Sunday, February 01, 2015


American Sniper. As I suspected, the political obsessives were watching, through their Zhdanovite lenses, a very different movie than the one I saw, which is both more interesting and weirder than what they describe.

Chris Kyle is a good Christian Texan whose father taught him to shoot and that the world is made up of sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs (basically a more Christian version of the dicks-pussies-and-assholes analogy from Team America: World Police). Kyle internalizes the lesson, including the contempt for both sheep and wolves contained in it; when U.S. embassies are blown up in 1998, he quits his fun but purposeless cowboy life to sign up with the Navy Seals (yeah, it does seem weird; Eastwood rushes through it); Nineeleven finally sends Kyle into combat in Iraq, where in the ruins of the cities he more or less gives up on sheep entirely and just tries to kill Iraqis who are trying to kill his fellow sheepdogs. Oh, in between '98 and '01, he meets a lady who likes him, marries her, and gets her pregnant (don't worry, I'm not eliding many grace notes there).

This all happens very quickly, bookended by a flashback from Kyle's first kills: First a child, then a woman try, surreptitiously at first, to blow up his comrades. Kyle takes them out from a rooftop. Another SEAL tells him as he prepares to fire that if he's wrong he'll get his ass thrown in Leavenworth; but he's not wrong, he saves his men and his illustrious career as a sniper and (this word gets thrown around enough to become loaded) "legend" is launched.

This first part of the movie teaches us everything we're going to learn about Kyle -- that he's capable of intense focus, charming when he wants to be, believes in what he's doing and isn't afraid to say so. In other words, he's like a Clint Eastwood hero, except for one thing: No sense of humor. He does have some mildly funny lines, but nothing on the order of "make my day" or "there are two kinds of people -- those with loaded guns and those who dig." There's no irony to him, nor the reflectiveness than gives a man irony. He does what he does, and never questions himself for a minute.

And that's why, throughout the remainder of the film, Kyle doesn't see a lot of things that Eastwood makes very obvious and that even other servicemen, even his own brother, are able to see: That they're only defending each other, and Kyle is only killing so many people in defense of them, because they insist on coming back, over and over again, to a place where no one seems to want them. He also can't tell that he's suffering from massive PTSD attacks (and by the way, I don't think anyone's shown transient mental illness better than Eastwood does here). I'm not even sure that, when he begins his mercy missions among wounded warriors near the end, Kyle knows what happened to him. And he gives no indication that he's expecting what's going to happen to him at the end.

Once that first section is over with, the movie gets really weird. A seminarian turned SEAL reveals to Kyle that he's lost faith in his God and this war; later, when he's killed in an ambush, his mother reads his anguished letter about the war aloud at his funeral -- it's barely coherent, as his mother is breaking down with emotion; later, Kyle, apparently in the midst of another stress attack (and therefore pretty much devoid of emotion) says it was actually the letter that killed his comrade.  Then there's the scene where Kyle calls his wife on the phone from the middle of a firefight -- a firefight he caused because, against orders, he had to take a magic mile-long shot to kill his nemesis, which alerts all the local jihadis to the squad's presence -- and tells her tearfully that he's ready to come home. When he does get home he sits in a bar watching a basketball game; his wife calls and he tells her, "I just need a minute."

And there's the scene where Kyle's goading a severely disabled vet, in the easy, friendly way he goaded his own comrades back in the field, to get his shots to hit a target. The goading works; "I feel like I got my balls back," says the vet. He keeps making shots, and gives Kyle a look that doesn't seem entirely friendly. "Who's the legend now?" the vet tells him.

But the legend is Kyle, of course; as the credits begin we see archival footage of the real Kyle's coffin borne along the Texas highway, lined with people saluting and waving flags. They see things the way Kyle did. Sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs; do what you have to do and don't cry about it. Eastwood knows his Ford, and what Ford said about what to do when the legend becomes fact. I'm not shocked the movie's such a hit.


  1. GeorgeMokray7:27 PM

    Here's Chris Kyle speaking for himself on CSPAN:

    He came across to me as a very limited man but, within those limits, honest with who he was and what he did. Too bad he decided to buy into the "spit on the Vietnam vets" myth.

  2. StringOnAStick8:26 PM

    Good link; thanks.

  3. there's a great section at the beginning of anthony swofford's 'jarhead' where he writes about sitting with a bunch of other grunts, getting jacked up watching 'apocalypse now' before shipping out to kuwait: swofford observes that it doesn't matter what the politics of a war film are to a certain mindset--particularly that of the enlisted men he knew--and that from the point of view of this perspective, it's all just like the porn they consume when they're away from home.

  4. StringOnAStick8:27 PM

    I am forced to admit that after Eastwood's lecture-the-chair moment, I'm been a little suspicious of his movie making goals. I'm glad the movie is more nuanced than all the 'Murika, fuck yeah praise for it that I've been seeing, though it seems that nuance is lost on those determined to see only flag waving and moral certitude.
    I am also reminded of a friends' son, who joined the army immediately after viewing Saving Private Ryan, insisting on infantry rather than the higher level jobs he qualified for and the recruiter tried to talk him into taking. Funny; my husband's response as the lights came up was to turn to me and say "That's as close to war as I ever want to be". Not being jacked up on an 18 year olds' testosterone level might have something to do with it.

  5. ken_lov8:27 PM

    "because they insist on coming back, over and over again, to a place where no one seems to want them."

    For some reason, conservatives seem emotionally incapable of acknowledging this blindingly obvious explanation of the never-ending American war in the Middle East. America went out of its way to make enemies out of millions of people, continues to behave in ways guaranteed to antagonise them even more, and then asks with a puzzled expression how it can defeat them. It's like Mickey Mouse in "Fantasia", cluelessly watching the army of broomsticks grow as it tries to chop them into pieces.

  6. harumph8:41 PM

    Well, he definitely was not honest with who he was and what he did. He did quite a bit of myth-making on his own. His baseless self-mythologizing includes the claim that he killed 30 looters in post-Katrina New Orleans. Thankfully he was lying, but the irony here was that he had previously boasted about looting civilian homes in Iraq:

    “To me, the home I was in was just another part of the battlefield. The apartments and everything in them were just things to be used to accomplish our goal—clearing the city.” He even put a baby crib “to good use” as a rifle platform. Then he started “rummaging through the complex to see if I could find any cool shit—money, guns, explosives. The only thing I found worth acquisitioning was a handheld Tiger Woods game.”

    He also claimed to have killed two carjackers in Houston. Houston PD says it didn't happen.

  7. GeorgeMokray9:26 PM

    Did not know of those controversies and the Jesse Ventura lawsuit when I saw the CSPAN show. Still think he was being honest within his limitations but suggest that he was compartmentalizing a whole helluva lot. He also seemed to me to be a man obviously in pain with more anger than he could deal with.

  8. DocAmazing9:27 PM

    !'m waiting for a remake of Fort Apache set in Fallujah. Let the annihilation of memory begin!

  9. Chris Kyle is a good Christian Texan whose father taught him to shoot
    and that the world is made up of sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs

    What an odious characterization of the world. No wonder he was a fucked up, grandiose sociopath.

  10. That is a truly great book.

  11. DocAmazing10:42 PM

    Silly sniper! The world is made up of Larrys, Moes, and Curlys. No, coyotes, roadrunners, and falling Acme anvils. No,wait, hammers, nails, and two-by-fours. No, wait...

  12. . . . nuance is lost on those determined to see only flag waving and moral certitude.

    Remember that these are people who couldn't tell that Colbert was mocking them. People who are unable to discern sarcasm. People who, basically, got stuck somewhere around age 8.

  13. Salt and pepper and Mrs. Dash!!

  14. montag25:26 AM

    Certainly, a good deal of the buzz around the movie is that Eastwood added a great deal of nuance that the protagonist in real life did not himself see or acknowledge. It could be that Eastwood did not anticipate that his film could not exist sui generis when there was a preexisting narrative in book form that ran counter to his film, but that seems to suggest a naivete on Eastwood's part that he definitely would not admit.

    Had Eastwood followed Kyle's narrative--and dialogue--with utter faithfulness, the end result would have been an entirely different film, one in which principles were beside the point and which would have reinforced the view of U.S. soldiers as unfeeling--and unthinking--monsters. But, Eastwood being Eastwood, that's not the sort of portrait of the American soldier he was willing or able to present.

    In a way, this is the same sort of gilding the lily that "Charlie Wilson's War" did for the rather more ugly and sordid reality behind the proxy war in Afghanistan.

  15. montag25:37 AM

    There's a glimmer in that of the reality that all wars today are not the organic end result of conflict, but, rather, to a considerable degree are manufactured.

    The epiphany should be that the U.S. is the one manufacturing most of those wars these days, and not for high-blown moral purposes. For a lot of reasons, that's not an enlightenment that sits well with the average American soldier (even today with Vietnam vets).

  16. randomworker9:58 AM

    This is, quite possibly the best movie review I have ever read. Just thought I would put that out there.

  17. M. Krebs10:28 AM

    ... sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs

    That works for me as a metaphor for wingnuttia.

  18. bradley cooper says that eastwood pitched the project as a western, and that they approached the material thusly, so maybe our roy is more on point than even he realizes.....

  19. bogan backlash11:27 AM

    That's a good description of the movie, which was about a stoical Eastwood hero, not the real guy. A well-made movie about the real person would have been more interesting, but maybe not a big hit.

  20. StringOnAStick11:27 AM

    I thought I detected a dawning awareness if just what a fuck-up had been set in motion in the look on Tom Hanks' character's face at the awards ceremony at the end of the film, but that probably occurred entirely within my historically educated liberal mind, not on actual film.

  21. Tyrone Slothrop11:34 AM

    I read a great article about Kyle—in the New Yorker, IIRC—wherein the author suggested that his Katrina and carjacking episodes were the result of the PTSD he had difficulty in acknowledging, not so much for what it was, but for the perduring way it affected his mind and his life. That the latter was ended by another, more seriously (or, at least, obviously) affected vet while he was attempting to connect with is the darkest irony of his whole grim story...

  22. petesh11:37 AM

    Mick LaSalle in the SF Chron almost makes me want to see the movie:
    If at the end of “American Sniper,” you feel less than moved by the title character’s exploits — if the whole enterprise leaves you with a strange, hard-to-define feeling — don’t think that’s an accident. Clint Eastwood has made a sneaky, complicated film that takes the form of a rousing war movie but whose ideas are almost subversive, or at least too provocative to state overtly. ... [But} greatness was never a possibility, not with a protagonist not all that interesting and with the surrounding circumstances making it impossible to go deeper and risk the movie’s critique of Kyle’s becoming overt.

  23. PersonaAuGratin11:51 AM

    Worth reading the whole review, notably "... if anybody thinks of Clint Eastwood as an uncomplicated old fellow who
    has conversations with chairs and who sees moral issues in black and
    white — forget it. This is the same director who took a nuanced view of Iwo Jima, and who made two films about that battle just to do justice to both points of view.

    Ten years ago, the rightwingers were upset with Clint over what they perceived as advocacy of euthanasia in Million Dollar Baby.

  24. Dregs Lewis11:57 AM

    one man's sheepdog is another man's wolf.

  25. Tyrone Slothrop2:07 PM

    That's the one. Thanks, HJ.

  26. Halloween_Jack2:27 PM

    That article has been linked here more than once, but it's worth linking again.

  27. You mean to say that they DON'T simply "hate us for our freedom?"

  28. PersonaAuGratin3:27 PM

    And by-the-by ... as I just found out that --apparently-- Woody Guthrie songs are not to be used with depictions of non-Americans (especially Muslim women), let us recall the controversy of a few SuperBowls ago when Karl Rove was offended that Clint would endorse the Obama Bailouts by narrating a Chrysler ad:

  29. John Wesley Hardin4:27 PM

    No, there are two kinds of people in the world; those who think there are two kinds of people in the world, and those who don't.

  30. John Wesley Hardin4:27 PM

    They seem to have a problem with our freedom to bomb the everloving shit out of them and overthrow their governments. They're just not ready for democracy.

  31. Jaime Oria6:36 PM

    I've a feeling Whittle gave himself a vigorous towelling off once he hit 'send' on that, that, whatever that was.

  32. Lordwhorfin7:09 PM

    My concern with the film lies in its shameless promotion of 'warrior culture' (even if Eastwood is attempting to present it with great subtlety warts and all). The failure to mention Kyle's self-aggrandizing lying, and his apparent relish in killing imaginary survivors of Hurricane Katrina, does defy the notion that Eastwood's treatment of the character can be seen as nuanced. If it's so nuanced that 90% of viewer leave chanting 'USA, USA' and 'exterminate all the brutes,' then Eastwood's attempt to explore Kyle as a latter day Mr. Kurtz has failed.

    The defense that this is really a film about a character who is not really Kyle is a dodge, plain and simple. The film was written, made, and promoted in a certain way. Eastwood may have indeed injected some of his famous sub-textual exploration into the narrative, but if it's so far above the heads of his audience, he can hardly have realized his vision. The creation of evil straw-men for Kyle to fight is a clear give-away that Eastwood meant to turn the Iraq war into a Western narrative with Whitehats and Blackhats. Even if he then laid on a delicate undercoat of doubt hardly justifies this treatment of such a humanitarian disaster.

  33. Hey, that's one of MY favorite sayings!

  34. StringOnAStick9:22 PM

    You've just picked a scab that I've been having trouble with as well. The whole warrior thing of worshipping every soldier is growing more than a little troubling for me, and I come from a military family and have ex-military friends. I'm finding the endless unquestioning adulation to be very late-stage empire-esque, and such an easy way to deflect society's moral need for self reflection and critical review.

  35. StringOnAStick9:27 PM

    I have a theory that an individual's mental age, if stuck below their biological age/adulthood, has a lot to do with when they experienced the first trauma in their life that was completely overwhelming. Some people are stopped dead by that, and some transcend it. I base this on close relatives who are professional victims/fundies, though the cred you get from the former sure garners some jebus-bucks in the revival tent.
    Looking at how the real Stephen Colbert lost his dad and 2 (3?) brothers in an airliner crash when he was a pre-teen, and what he subsequently made of himself is a big hint that the professional victim we are discussing up-blog might want to gather a clue from.

  36. TGuerrant10:09 PM

    honest within his limitations

    That should be on Rush Limbaugh's headstone.

  37. Halloween_Jack12:27 AM

    One of the weirdest things about Kyle was that he lied about things that most people wouldn't make up because it makes the storyteller seem like a monster. (Even the claim that he punched Jesse Ventura--who is over sixty and has health issues--is not exactly conducive to the personal legend, if a person took more than a few seconds to think about it.)

  38. smut clyde4:47 AM

    the first trauma in their life that was completely overwhelming

    Well, I was born, and that was reason enough to give up.

  39. smut clyde4:50 AM

    Unless they're police. Or nurses. Or MacDonalds staff.

  40. StringOnAStick5:26 PM

    Yeah, life was so easy before they took my placenta away!

  41. Jay Schiavone8:21 AM

    I get the sense that American Sniper needs the coda from that picture, where Wayne observes that the heroic painting of his predecessor's hubristic failure is "accurate in every detail."

  42. Lt. Fred11:09 PM

    I also like that he explicitly allies himself with corruption, labelling the notorious Ramparts department of the LAPD as one of the good guys. We intimidate others indeed.