IN THE FIRST SCENE of American Sniper, an Iraqi boy and his mother hover timidly in the middle of a bombed-out Baghdad street directly in the path of an oncoming convoy of American troops. Chris Kyle, American Sniper, prone on a distant rooftop, has the scene in his scope and his rifle steady, and he’s trying to decide whether or not to take the shot. “They’ll fry you if you’re wrong,” his spotter informs. “They’ll send your ass to Leavenworth.” Chris Kyle, as it happens, need not fear firing unjustly: the kid and his mother are harboring both hostile intentions and a grenade. Around the thirty-minute mark, we’ll see them pay for their enmity with high-caliber bullets through their chests, courtesy of Mr. Kyle, but first, as his finger hovers over his rifle’s trigger with mother and child in his sights, a match cut flings us out of Iraq and back into the American woods, where a prepubescent Kyle shoots a deer.
Since its Christmas Day release, Clint Eastwood’s newest romp through the violent recesses of American masculinity has generated a great deal of debate, and many of the positions of that debate can be teased out through interpreting this single sequence.
1. If American Sniper is a great war movie, then its opening serves as a heartbreaking point of entry into a contemporary tragedy about soldiers, veterans, and the kinds of violence and cruelty and death that emerge in and around battlefields both foreign and domestic.
2. If American Sniper is the first vigorous cinematic defense of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and this is a defense that “we’ve all been waiting for,” then its opening thrusts viewers into an understanding of exactly what American soldiers faced in the combat theater, and why their actions were justified and often heroic.
3. If American Sniper is the first vigorous cinematic defense of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and this is a bad thing, then its opening is exemplary of the pulpy, jingoistic, and ultimately sanitized violence that the film in its duration celebrates. It’s also an example of American Sniper’s offensive portrayal of race, as two Iraqi bodies appear solely to facilitate exposition of a white character, and then disappear, forever.
4. If American Sniper is a great antiwar film, then its opening places front and center two things that should never, ever happen: the murder of a child, and the decision to murder a child, with or without cause.
5. If American Sniper is, beyond all else, basically mediocre, then its opening is a perfect illustration of the way in which the Iraq war, in its portrayal, is removed of all real geopolitical, social, and historical context, instead becoming a sequence of decontextualized scenes shot down the barrel of a sniper rifle that might as well have been cribbed from a Call of Duty.
But every time I’ve watched this scene, I’m struck by a question that’s neither ideological nor dismissive: is American Sniper’s opening intended to be suspenseful? Is my pulse supposed to quicken? A simple answer is probably: yes. Here’s Chris Kyle desperately hunting for clues to make a snap judgment as a child’s life hangs in the balance. This battlefield Eastwood has flung us into is engrossing, dangerous, fast, and precarious. At first glance, maybe American Sniper delivers.
Stills from the opening scene of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper.
Look a bit closer, though, and you begin to notice how the way in which the sequence conveys its content seems to constantly undermine its own success. Think, for a moment, about all the possible sources of suspense you could wring out of the following scene: a Navy sniper is tasked with making a snap judgment as to whether a child and his mother pose a threat to a convoy for which said sniper is providing recon. What are this child and his mother doing near a tank squadron in the middle of a war zone? A different, perhaps more conventional approach would tease viewers for a bit, wouldn’t be so quick to reveal that the mother and son are not holding a Koran (as will later be claimed) but a grenade, a fact American Sniper wastes absolutely no time in revealing. What will the outcome be? Will mother and child make it out alive? Will they take any soldiers out with them? Is the sniper any good? Will he miss? As it happens, because of the match cut and the expository gap between American Sniper’s opening and the American Sniper’s executions, when it’s cinematic time for the Iraqis to die, we know who they are, what they’re doing, who’s watching them do it, and how damn qualified a shot he is. The entire thing becomes less suspenseful than just sad.
Clint Eastwood is many things to many people, but contemporary critics tend to agree that he is an auteur, i.e., someone with real directorial insight, care, and reach, someone whose individual artistic stamp can and should be used as a heuristic lens. Insofar as so much of his early career as an actor found him traipsing through the storied landscapes of American westerns and action films, it’s hardly surprising that Eastwood’s own directorial mark is often constituted through toying with genre, as he’s done with the western, to acclaimed effect (Unforgiven); with the boxing drama, to acclaimed (and deeply manipulative) effect (Million Dollar Baby); and with the B-movie, to effect somewhere between perplexing and appalling (Gran Torino). This is to say that it strikes me as analytically inaccurate and insufficient to read this scene as an instance of failed suspense, and to see American Sniper as a sloppy film. I think there’s a deep intentionality in the way in which this opening isn’t as suspenseful as it perhaps “ought” to be, and that this intentionality resonates throughout Eastwood’s recent activities, whether it’s Gran Torino, Changeling, American Sniper, or even his infamous speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention. What Eastwood is after now is, in a word, simplicity, though what “simple” means in this case is a bit more complicated, and more destructive, than simplicity tends to be. For when this aesthetics of simplicity takes on a political valence, it ends up being far more insidious, and far more appealing, than a jumbled conversation with an empty chair seems to indicate.
A number of cultural critics have drawn attention to the way in which certain artists develop a new, late style during their twilight years. The ease and virtuosity with which they approach their work after a lifetime’s worth of experience comes into conflict with existential dread, and as such, late works are often as maddening, dark, and difficult as they are brilliant. Beginning with 2008’s Changeling, Clint Eastwood has entered into his own late style. But unless one reads perhaps a bit too much into the frenetic clip with which he’s been releasing films — seven features between 2008 and 2014 — this late style seems notably bereft of anxiety. Even Hereafter (2010), which revolves around three interconnected narratives about death, morphs in its third act from a quiet, melancholic meditation on finitude into a transcontinental romantic comedy between an ambivalent psychic and a French reporter hell-bent on getting the “pseudo” removed from the pseudoscientific study of the afterlife. Eastwood has also begun to make some of the simplest, most efficient films of his career, and the box office has responded. Gran Torino (2008) was far and away the most financially successful film in Eastwood’s directorial oeuvre, until American Sniper blew that mark out of the water. While the seven films Eastwood has directed since 2008 span a wild register of topics and tones, they nonetheless present as a stylistic unity, obvious products of a cinematic eye with a very particular approach to character, narrative, and aesthetics.
Gran Torino manifests all the hallmarks of Eastwood’s late style, in spades. First, there are good guys, and there are bad guys. Gone are the shades of gray with which Eastwood brought so many antiheros to life both as an actor and a director. The hero, in this case, is Walt Kowalski, Eastwood-acted protagonist of Gran Torino, and he’s an old, angry son of a bitch, a vet of Korea whose life seems to primarily consist of spewing racial epithets, growling, slugging PBR, and chain-smoking. But if you think this guy sounds bad, you should see his family. All we really know about them is that they find Walt contemptuous, and want his house, money, and 1972 Ford Gran Torino. Not to mention Spider, the Hmong gang member who organizes a gang rape of his own cousin and ultimately facilitates Kowalski’s execution. In Eastwood’s late style, characters rendered in a favorable light don’t tend to make mistakes or bad decisions, and if they’re in need of redemption, that redemption is generally straightforward. It is also universally denied to anyone who legitimately needs it. Eastwood never lets his villains off the hook.
Still from Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino.
These characters, simply heroes or simply villains, are also simply flat. What they are and who they are is right out there in the open. They do not have subtext. What there is of their inner lives is explicitly projected directly into cinematic space, as when Walt says to himself in a bathroom mirror, “I’m a moron. I have more in common with these gooks than I do with my own spoiled rotten family. Jesus Christ.” This is what it looks like for a man to “struggle with himself.” And what is a racist? In the universe of Gran Torino, it might be someone who, like Walt, tells the following joke at the VFW: “There’s a Mexican, a Jew, and a colored guy go into a bar. The bartender looks up and says, ‘get the fuck out of here.’” Hopes, fetishes, fears, dreams: they’re all out there, literally. Eastwood’s late style never makes us read a face.
This drive toward simplicity extends beyond character exposition to the conveyance of all cinematic information. See, for instance, Gran Torino’s attempts to provide an ethnography of the Hmong diaspora, or at least to educate viewers on Hmong culture, most of which takes the form of conversations between Walt and Sue, a Hmong teenager who lives next door, such as the following. Walt: “Where the hell is Hmong anyway?” Sue: “No, Hmong isn’t a place; it’s a people. Hmong people come from different parts of Laos and China.” And, later, Walt: “Why do you jungle people want to be in a place where it snows six months a year?” Sue: “Hill people. We’re hill people.” There’s no better example of this über-simplification than the shape Walt’s lifeless body crumples into after he’s executed, namely a crucifix. If I’m being Eastwoodian here, I should let you know that this symbolizes a martyr’s death, because symbolism in late-period Eastwood is so explicit that it almost erases the point of symbolization.
Finally, and perhaps most troublingly, Eastwood’s recent films are racist. Heroes and villains tend to be white and non-white, respectively, and the simplicity with which goodness and badness are brought to light only reinforces the portrayal of racial difference. In Gran Torino, moreover, the Hmong are exoticized in some pretty disturbing ways. Hmong are seen, for instance, ritually and violently slaughtering a chicken, which Hmong people would not, in real life, do.
The same rules of Eastwood’s late style apply in the case of the cool, efficient machine of a war movie that is American Sniper. Within its logic, GIs are good guys, as are the people who love them through thick and thin, and these GIs are portrayed as largely faultless (or at least not responsible for their faults), as called to a higher duty, as American and proud and as doing what needs to be done. The bad guys … well, they’re Iraqi, and can occasionally be observed drilling into the legs of small children. As for Chris Kyle … for all the accolades Bradley Cooper has and will continue to receive for his performance, Chris Kyle is not by any means complex or even interesting. He seems, rather, to be a basic guy who happens to be stubborn, loyal, patriotic, loving, and exceptionally good at killing people from a distance.
Exceptional Soldier, Loving Wife, Stern Father Who Imparts Life Lessons: the characters in American Sniper lack complexity, and that seems less a mistake than a deliberate aesthetic choice. In an early flashback, Kyle’s father makes his sole appearance around the dinner table, where he explains to his two young children that there are three kinds of people in the world — sheep, wolves, sheepdogs — placing his belt firmly on the table to instruct them as to which of those he’d prefer them to become. Kyle repeatedly refers to Iraqis as “savages,” and as it happens, all the Iraqis we meet over the course of the film are trying to kill or maim Kyle or someone Kyle is charged with protecting. In the world of American Sniper, people are simple, interpret each other as simple, and aren’t, so it seems, in the habit of misjudging.
These simple characters find themselves repeatedly thrown into simple situations with simple — if pained — decisions to make. I have no idea what it’s like to go to war, but I do know that the combat scenes in American Sniper are the most reminiscent of first-person-shooter video games I’ve yet seen. These sequences are neat, contained affairs during which I can imagine combat objectives appearing onscreen one by one, checkboxes ticked as I: “DETERMINE WHETHER OR NOT CHILD POSES A RISK.” “PROTECT CONVOY AT ALL COST.” “IDENTIFY AND EXECUTE ENEMY SNIPER.” And while you won’t find, to my knowledge, a game that deals at any length with what happens when soldiers come back, American Sniper’s treatment of Kyle’s return, PTSD, and eventual recovery are simple enough to serve as a capstone level for any Call of Duty game, in which your soldier must “IDENTIFY PSYCHOLOGICAL CAUSE FOR HEARING EXPLOSIONS IN CIVILIAN TERRITORY” and “TAKE STEPS TO ALLEVIATE THESE PROBLEMS” and “KISS YOUR WIFE.” Kyle’s PTSD is represented as simple in its form (one sequence shows him watching what sounds like a war film but turns out to be a blank screen), simple in its psychic root (a mental health professional quickly teases out that Kyle wishes he could have “saved more guys”), and simple in its antidote (Kyle starts hanging with injured veterans and teaching them to shoot, and before long, he seems good as new).
Good as new, at least, until he gets into a truck to go out shooting with a shifty-looking vet and comes back, we find out from the credits, in a coffin, shot to death by an ex-soldier afflicted with his own apparently unresolved demons. Kyle’s murder happens offscreen, and we’re given no more than a glance of his eventual killer, a man identified in the end titles solely as “a veteran [Kyle] was trying to help.” And that marks the entirety of what American Sniper tells us about Kyle’s killer. Within Eastwood’s cinematic logic, this exclusion seems far from accidental. Kyle’s killer is the one character in American Sniper’s cinematic orbit that doesn’t fit cleanly into the film’s radical simplicity. He’s a soldier, a veteran, but he kills another soldier. He’s got PTSD and can’t for whatever reason just get himself together and get on with his life, like Kyle did.
And it’s with this non-event — Kyle driving off with the nameless vet — that American Sniper ends. And it should end with a moral, or at least the faint taste of a moral, right?
It seems natural to stamp the film as pro-war or anti-war and to celebrate or decry it as such. We expect cultural products that craft themselves through such bold strokes of black and white to communicate some point or moral just as forcefully and unambiguously. Both onscreen and off, Eastwood seems to deliver on this point.
As much as American Sniper as a whole demonizes Iraqis and justifies the actions of American troops, it seems like its ending somewhat unambiguously tries to package the whole thing up as a vehemently antiwar film, leaving us with two military lives and two military families incontrovertibly broken by two cases of PTSD — Kyle’s, and his killer’s. Per Eastwood, after the fact: “The biggest antiwar statement” a film can make is the portrayal of “what [war] does to the family and the people who have to go back into civilian life like Chris Kyle did.”
As it happens, the politics of these aesthetics are made of stranger stuff than initially appears. The ending poses an inevitable question: why isn’t Kyle’s death actually enacted onscreen? According to the screenwriter, it’s because American Sniper is “about Chris’s life” as opposed to his death. Both he and Eastwood claimed that the omission was additionally intended to spare Kyle’s children some future horror. But it’s another of Eastwood’s explanations that is as perplexing as it is ultimately damning, namely that he didn’t show Kyle’s murder because he didn’t want to “glorify” the killer’s actions.
How, one wonders, could this possibly be a danger in a film wherein Kyle is practically beatified? What could we possibly see in such a scene that would lead us to celebrate an execution? Maybe Eastwood was imagining a group of al-Qaeda operatives watching the film, but I think it’s more likely that by “glorify” he actually meant “justify.” He didn’t want to offer us the space to look for a reason, a detail, anything. He didn’t give us the killer’s name. He didn’t offer us a close-up on his worry lines, his tremors. We didn’t hear him soliloquize, or shoot the shit, or sit there a bit too quietly.
We didn’t get a chance to witness anything that might turn us onto the scent of Kyle’s killer’s own PTSD. I don’t know what the scene was like when Eddie Ray Routh — a 27-year-old Marine vet — drove Kyle out to the shooting range and took his life so violently and prematurely. I wasn’t there. His lawyers, however, argued that his PTSD should have been taken into account in considering his culpability for the crime. Routh’s trial was long. Jury selection dragged on for a while, as it tends to in high-profile cases, when finding impartial jurors is incredibly difficult, if not impossible. The particular difficulty is in one sense obvious: American Sniper has saturated the media to a great extent, a truly impressive number of people have seen the film, and it is difficult to imagine American Sniper’s average viewer giving Mr. Routh a fair shake.
But the problem here lies deeper. Not only does American Sniper have the potential to incriminate. In addition, its aesthetics actively work against all the qualities I would like, in a just world, a juror to have: an understanding that situations can be complex, that people are not transparent, that not all choices are the same, that the system and circumstances within which a person is formed or a decision is rendered ought to be taken into account. What I mean is that I’d rather not have people who have been deeply influenced by Eastwood’s recent films sit on juries, Routh’s or otherwise, because the kinds of seeing and judging those films inculcate is incompatible with justice. And sure, this statement might seem a little silly, mean-spirited, over-invested, and over-the-top, but Eastwood’s late-style politics is as potent as it is insidious. Politics is not a set of positions, but a way of seeing the world. It’s a politics that seems to tell us that we can read the world just as we read a film. And it’s a politics that’s found its most thorough exposition as of yet in a conversation between a sober octogenarian and an unoccupied barstool.
Clint Eastwood’s address at the 2012 Republican National Convention is over 11 minutes long, including introductions and applause. The easy joke is that it might have been twice that if the chair he was debating hadn’t been empty. The first applause Eastwood elicits during the speech is in response to a claim that conservatives don’t go around “hot doggin’ it.” The first laugh comes in response to Eastwood remembering that on the night Obama was elected, “Oprah was crying.” After 3.5 minutes, he turns to an empty chair, which he identifies as Barack Obama. He then interrogates the chair for the duration of his speech. I am tempted to describe his oratory style as “mumblecore.” When he doesn’t quite know how to wrap a sentence up, imaginary Obama tells him to “shut up.” A.k.a., “What’s that? ‘Shut up?’ Oh, oh ok, uh …” The highlight might be, “What? What do you want me to tell to Romney? I can’t tell him … to do that … to do that to himself … he can’t do that … that’s crazy.” “Tempted” because “mumblecore” refers to an aesthetic, and it’s easiest to describe what Eastwood’s doing as “mumbling,” which is less an aesthetic than something you do with your mouth half-closed.
In the ensuing days, commentators flocked to praise and chastise Eastwood’s speech, the naysayers winning out by a large margin. The anti-Eastwood camp saw the performance as evidence of the sad decline of an illustrious career. Eastwood, so the story went, had lost it. The pro-Eastwood camp, Bill Maher prominent among their ranks, saw in the performance a respite from the staged theatricality of the RNC itself, an effectively hilarious (if not particularly effective) “theater of the absurd” within a theater long grown absurd. Here’s Maher on the proceedings: “As a performer, as a stand-up comedian for 30 years who knows how hard it is to get laughs […] he went up there […] without a net, on a tightrope. There was no teleprompter. He did a bit with just an empty chair and killed.”
In this quote, Maher is engaged in an act of interpretation, which is to say that he’s taking something that seems strange or unclear and bringing it into a context wherein it’s more easily digested. He’s getting at the heart of the thing. He’s looking at the context, at the subtext. But here’s the catch: the only people who thought that the empty chair speech was funny — or for that matter, that it was anything but a speech to an empty chair — were those watching and interpreting it. What Maher and other interpreters missed was the performance behind the meaning they mapped onto that performance. Because Eastwood’s speech, according to Eastwood, was exactly what it was. It was a movie star giving a political speech at a convention in a deliberate and intentional — if hastily assembled — manner. Simple.
The speech, he’d later claim, was an ad hoc affair, an idea that emerged in his head moments before he was supposed to take the podium. Here’s how he described the eureka moment to the Carmel Pine Cone: “There was a stool there, and some fella kept asking me if I wanted to sit down. When I saw the stool sitting there, it gave me the idea.” Months later, Eastwood changed his story slightly, claiming that he’d found inspiration while listening to Neil Diamond’s “I am … I said,” whose chorus goes as follows:
“I am,” I said
To no one there
And no one heard at all
Not even the chair
While there’s a world of difference between a mumbled improvised speech and an obsessively calculated Hollywood pleasure vessel, this is vintage late Eastwood. Everything out in the open: an empty chair that’s both literally an empty chair and a symbol so obvious that I hesitate calling it one. A president whose entire being is contained in his absence. And a movie star up on the stage at the RNC as if to say — and as he will eventually say — not all fancy Hollywood people are “left of Lenin.” Some people are “like-minded,” like Eastwood, “like all of us.”
Who are these “like-minded” people? They’re moderates, average Joes. In a number of interviews after the speech, Eastwood talked about the way in which, he claimed, the inchoate nature of his performance was actually a good thing: it made him more relatable, he thought, to the average citizen. In another interview, he claimed both that “President Obama [was] the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people,” and that his speech “might have irritated a lot of the lefties, but [he] was aiming for people in the middle.”
In other words, unless you happen to be in the habit of taking to the Presidential Birth Certificate with forensic implements, it’s likely that your impression of “people in the middle” is different than Eastwood’s, and also more accurate. His understanding of what is appealing to “people in the middle” isn’t just bad, it’s unbelievably bad. Eastwood’s projecting, and he’s projecting poorly. He’s taking things he believes, shaking them up in a folksy patois, and assuming he’s speaking from and for the middle. At the RNC speech itself, Eastwood’s remarks were bizarre and tone-deaf whether or not you imagine him speaking to a room of Republican delegates or to his imaginary populist audience. In response to Obama’s timetable for withdrawal from Iraq, Eastwood suggested the best course of action was to bring all the troops out, tomorrow. “Why close that, we spent so much money on it?” he asked regarding Gitmo. These are not commonly held positions in the American middle — wherever that is — any more than they are commonly held positions in the GOP. The only thing they have in common is that they’re presented as unimpeachable truths, as points so common-sensible and simple that you’d have to be somewhere other than the middle (“left of Lenin”) to get them wrong.
Appeals to common sense are often quite effective at blanketing deeper ideological premises. Opponents of raising the minimum wage might claim that it’s obvious that if you pay workers more, the capitalist enterprise loses its vitality and viability, but the word “obvious” serves only to blanket how many assumptions have to be accepted before the statement itself makes any sense. However, if you scratch the veneer of Eastwood’s simple, common-sense politics, what you find at the root is … simplicity and common sense. You find the principle that you have all the tools you need to understand important issues and make wise political decisions, that it’s simple, that you need only open your eyes. The clump of matter between your ears produces truths so simple, so obvious, and so correct that they make sense to any sensible, thinking person. A politics propped up on common sense is a radically egoistic politics. It’s a way of thinking through politics without thinking with, through, and about other people.
But common sense isn’t politics. It’s a shortcut, or a weapon. When we appeal to common sense, we effortlessly dismiss positions held by other people as radical or wrong or extreme or insane. And we can do that because we are wonderful, intelligent creatures independently possessed of … sense, held in “common.” Far from being common, this kind of appeal to common sense is often the very opposite of empathy, at least if we think that people are complex and complicated and that empathy is therefore difficult, a constant struggle. Eastwood’s recent work operates at the same remove from empathy and complexity. As of late, he’s been giving us an aesthetics of transparent surfaces. He’s been taking complicated things and showing us that they’re really quite simple, if you think about it, for a second. And he’s been telling us that things are simple both in and out of the frame. Now, some things actually are simple, and sometimes complexity is a crutch for intellectual laziness. But human lives are tricky things. They don’t yield themselves to first impressions. The moment we forget that, we’re doomed, or at least very, very alone.
Jacob Krell is a PhD student in French at Cornell University.