Sunday, January 4, 2015

'American Sniper' (2014) directed by Clint Eastwood

The most positive thing I can say about American Sniper is that it's at least up front about being military propaganda. There's none of the crypto-intellectual ideological obfuscation of Zero Dark Thirty and its ilk. Nope, American Sniper outlines its childlike perspective on the world very early on. There's three types of people in the world; the sheep, innocent, cosseted and blind to the true nature of the world; wolves, represented here by the population of the Middle East; and sheepdogs, the glittering knights of the US Military.  

You and I are the submissive sheep in that equation: utterly dependent on muscle men with beards running through distant sandy cities shooting men, women and children with impunity.  

The film, half biopic and half war film, doles up the life story of Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the deadliest sniper in American history. Over the course of four tours of Iraq he blew away 160 people, earning him the nicknames 'The Legend' (from his fellow soldiers) and 'The Devil of Ramadi' (from the people he was shooting). Eastwood pulls no punches, opening with Kyle shooting an Iraqi child in the heart with a high-powered rifle. Our hero grimaces and grits his teeth, pained at his actions but thinking "It had to be done". As the boy's blood leaks into the dusty road both character and audience reflect that war is not without casualties and though this is a personal tragedy it must be for the greater good. I mean, he's the hero, he kinda sorta had to shoot that kid.  Right?

The film then loops around to Kyle's childhood in Texas. He's vigorously pumped full of good ol' boy American ideals by his square-jawed Dad and growing up to become a rodeo rider.  He's dissolute but somehow still noble; as if waiting for his true calling in life. When he witnesses the bombing of a US Embassy on TV he gets a determined look in his eyes and with the US flag gently waving behind him, the faint echo of a bald eagle's screech in his ears and a vision of George W. Bush giving him a silent thumbs up he signs up for war.

Sienna Miller looking vaguely concerned, her default expression here.
Before we know it 9/11 happens and I guess Saddam Hussein must have done it or something (note: check this) because Kyle is quickly parcelled off to Iraq where he shoots a load of people, gets a bounty put on his head, tries to hunt down some terrorist leaders and enters into a kind of sniper hunt with the brutal rival sniper "Butcher". Bubbling away in the background are the woes of Taya (Sienna Miller), Kyle's worried wife who frets that his absence is tearing apart their family.

Let's set aside the jingoistic bullshit that powers American Sniper for a moment and examine its qualities as a narrative. Very quickly Chris Kyle reveals himself as a deeply two dimensional character; mild efforts are made by both Eastwood and Cooper to show him as tortured by what he 'has' to do. This is undercut by his later blasé attitude towards his kill count, which I guess must come from Kyle himself. His only regret is apparently that he couldn't kill more people to save more American soldiers; an outlook that makes him look deeply psychopathic. His callousness makes him boring - for all the drama there's little development.

Now, onto the jingoistic bullshit. I'm going approach this with cool commercial logic. This is not a film hand-wringing peaceniks like myself are going to flock to. Nope, this is a film targeted squarely at those who are happy to deify soldiers and think Operation Iraqi Freedom (lol) was totally justified and a just dandy way to spend billions of dollars and piss countless lives away for jack shit. Consequently there is zero time given to the wider implications of the war; and what these soldiers are fighting for is never defined.  The whole messy affair is reduced to a simply goodies versus baddies scenario, perfect for a target audience for whom critical thought is anathema.

A sinister Musselman (probably up to no good).
This is accomplished by dehumanising the Iraqis; either concealing their faces under sinister-looking scarves and balaclavas or rendering them spittle-flecked bearded nightmare men. Our heroes repeatedly refer to them as "fuckin' savages" or "fuckin' animals" - something cemented by repeatedly visually linking the Iraqis with barking dogs. This dehumanisation of the enemy is pretty typical in nationalistic propaganda; rendering them an angry formless untermensch with whom its impossible to sympathise or identify with.

The only antagonist with a the slightest hint of a personality is the villainous "Butcher" who acts as a sort of nemesis for Kyle. Given that the two never meet and that the Butcher never speaks he's a rather ill-defined antagonist; his total moral corruption visible in his tactic of hiding in buildings and picking off enemy combatants with a high-powered sniper rifle, as opposed to our brave hero who... uhmm.. uh.. Hmm.

Moving swiftly on....

That American Sniper so fiercely caters for right wing nationalists with a boner for milporn leaves it no space for any profundity or understanding why any of this is happening.  This is unfortunate, because Chris Kyle's biography contains one genuinely fascinating development: his ironic death. After returning from Iraq he spent his time helping Marines with PTSD; eventually taking one disturbed former soldier to a shooting range. This proved to not be such a smart therapeutic decision given that the soldier went bananas and shot Kyle to death. What a tragic (totally unrelated and utterly random) event *bows head in quiet reverence*.

American Sniper approaches this patently meaningful wrinkle with timidity, glossing over it as fast as humanly possible in a brief title card. This is tactically understandable given that Eastwood's apparent aim here is to bolster the ranks of the 'noble' military. It's hypocritical as fuck though; the glaringly obvious conclusion that military life chews up and spits out those who're suckered into it, rendering them screwed up psycho-losers liable to fatally lash out at the slightest provocation.

But hypocrisy isn't surprising here, American Sniper is precision-targeted at complete fucking morons. This is a hagiography of a literal mass-murderer: straight-up pornography for those who get off on seeing poor people being bloodily dispatched by high-powered weaponry. Its Manichean philosophy affirms flag-waving nationalism aka the vile ideology of those who will happily carry out whatever atrocity they're ordered to by their superiors.

And it's got the gall to say we're the sheep.  

Hey Clint. Go fuck yourself!

American Sniper is released January 16th.

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