I finally saw “American Sniper” this week—it was leaving my local theaters after a blockbuster three-month run at the box office. The Academy Awards basically dissed the film, but the American people didn’t. It is the highest grossing war film of all time, the highest grossing film of 2014 in the U.S., and the highest-grossing of director Clint Eastwood’s many successful films.
I generally hate movies about war or football—two nonsensical human activities in my opinion. What makes it worse is that I am captivated when I am tricked (or carelessly succumb) into watching a movie on either topic. This time I had to see the movie out of curiosity. Why would Clint Eastwood, one of the most libertarian directors in Hollywood, write a war movie that apparently was not an open antiwar movie? My libertarian and conservative friends who saw the movie were no help. Very few were enthusiastically pro or against. Most praised it as an intense movie, but insisted “you have to see it for yourself.” So I did.
Now I understand the ambivalence of most of my friends about this movie. It is a work of intense and creative genius, thanks to two men—director Clint Eastwood, and Bradley Cooper, who plays Chris Kyle, the deadliest marksman in American military history. But this is not John Wayne leading the charge.
Cooper plays the role with a somber seriousness rather than melodrama, but there is no doubt he is the epitome of physical manhood. I’d love to see Bradley Cooper and Vladimir Putin duke it out, shirtless, in a ring, in no-holds-barred boxing and wrestling. Now that would be a way to settle our diplomatic differences with Russia!
For a war movie, I found “American Sniper” oddly distant. I could have walked away from it except for Eastwood’s taut direction. We do not get at the heart of why Chris Kyle puts himself through the hell of Iraq. Yes, as a child in Texas, his father admonished him that “there are three types of people in this world. Sheep, wolf, and sheepdog”—and it was clear that no son of his was going to be sheep or wolf. We briefly see the 9/11 attack on the television, and how that affects Kyle and his wife (the way it affected all of us, dumbstruck and horrified). But the lack of great opportunity for a rodeo cowboy seemed even more important in getting him to enlist as a Navy SEAL.
American flags are not used to ping your heart, the way they are in most war movies, and you rarely see them except at the end, showing the funeral and tributes to Kyle. There is no rousing patriotic music, no stirring speeches. What we do see is the bonding of a team, where they are each responsible for each other’s lives. That is understandable and necessary for survival, but those feelings come across with intensity, not bravado. Even Kyle’s role is played with minimalism; he is always part of the team. This is not the dueling between the rival Nazi star sniper and Communist star sniper in the World War II drama, “Enemy at the Gates.”
Indeed, “American Sniper” would have risked becoming boring were it not for Clint Eastwood’s skills as a director. We proceed through Kyle’s four tours of duty in Iraq, but each is essentially the same. So why do he and the other men keep coming back for another tour? I got the feeling that it started out as a challenging adventure backed by patriotism, but then earned reprises because war is addictive—particularly when you are good at it. Kyle loves his wife and two children, who are born while he is in Iraq, but he keeps leaving them for another tour. War is his heroin.
Why did Clint Eastwood do “American Sniper”?
When you have had as many successes as Eastwood, both as actor and director, choosing the topic of the next movie has to be a real challenge. You do not want to merely reprise the old successes, but want to keep the success going with a new topic. My favorites are his “Dirty Harry” movies, where he fights for justice as a lone wolf because the American justice system is a sick joke. But I also was immensely moved by “Gran Torino”—only an immensely gifted actor could command affection as a bigoted white man in a changing neighborhood.
In my heart I know Clint Eastwood has to be a loner (the libertarian) rather than a pliant company man (the patriot). War was a Big Picture topic he could not ignore, particularly in an era of perpetual war. But these are not the times for a World War II-type guts and glory film. We know too much today about the real reasons our leaders drag us into wars. So I think he took the route of portraying an individual hero—but a flawed hero. No paean to George W. Bush or to American political “exceptionalism” in this movie. There is a tribute to one kind of American exceptionalism, however—the art of killing people, and we get the feel of that with the deadly war setting. But no bombing of civilians, no American torture racks. Just an individual hero, almost a modern-day Dirty Harry, doing his job by protecting his team.
Why did the American public love “American Sniper”?
This is harder for me to answer. On the one hand, I see the American people as immensely warlike—our bloody history would certainly suggest that. But on the other hand, I look at the Americans I know and have known in my lifetime, and I see Americans who just want to devote themselves to their families and careers, enjoying the ordinary satisfactions of daily life. War? Heroics? Let the other guy do it, and I’ll fantasize about it. I reconcile my views of these two types of Americans by considering most of my countrymen to be sheeple—basically decent individuals who are easily led astray by innocence or gullibility.
And, today, there are so many new sources of information. Most Americans do not want to believe the worst about their leaders, but it is hard not to with the information and viewpoints available to us today.
Given that context, I think Americans flocked to see “American Sniper” hoping it would bring some clarity to the past two decades. And because of their great respect for Clint Eastwood. Did the movie end up being what they expected? There’s the rub. There has been speculation in libertarian circles that Eastwood thought an explicitly antiwar movie would do nothing to change people’s minds—it would just confirm people’s prior convictions on both sides. But maybe a movie showing war’s impact on individual soldiers would have more eye-opening impact. I would have opted for a solid commitment against war along the lines of “All Quiet on the Western Front,” but I respect Eastwood’s familiarity with the movie audience.
What’s next for Clint Eastwood?
Eastwood has been close-mouthed about his motivations for doing “American Sniper.” But I wish that with his next Big Picture movie, he makes a bold statement of his personal credo. If he does that, I may be somewhat disappointed to learn that my fantasy is not his reality. But a passionate statement of his beliefs would be something not to be missed.
If I am correct in my assessment of the man, this sequel would fall squarely in the “realist” camp—no false romanticism or mere nostalgia. I think Eastwood is a deeply patriotic man with an Old Testament streak of striving for justice. I would like the subject of that film to be, not a lone Dirty Harry, but rather America. This country has been such a symbol of hope and humanity—and simultaneously such a disappointment. What has gone wrong? Is there any hope?
For me, if I had Eastwood’s talents, that would be a dystopian look into the future—a calamity marking the fall of our present American Empire, and a look into what replaces it, both the good and the bad. But that’s me. I’d like to see Clint Eastwood’s version.
P.S. My personal “close encounter” with Clint Eastwood
How can I write at length about one of my favorite people without noting my “close encounter” with him?
It was 1970, and my wife Holly and I were traveling across the continent doing research for our forthcoming book, Safe Places. Purely by coincidence we found ourselves in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, where the movie “Play Misty for Me” was in production. The supporting cast and staff was staying at the Holiday Inn, where we had reservations. I was pleased to meet blond bombshell Donna Mills having makeup applied in the lobby. Holly was waiting for the leading man—you know who.
Our chance came that night. Holly was surprisingly well informed on Eastwood, enough to know the favorite restaurant of this future mayor of Carmel. Not surprisingly, that is where we ate that night. And as we were well into our dinner, I noticed my wife flirting with someone behind me. I turned around and saw why Holly seemed so flush—it was Clint Eastwood himself, enjoying dinner with Dizzy Gillespie. (That itself was no surprise, since Eastwood’s first love is jazz and he himself plays jazz piano.)
We hurried through dinner and positioned ourselves at the bar, ready to pounce when they left. Eastwood headed for his pickup truck, and we were not far behind in our car, hoping to follow him to his house. That lasted while we were on Carmel’s main drag and turned onto a side street. Eastwood then took off seriously, navigating the winding back streets of Carmel and easily losing his stalkers.
I cannot think of that experience without smiling expansively. Eastwood obviously had a lot of experience evading fans when he wanted to, and we were in his home territory. “Close Encounter” but no encounter!