American Sniper, the latest blockbuster by director Clinton Eastwood about Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, is having a major moment.
Articles about the film's big opening weekend, its star and co-producer Bradley Cooper, and its six Academy Award nominations fill mainstream, alternative, and social media alike. Controversies involving Michael Moore's and Seth Rogen's critical comments, and their subsequent explanations and apologies, have flooded twitter.
The film's audio track begins with the recitation of Allahu Akbar from a mosque in Fallujah. (The Iraqi scenes were filmed in Morocco.) Then the screen fills with U.S. Humvees, rolling through the destroyed streets of a former residential district, and the rumble of the vehicles interweaves with the repetition of the call to prayer, creating an auditory/emotional confrontation between the exotic, dangerous Orient and the techno-military U.S. forces.
Next we see Chris Kyle, lying belly-down on the roof of what was once an Iraqi home, looking through his gunscope, providing "overcover" for the marines going house-to-house on a brutal, door-smashing manhunt. The Navy SEAL sniper spots an Iraqi man on a cellphone in a nearby house, followed by a woman and young boy emerging. The woman, presumably the boy's mother, passes him an RPG to fire off as a group of Marines approach on foot. Kyle's large green eye behind the scope expresses anxiety and doubt — what's he going to do?
Cue the childhood flashbacks: Chris as a boy, going with his father to kill his first deer ("you have a gift, son" is the father's praise for his precise shot). Chris as a middle school student, beating up a schoolyard bully hurting his younger brother. Chris as a young rodeo cowboy, throwing his cheating girlfriend out of his house.
So far, it's an almost comical presentation of deeds that an adolescent boy — the target demographic of major motion pictures like this one — would most admire. Young Chris, a church-going but hard-drinking Texas youth, is shown developing as a protector, a theme that will repeat throughout the movie, in others' grateful recognition of his "gifts" and in his own words about his motivations.
The 9/11 attacks shake 30-year-old Kyle out of his rather unsatisfying life as a cowboy, and he joins the Navy SEALs to "protect America." A sense of purpose and the love of a good (albeit often whiny) woman, Taya — played by an unrecognizable Sienna Miller — follow the cornball scenes of Kyle and other young men training on the beach, lying in the cold surf, slathered in mud, and hanging tough in face of taunts by their instructors.
At his wedding to Taya, the call comes through for Kyle and his buddies to be deployed, thus making a narrative link back to his reason for joining the military (9/11) and going to war against Iraq. Thus is the Bush administration's lie about the link between the attacks in 2001 and the country of Iraq repeated and emotionally underscored through the film.
The scenes set in Iraq — of briefings, gun battles with "the bad guys," and joshing among the troops — sit at the center of the film, showing Kyle's four, increasingly harrowing tours of duty. And what about the locals? In his brilliant analysis in Reel Bad Arabs, Professor Jack Shaheen gives a sort of taxonomy of Arab male types in popular films — the evil Arab, the silly/horny Arab, the primitive Arab, and the nervous/arrogant Arab. With the exception of the "primitive" type with camels, these stereotypes are on display in "American Sniper," plus a couple of others I would name "Pitiful Father" and "Kid as Target."
The presentation of children as potential or actual evildoers, and thus "deserving" victims of Kyle's kill shots, seems to me a sinister new development in American film.
The first named Arab character is arch villain Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, shown during a rapid-fire briefing before Kyle and buddies hit the streets to find and "kill or capture," as ordered, "this motherfucker." Al-Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI, is mentioned frequently throughout the film, without one line of dialogue as to how al-Qaeda had penetrated Iraq following the U.S. invasion, or what Zarqawi's political allegiances might be.
Another named character is Zarqawi's second-in-command, nicknamed "The Butcher" for his MO of maiming and killing his Iraqi victims with an electric drill. The "Pitiful Father" meme is represented by a man called "The Sheikh," whose daughter has been maimed by The Butcher and who is forced, in a horrifying house raid scene, to give information about this evil man's whereabouts, though he pleads that he and his family will be killed if he does so.
In this scene, of necessity, an Iraqi interpreter suddenly appears. The interpreter is not presented as a character beforehand, is not named, and has no scenes outside of those showing his utility as a translator. What is his motivation, his relationship with Kyle (and other U.S. soldiers), his feelings about the U.S. occupation of his country? We'll never know, and this is one of many blanks the film leaves open.
Also never mentioned: Saddam Hussein, Nouri al-Maliki, oil corporations, or Abu Ghraib or any other U.S. detention camps — not one word. The word "mercenaries" occurs in one fleeting line of dialogue, but any corporate name such as Blackwater stays as unmentionable as menstruation in a Victorian lady's parlor. These absences absolve the United States of its many war crimes in Iraq and perpetuate the war-mongering narrative we are all too familiar with in the still-ongoing "War on Terror" era.
The Bay Guy Supremo in American Sniper, however, is not Zarqawi or The Butcher, but Mustafa — the Best Bad Guy Sniper, reputed to be a former Olympic and Syrian athlete. Mustafa is Kyle's counterpart and competitor in killing. Handsome, nimble, and cunning, the Bad Guy Sniper, played by Egyptian Sammy Sheik, evades death by leaping from roof to roof or running into a tunnel after shooting Kyle's buddies. In the interminable final gun battle scene, the American Sniper locates and kills the Bad Guy Sniper, whose death is shown in slow motion for maximum emotional impact. This is a revenge killing that endangers the entire local operation and brings down fire from Iraqis, until a last-minute rescue — guided by a surveillance drone — from an attack chopper.
By now, Kyle as Protector has been reduced by the hell of war to a scared fuck-up, crying to Taya on a satellite phone (their long distance conversations punctuate the battle scenes), "I'm ready to come home!" Sadr City, and by extension the entire country of Iraq — a malodorous hellscape — are visually annihilated as a sandstorm sweeps in, and Kyle is pulled into a vehicle on his way back to the United States.
The violent battle scenes had, for me, a tedious inevitability that kept me from being pulled in emotionally. What hurt me the most, as I flashed back to my own memories — based mostly on the courageous reporting of Dahr Jamail of the two terrible sieges of Fallujah in April and November 2004 — was my sense of Iraq being used as backdrop. It's reduced to a hot, dirty place that "smells like dog shit," as one Marine says in the opening scene. "This place is evil," Kyle's psychologically shattered younger brother, a fellow veteran, tells him as he departs the country. One war-blasted city looks much like another, almost as if a painted stage backdrop representing "Urban War Scene" were just hauled from one scene to the next. Fallujah... Ramadi... Sadr City... whatever.
The important data points are Kyle's escalating kill counts in those places, which soon earn him the honorific of "The Legend" and a bounty on his head of $180,000. The Iraqis that Kyle kills lie flat, literally and metaphorically, like images in a video game, and we hear no one weep for them (with the exception of "The Sheikh," whose screaming daughter runs to his corpse). One scene briefly shows dogs eating Iraqi corpses. The American dead, by contrast, are pulled at great risk from the battleground, wept over, accompanied in their flag-covered coffins in flights home, and laid to rest in magnificent ceremonies, remembered.
The American dead were persons, and they count. The Iraqi dead were objects in a sniper's scope, and they are counted. That in a nutshell is the message of "American Sniper."
How Chris Kyle and hundreds of thousands of other, mostly young Americans came to invade and occupy, wound and be wounded, kill and be killed in Iraq — for what politics, for whose profits — cannot be touched upon in American Sniper. Because to do so would be to move the narrative away from the isolated, tragic white male — that hoary old trope of Western Civ — toward something more politically and historically informed, and much less of a money maker.
And the boy in Fallujah with the RPG in his arms? Kyle kills him, and the woman with him. It's Kyle's initiation as sniper. We as audience are asked to listen to Kyle's fellow SEAL's reassuring justification for his first kills (which he is shown feeling guilty for), and to empathize, not with the boy in the devastated street, but with a "tormented" man becoming a hardened killer, who calls Iraqis "savages" in several scenes.
Snipers are protectors, and invaders are The Good Guys. Iraq children are legitimate targets, and Iraq is battleground and backdrop for American deeds and emotions — nothing more. In war propaganda — a huge genre in which American Sniper stands as a well-acted, high-production example — fictional narratives borrow just enough from true-life stories to reinforce already established memes. Cowboy, family man, Navy SEAL, sniper, trainer, author, veteran, celebrity, murderer, and eventually a murdervictim of another tormented combat veteran — Chris Kyle was a mystery. American Sniper portrays the life of a flawed "hero" who is also a blank slate on which other Americans can project rage, hatred, and ignorant misconceptions about Iraqis and other Arabs, as well as their — our — many conflicted feelings about war, "the troops," and veterans.
As the U.S. bombing campaign continues in Syria and Iraq, with the issue of a new Authorization to Use Military Force hanging, American Sniper has come out at a fraught moment in U.S. foreign policy. I left the movie theater with an aching head and a heavy heart, and the feeling that this is a very dangerous film.