American Sniper
Produced and distributed by Warner Brothers
Screenplay by Jason Hall
Directed by Clint Eastwood

We’re told that during his later career director John Huston frequently preferred reading a good newspaper while his actors performed a scene before the camera.  He believed in leaving them to their own devices, among which he trusted thespian talent would be salient.

I wonder if Clint Eastwood has reached this level of creative felicity.  In American Sniper, the story of Chris Kyle’s four tours in Iraq as a Navy SEAL sniper, Eastwood seems to have stood well off to the side of his players and let them perform unencumbered while he quietly pared his nails.  There’s passion in the performances of Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle and Sienna Miller as his wife, Taya, but there’s something eerily disinterested if not downright lazy about Eastwood’s direction.  After watching innumerable battles and killings in which Kyle participated, we come away from the film wondering what Eastwood meant to say.  Is this a celebration of American courage in Iraq?  Or is it a denunciation of America’s stupidity for commanding her sons to wage a pointless, self-destructive, and profoundly illegal war?

The narrative can readily support either interpretation.  Neoconservatives prefer the first, of course, with the indefatigable warmonger John Podhoretz leading the charge.  In his bulging eyes, Kyle’s efforts proved the war was righteous and only failed when Barack Obama betrayed such stout-hearted men.  Leftists, needless to say, favor the second reading, with the fatuous Michael Moore harrumphing that Kyle was a psychopathic coward.  Now that’s loggerheads for you!  Such steam over what amounts to good-guy/bad-guy entertainment about white-hatted America facing off against black-hatted (black-hearted?) Muslims!

During the film, we learn that Kyle amassed 160 confirmed kills.  (Some say the actual number was probably double that.)  For this remarkable tally he earned the sobriquet Legend.  In the film, when someone addresses him so, he demurs, saying it’s not a name one wants to have.  Reports, however, testify that he was a braggart given to telling tall tales about himself and swaggering under the label.  (Well, he was a Texan, after all.)

I have no idea what the truth is.  I doubt anyone does or ever will, now that Kyle is dead at the hands of another Iraq-war veteran who came home mentally deranged.  Perhaps it’s instructive to recall a line from another sniper narrative, John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.  At the film’s conclusion, Edmond O’Brien, playing a newspaper editor, observes that, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”  Yes, that’s the ticket.  The neoconservatives are attempting to ride it first class.  They want the film to serve as a retroactive justification for their Iraq war, with Kyle its stalwart hero.  He’s big, strong, brave, and, best of all, unquestioning.  The script repeatedly emphasizes that this is a man whose patriotism is impervious to doubt, not to mention fact.  When a SEAL Team friend is killed, Kyle attends his funeral.  Afterward, he explains to Taya that his friend would be alive if he hadn’t started questioning the war’s motives.  By doing so, he dropped his guard, something Kyle assures her he himself would never do.  This is the kind of soldier armchair generals value most: men who blindly accept whatever their leaders tell them.  Such men are perfect tools in the hands of those who follow neoconservatism’s favorite guru, Leo Strauss, the University of Chicago philosopher who advocated the Noble Lie.  Leaders, Strauss argued, realize that it’s honorable to lie to the people for the greater good of the state—especially when the state you’re lying for is Israel.

Moore et al. have attacked the film for celebrating the war.  They think it grossly jingoistic and lamentably insensitive to Iraqis.  This won’t wash.  In its third scene, Kyle is shown on a rooftop to which he’s hauled his 26-pound, nearly five-foot McMillan Tac-338 sniper rifle.  Through its scope he’s targeted a seven-year-old boy in the street below.  The lad has just been given a high-powered rocket grenade by a young woman, presumably his mother.  As a group of Marines rolls into the other end of the street, Kyle has no alternative but to shoot the boy.  The woman runs to her son, but not to help him.  She grabs the grenade and rushes toward the Marines herself.  Kyle picks her off also.

Tellingly, in his autobiography, on which the film claims to be based, Kyle does not mention this boy but only the woman.  That Eastwood invents the child reveals his intention.  The visual disproportion between the massive Kyle with his huge gun and the puny boy obeying his mother says it all.  Rationally, there’s no question a soldier would have to kill the child and his mother to prevent the grenade from killing the Marine platoon.  Nevertheless, it’s sickening to watch him do it.  Eastwood clearly wants us to feel visceral revulsion at this spectacle.  It stands in small for the horrid arrogance with which our nation began the Iraq invasion with its “Shock and Awe” campaign designed to beat a weak Third World country into utter submission.

We see Kyle agonizing over his decision as any good man ought to have done, but is this true?  Not if we believe Kyle’s book, in which he says he felt no guilt at all for killing the woman or other Iraqis, whom he dismisses repeatedly as savages—savages, it must be pointed out, who were defending their country and their way of life against what must have seemed to them monstrous aggression.  In Kyle’s own words, taken from his book—or at least words he agreed to have presented as his—he claims not to regret any of the deaths he inflicted since each and every one helped save American lives both in Iraq and in the United States.  Kyle believed, as did so many other Americans, that Saddam Hussein was behind the September 11 attacks and would soon be stalking our streets, pistols a-blazing.

Ah, you think: Eastwood disregarded Kyle’s words here to inject his story with some moral complexity.  But as the narrative goes forward, Eastwood does something exceedingly strange.  He turns Kyle’s story into a 1940’s Hopalong Cassidy Saturday matinee.  Discarding the autobiography altogether, he has Kyle facing off with his opposite number among the Iraqi forces, Mustafa, a Syrian marksman who had medaled in the Olympics and subsequently offered his sniping services for jihad.  We see the agile Mustafa lithely leaping across the rooftops of Sadr City, pausing now and then to pick off American troops with effortless, evil elan.  He’s so deadly that the SEAL commander tells Kyle to make him target number one.  Kill him, we’re to understand, and the war will be won.  Mustafa is Jack Palance to Cooper’s Shane.  As one would expect there will be a mano-a-mano showdown, albeit at long distance via rifle scope.  Remember how Hoppy, in the midst of a range war involving hundreds of battling cowboys, would single out the mustachioed archvillain and chase the SOB into the hills for the inevitable private confrontation?  Could anything have been more rousing?  We get its Middle Eastern equivalent here, when Kyle spots the dastardly wog on a rooftop over a mile away and bravely takes aim.  He pulls the trigger and we see the round sailing in slow-motion toward its target.  This is one jihadi who will soon know the consequence of defending his coreligionists against righteous American invaders.  Let’s all cheer our heads off.  But, as we do, just keep in mind that Mustafa is Eastwood’s fabrication.

Either this is the hammiest storytelling this side of the Bar 20 Ranch, or Eastwood’s become a low-down sidewinder taking perverse pleasure in mocking his audience.  My money’s on the second proposition.  Eastwood may not be a very good director, but he seems too smart to surrender entirely to the yahoo brigade.

The film’s most moving moments come at the end when it shows the capacity crowd who filled Cowboys Stadium to honor Kyle in a state-orchestrated memorial service.  The newsreel display moved me to anger to think that so many good Americans continue to be duped by those who sold us the Iraq war and sacrificed Chris Kyle along with hundreds of thousands of other victims, American and Iraqi, to their unpatriotic cause.  And now these same scoundrels are hectoring us to engage in more atrocities in the Middle East.  When will Americans awaken and chase these treasonous creeps into the hills?