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Was ‘American Sniper’ Antiwar?

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”?

change_me

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!

David Franke was one of the founders of the conservative movement in the 1950s and 1960s. He is the author of a dozen books, including Safe Places [1]The Torture Doctor [2], and America’s Right Turn [3].

16 Comments (Open | Close)

16 Comments To "Was ‘American Sniper’ Antiwar?"

#1 Comment By M Mitchell On March 27, 2015 @ 10:23 am

Most people don’t see AS as an anti-war film.

#2 Comment By Giuseppe Scalas On March 27, 2015 @ 10:45 am

For what it may be worth, since we’re talking about a movie with a political message (which, of course, is not the only one) directed mainly towards an American public, in Europe it has been most interpreted as an anti-war movie.
My personal feeling, however, has been of ambiguity.
However, Eastwood has left a few clues pointing towards an anti-war interpretation, e.g., the scene almost at the end, when Chris Kyle points playfully a (loaded?) gun towards his wife, and then abandon it carelessly on a shelf.
The aim of such a scene can only be to suggest that Kyle had been severely damaged by his experience: not a very pro-war statement, I’d say.

#3 Comment By balconesfault On March 27, 2015 @ 11:26 am

To me, Eastwood’s directoral brilliance comes through when he leads into that last firefight in Sadr City. You’re shown the expanses of Baghdad as the helicopters pan over the city introducing the scene. Finally you focus into one small little few block area where the fighting takes place. And fighting takes place, bloodshed takes place, Kyle finally kills his Moby Dick, and then they have to escape in the midst of a massive sandstorm with the casualties mounting on both sides.

My sense at the time was to remember when I’d take my son to the beach, and he’d spend all day building intricate moats and walls and turrents of sand. Just like with the Sadr City battle scene, if you focus just on the spot where the action is taking place, it takes on meaning. If you pull back the lens a bit, you realize that it is just one tiny portion of a massive expanse of city/beach that dwarfs the conflict/castle building.

At the beach, the tide would roll in overnight and sweep clean almost every trace of my son’s labors the previous day. In Sniper a sandstorm rolls in and we know that the next day, except for the holes in the soldiers who came out alive (physical and psychological) … and the holes in the families of those who didn’t come out alive … there would be little evidence of the intense battle that had taken place the previous day.

Of course, sand castle building is an end to itself … the question then becomes was the killing during the Iraq Conflict an end unto itself?

#4 Comment By tz On March 27, 2015 @ 12:04 pm

Lon Horiuchi was also an American sniper, yet he and his shots have been forgotten by the same people who laud this movie.

#5 Comment By SteveM On March 27, 2015 @ 12:19 pm

Re: “But maybe a movie showing war’s impact on individual soldiers would have more eye-opening impact.”

What disturbs me is that military people today are not treated as independent agents with a free will. It is as if uniformed personnel in an all-volunteer force are merely puppets on a string. So absolved from reflecting on whether what they are charged to do by the elites is moral or actually makes sense. And then choosing to get out if it does not.

And of course Eastwood’s movie was not consciously anti-war. If it were, he would have accurately portrayed Kyle’s genuine sensibilities, which were those of a sociopathic narcissist.

But that wouldn’t fit the now normative stereotype of the sanctified soldier as the “Warrior Hero defending our freedoms”. Eastwood knows what side his bread is buttered on.

#6 Comment By Daniel (not Larison) On March 27, 2015 @ 5:23 pm

If Eastwood intended to make an anti-war movie, there are a lot of people for whom the message was too subtle and interpreted it as a gung-ho heroic tale. If his was intention was anti-war, he failed.

Then again, some gung-ho types love “Full Metal Jacket”, more explicitly anti-war.

So does this mean that movie watchers are incapable of understanding art? Maybe so…in which case, it’s a piss-poor medium to communicate these kinds of messages.

But a great one to get an obscene amount of money.

#7 Comment By Johann On March 27, 2015 @ 5:48 pm

“Outlaw Josie Wales” I believe was his best libertarian movie. I have not seen “American Sniper”.

#8 Comment By The Wet One On March 27, 2015 @ 6:11 pm

“What disturbs me is that military people today are not treated as independent agents with a free will. It is as if uniformed personnel in an all-volunteer force are merely puppets on a string. So absolved from reflecting on whether what they are charged to do by the elites is moral or actually makes sense. And then choosing to get out if it does not.”

That viewpoint seems to betray a profound ignorance of what military personnel are expected to do. Especially that second last sentence. This is generally not the purview of the military. Especially not the question of whether their actions “make sense.” That’s for the political leadership to decide. Questions of morality, eh, maybe, in a few situations, the personnel on the ground get to make that call. In reality, if they are told to destroy the world, the world will be destroyed, morality be damned. That’s the way it’s supposed to work anyhow.

#9 Comment By cameyer On March 27, 2015 @ 6:12 pm

I think it’s one of Eastwood’s worst filmss. The characters were cardboard. Here’s a guy supposedly struggling with whether he’s a hero or killer, but the only signs of his struggle were a bit of hesitation before blowing up a kid, some tension as he waited to snipe, etc. Even he talks with his wife were devoid of drama or real emotional clashing. You knew he was addicted to his work because he kept going back. When he finally came home, it was anticlimatic. He gave no indication of self-awareness. Yes, you can say Cooper’s portrayal was ‘understated’. I think he had too little to work with. The whole movie left me asking myself what it was even about and thirsty to watch “Platoon” and “Hurt Locker’ to soothe my disappointment.

#10 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 28, 2015 @ 7:57 am

“What disturbs me is that military people today are not treated as independent agents with a free will. It is as if uniformed personnel in an all-volunteer force are merely puppets on a string. So absolved from reflecting on whether what they are charged to do by the elites is moral or actually makes sense. And then choosing to get out if it does not.”

This may have somein the generl we don’t want the military value in the upper echelons of military. However, we don’t want military personnel focussed on political quesions.

We want them to fight. They are the force arm of the countries political objectives. And whether the fore projection is one of perception to acheive a political end or the actual use of force, their objective is to use said force whn so commanded. The military is not the boy scouts.

As all volunter agency, whatever issues a service member has about said service it is expected that they would have been adressed prior to joining. If they have a desire to serve as consciencious objectors, those issues should been addessed prior to the break out of any conflict. Upon serving whatever issues, they have with policy can be “moaned and groaned” amongst their fellows, their command, , letters to their congressperson or letters to the command.

And while the services have inducements to join, it is expected that every service member, (unless female) be prepared to use violence, a violence that have willingly agreed to engage in to defend the country or accomplish some other political objective.

When they sign whatever their political ideologies, they are set aside to defend each other to some political end. Aside from treason and other criminal acts — we want them to fight and it is expected that they will.

It the job of civilians to keep service members out of unneccessary military conflicts.
____________

As for CHeif kyles multiple tours. I am not sure we have fully ubderstood the bond that is developed for men in combat, especially for ground troops, where the battle is counted in breaths and te consequences of such vicseral experience are immediate. The interpersonal dynamics are so powerful that men will return out of some guilt and responsibility for those that remain. Not only has this question been understudied if at all, one questions whether it should be. That loyalty and those bonds, are a valuable commodity. A study of Vietnam Vets, revealed that even they returned and would do say again in defense of their comrades.

#11 Comment By EliteCommInc. On March 28, 2015 @ 8:07 am

I did see the folm and enjoyed it. I did not see gthe film as anti-war. I am nore that I agree that it was intended to be. It’s one man’s story. The telling of that story does not in any manner diminish the story’s of any other men, or their stories told or untold, if ever.

It does not devalue the scores of herois actions taken by thousands whose
sacrifice(s) we will never know. I find it peculiar that so many well educated people from elite schools are just now realizing that the US has had it’s fair share of national moral trade-offs to engage in violence against others. While unfortunate, it does not make the US any less exceptional merely because on the road to becoming a nation state she has stumbled.

Not even slavery which prevented the US from being a democratic nation, denies the excepionality of who she is and what she represents and unless she gives the place away carelessly, she can remain so.

#12 Comment By Scott Gerschwer On March 28, 2015 @ 9:14 am

I watched American Sniper with profound sadness. First, because of the facts behind the war. Eastwood’s lone disingenuous cut was the one that juxtaposed 9/11 and the war–the implication was as obvious as it was erroneous–I had to double-check in my mind that he was in Iraq as opposed to Afghanistan. But more profoundly sad was the guns–Kyle’s obsession with guns was like an alcoholic’s with booze–he couldn’t think of anything else to do with his fellow vets but take them shooting, that scene with his wife was harrowing, and in the end a gun got him. I doubt the theme was intentional but America’s relationship with guns as a source of freedom, self-expression, Rights, entertainment, utility…and the lack of imagination made me sad. I was moved to tears at the end, which rarely happens. It’s a film worth seeing.

#13 Comment By Ken Hoop On March 28, 2015 @ 1:34 pm

The author fawns a little too much to suit me, especially but not exclusively in view of Eastwood’s scandal laced past.
Eastwood at the request of Kyle’s wife removed the original ending of the film which gave an antiwar message of karma might get ya.

#14 Comment By Patrick Gatti On March 28, 2015 @ 10:29 pm

Some conservatives are not capable of understanding movies. Never forget “A Few Good Men” and the hero Nathan Jessup.

#15 Comment By SteveM On March 30, 2015 @ 5:05 pm

Re: The Wet One and EliteCommInc.

I acknowledge the obligations of active duty military personnel to do as they are commanded. However, they eventually do have to re-enlist or re-up their commissions. At those points, they can have that internal dialog and choose to get out.

The vets that did get out for the right reasons are the ones I would “thank for their service”. Because it could serve as an example for others.

I wish the non-interventionist side had one hundredth of the budget that the National Security State has to power its massive propaganda machine that seduces young people into signing up for the stupidity.

#16 Comment By EliteCommInc On March 31, 2015 @ 2:46 pm

“However, they eventually do have to re-enlist or re-up their commissions. At those points, they can have that internal dialog and choose to get out.”

“The vets that did get out for the right reasons are the ones I would “thank for their service”. Because it could serve as an example for others.”

I thik in both of these observations you are missing the essential point for those that return.

Few, maybe because they have no where else to go.

Few, because they agree with the political end.

Most because they are committed to their fellows. That sense of guilt bor out of something forged in war, we have yet to comprehend even if we needed to do so.

As for me, I appreciate everyone who serves. Whether they support the policy or not. I don’t think a service members life in service to country and his fellows is ever a waste. But I am deeply concerned that we yet to address their treatment when they arrive home.

The utter failure to create some transition from combat envirinments to peace time is a disgrace.
______

I think Mr. Eastwood got some lousy counsel on the issue of Miss Locke, formerly Mrs. Eastwood. And I dare say, I feel bit foolish having made some comments I made at the time in defense of Mr. Eastwood. Miss Locke, I sincerely hope has recovered what she lost and more. But attempting to pile on the machinations of the Hollywood set tp their veracity in movie making agendas or value is a very tenuous and unfair bid.