer and his other novels about the frontiersman Natty Bumppo.
So when the film shows Kyle denouncing "savages," it's not just drawing on the SEAL's memoir. It's drawing on one of the oldest archetypes in American storytelling, the image of the savage Indian haunting the wild lands beyond the frontier. And then it stands that image on its head.
Ordinarily the idea of the savage Indian was used to justify American expansion. If the territory outside the community's borders was filled with malevolent natives, that was one more reason to tame the wilderness and remove the indigenous threat. But the image also found its way into anti-imperial sentiment. A vision of the outside world as a hostile wilderness best avoided has an obvious appeal to opponents of military intervention.
This was especially true in light of another anxiety about the natives, one that imagined a more insidious sort of invasion. I described it in my book The United States of Paranoia, so let me quote that:
When the men who built the colonies feared the frontier, they were afraid of more than just Indian attacks. They knew that frontier life lured people away from the discipline of life in a Puritan town, and they were concerned that men and women of European descent might feel the pull of the Indian's ways….When societies are still acquiring a sense of identity, [Richard] Slotkin suggests, "the simplest means of defining or expressing the sense of such a norm is by rejecting some other group whose character is deemed to be the opposite." For many New Englanders, the Indians filled that role, with the undisciplined, Indianized frontiersmen forming a potential fifth column. The temptations of native culture had to be resisted, and clear lines were needed between the community of the devout and the hostile outer world.
In literature, the classic incarnation of the Indianized frontiersmen was Cooper's Deerslayer: a white man raised by red men and forever caught between those two worlds.
That fear of cultural invasion would play a role in some of the worst crimes in American history, from the brutal imprisonment of the "praying Indians" on Deer Island during King Philip's War—a time when Indians who had converted to Christianity and joined the English colonies were nonetheless treated as a subversive threat—up through the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. But the same frame of mind, turned slightly, can undercut the idea of empire. American Sniper doesn't just portray Iraq as savage country; it shows it transforming the soldiers who go there, altering their bodies and minds, and following them home. At the end of the film, we catch a glimpse of one outside Kyle's door: a spooky-looking fellow who the sniper is about to take to the range. Offscreen, the vet kills Kyle. Kyle joined the SEALs because he wanted to protect the U.S. from foreign savages, but it is an American, transformed by that war, who commits the film's final act of savagery.
This reading of the movie isn't going to reassure Maass. Instead of bringing in Iraqi perspectives, it treats their country as though it's the source of an alien virus. But it also shows the trouble with readings that throw around phrases like "enthusiastic support for American empire" (that's Rory Fanning in Jacobin) or "a Republican platform movie" (David Edelstein in New York). American Sniper is a war-weary movie. It treats the members of the American military with respect and sympathy, but it is very much a product of a time when a majority of Americans think even the Afghan war wasn't worth fighting.
A few years ago, Clint Eastwood balanced a movie showing the American perspective on the Battle of Iwo Jima with another picture presenting the Japanese point of view. I don't expect him to do that again with Iraq. But if the viewer wants to create another double feature, there is one Eastwood movie that would make an interesting companion-piece to American Sniper.
It's The Outlaw Josey Wales, a western released just a year after the fall of Saigon, and it shows us whites and Indians building a little community together, out on the frontier, trying to escape the long arm of the authorities. Its hero, Josey Wales, is a veteran—he fought for the South in the Civil War—and now he's a wanted man. In the film's final exchange, a government man named Fletcher encounters Wales, who's now calling himself Wilson. Fletcher pretends not to recognize him, and he says he's going to go look for Wales in Mexico.
"I think I'll try to tell him the war is over," Fletcher says. "What do you say, Mr. Wilson?"
"I reckon so," says Josey. "I guess we all died a little in that damn war."