When American Sniper was released in a few theaters in New York and L.A. last month, it seemed like no one gave it a second thought. Critics were mixed on it, and the mainstream media largely ignored it. Boy, a lot has changed. Now that the Clint Eastwood-directed Iraq War story has been nominated for six Oscars and is on its way being one of the top-grossing movies of the year, it is no longer a film to ignore. It has become a prize for Democrats and Republicans to fight over. Conservatives hail its success as a rebuke to a left-leaning Hollywood that has, in their view, rejected movies that are sympathetic to the military. Meanwhile, liberal commentators are doing their best to expose the film’s propagandistic intent, arguing the inherent pro-war message of an Iraq War film that doesn’t bother to question the reasons America invaded in the first place.
So who’s right?
Well, both of them, and neither. American Sniper is, as The New Yorker recently put it, both “a devastating pro-war movie and a devastating anti-war movie.” Liberals are correct that it displays Chris Kyle’s unexamined jingoism without judgment or criticism, but conservatives have not noticed that it depicts him as less of the outright hero his fellow soldiers have made him out to be and more of a troubled individual whose instinct for protection borders on the pathological. This ambiguity, forged by director Clint Eastwood’s famous easy-handed directorial approach, doesn’t make American Sniper a “good” movie; it relies far too much on war movie clichés, and none of its individual parts seem fresh or distinct. But critics who treat it like a polemic are only revealing their own partisan views. In this way, American Sniper’s nuanced approach isn’t wrong for the material but ill-fitted for our hyper-partisan era that leaves little room for ambiguity on hot-button political issues.
Perhaps the reason the film has inspired such passions on both sides is that it’s not really about war, which, now that the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have mostly come to an end, is not a particularly controversial issue anymore. Rather, a close reading of American Sniper reveals a pointed comment about gun culture in America, and the sides that have been drawn over the film reflect our deep political divisions over that issue.
In the film, we see Kyle is in love with guns from the beginning of his life.. War comes later, when he discovers that joining the military is the most socially-acceptable way to do what he loves: protect people and use firearms. When hunting with his father as a child, he learns that he is a crack shot. His father praises him and calls it a “gift,” so he learns to value it above all else. If we read Kyle as a representation of America itself (the film is called American Sniper, after all), his love of guns seems to symbolize America’s bellicose origins. Gunpowder is in our bones, as it is in his. It’s elemental to our character. It’s who we are and what we’re good at.
As Kyle grows into a young man, he identifies heavily with the cowboy, an archetype that has defined American values since the beginning of cinema. He wears a Stetson and rides in rodeos, but after a girlfriend reminds him as he’s breaking up with her that he’s not a real cowboy, he looks for a place where he can fulfill that fantasy and finds it in the military. American Sniper is not quite a Western, but Kyle seems to think it is, and not a modern, revisionist one. He calls his enemies “savages,” reflecting the way Westerns of the John Ford era often depicted Native Americans: as faceless, nameless enemies who are an affront to America’s plans for civilization.
All of which explains why Eastwood was attracted to the project. He has a sincere interest in war (Flags of our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima), but he is still primarily associated with the Western. Since his early days in the hyper-violent Spaghetti Westerns, he has evolved towards a more complicated perspective on violence. Many critics, as well as the Academy, saw the revisionist Unforgiven as his apologia for the amoral Westerns of his youth. Sniper’s take on violence is neither classical nor revisionist because it adheres so closely to Kyle’s perspective, but Eastwood’s familiarity with the hardware pays off. Watching Sniper, you can feel Eastwood in dialogue with his earlier, violent work (think Dirty Harry), especially in the way the camera lingers on guns in certain scenes as if they were old friends.
Guns continue to play a vital role throughout the film, unsurprising for a war movie, but it’s in the film’s final scenes, when Kyle has finally returned home, that Eastwood finally makes his most pointed comment on Kyle’s fetishization of firearms. When he returns home, he heals his wounded psyche by helping other veterans recover from their own post-traumatic stress. How does he do this? By taking them to a firing range. Kyle sees guns as both the cause of and the solution to all of life’s problems.
Even more telling are the film’s final two scenes. First, Kyle takes his son hunting, echoing an early scene in which Kyle goes hunting with his father and reinforcing the primacy of gun culture in his shaping the American male. But then comes perhaps the film’s most odd and startling moment: In the Kyle household, someone walks through the living room holding a six-shooter (the kind you would find in an old Western, not in a contemporary war). We can’t see who it is, but we do see Kyle’s children in the background. It’s an ominous, dangerous moment, but our nerves relax when the camera pulls back to reveal it’s Kyle himself engaging in some sort of extended foreplay with his wife; he enters the kitchen, points the gun at her, and orders her to “drop [her] drawers.” The tension eases momentarily. But it still seems odd that Kyle would play around with a real, possibly loaded gun in front of his small children and the way Eastwood’s camera frames the pistol in isolation invites us to think critically, not about Kyle but about the gun itself.
Perhaps this is why: Moments later, there is a knock at the door, and Kyle comes face-to-face with the troubled veteran he is taking to the firing range ‐ and who will kill him hours later. Eastwood doesn’t show us that scene, but I wish he had. I wish Kyle’s movie death had occurred as it had in real-life, surrounded by the guns that he worshipped. I wish the film had showed us ‐ not told us ‐ how he who lives by the sword dies by it. Even as it stands, the events that concluded Kyle’s life imply a downside to our society’s gun culture, one that even a hero like Kyle cannot outrun. Kyle is lauded as a hero in the film’s closing credits ‐ which show real footage from his funeral ‐ but the film’s perspective of the culture that shaped him is far more gray that it is getting credit for.