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“Evil Against Evil”: The Fascinating Incoherence of American Sniper

Clint Eastwood’s "American Sniper" has become only the second R-rated movie to gross $300 million at the U.S. box office. The cause for its success is attributed to how it’s attracted, as Michael Moore puts it, the “Passion of the Christ crowd,” in reference to Mel Gibson’s 2004 Jesus film, the other R-rated $300 million earner with an attributed Red State following. But while a film about Chris Kyle, the late Navy SEAL from Texas who racked up over 160 confirmed kills during four tours in Iraq, could be dismissed as pro-war propaganda laced with the irresistible money magnet ingredients of jingoism and violent sadism (at least that’s how its critics seem to paint the picture), "American Sniper" has significant similarities with—when we adjust inflation—two much more successful Restricted films. Like "The Godfather," Eastwood’s latest not only is about a killer the audience perceives as a hero and family man, but the journey Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) and his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) take through the film has the disconcerting mien of something uncanny, and in examining a nation’s agonized mythos, it’s closer to "The Exorcist" than "Lone Survivor" or "Saving Private Ryan." "American Sniper" is a perplexing riddle of valor on an incoherent battlefield, following a character—and an ideology—who believes in good and evil but whose actions embody the enigmatic words of an Iraqi curator studying the satanic artifact meant to ward off evil spirits in "The Exorcist"’s prologue: “Evil against evil.” 

Given its fractured psychology, "American Sniper" resists a coherent message, which has enabled the controversy surrounding it. This year’s Oscar race handily played with neat binary categorizations, as "Selma" and "American Sniper" were set up as opposing political movies from the left and right, as if to echo the (unfair) divide between "Coming Home" and "The Deer Hunter" in 1978. Media hoopla nurtured the reductionism as a recent lawsuit involving Jesse Ventura and a New Yorker piece suggest that the real life Kyle may have been something of a Munchausen telling tall tales of heroic exploits to bolster his growing legend, and so less a true grit “Clint” archetype than Richard Harris’ English Bob, the railroad-hired mercenary followed by a biographer who writes whatever the gunslinger tells him, in "Unforgiven." The clamorous applause of conservatives like Sarah Palin doesn’t help, as meanwhile the film becomes a think-piece generator for progressives. In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi likens "American Sniper" to "Forrest Gump," “a simple, well-lit little fairy tale with the nutritional value of a fortune cookie that serves up a neatly-arranged helping of cheers and tears for target audiences, and panics at the thought of embracing more than one or two ideas at any time.” 

While Taibbi is correct to liken Chris Kyle, in real-life or in "American Sniper"’s dramatic representation, to the “Stay the Course” bubble worldview of George W. Bush, it’s harder to do so for the film itself (Taibbi’s sense of Eastwood as a director of empty calorie fortune cookies also suggests he has a very different impression of "Bird," "Unforgiven," "Mystic River," "Million Dollar Baby," "Letters from Iwo Jima" than I do, but whatever). At the heart of the film is a push and pull of clarion American landscapes with core values handed down by the father set against tempestuous disorder and doubt, with Chris’ eyes trying to catch a white horse running through the night, and where a sandstorm, following a “Mission Accomplished” proclamation, makes it impossible for the viewer to distinguish between American and Iraqi. In this sense, it is a Bush Jr. movie, but in the same way Eastwood’s troubling though fascinating misfire "J. Edgar" (with its own invented white horse) mirrored its subject as an incomplete film, complementing its titular incomplete Machine Man played by Leonardo DiCaprio

Like "J. Edgar," which also caught the ire of progressives (as it’s a somewhat sympathetic film about an architect of American fascism), "American Sniper" is often defined by its conspicuous omissions. Hoover says to one of his many biographical ghostwriters who inquires about specifics, “Let’s leave that to the reader’s imagination. The important thing is drawing the line between protagonist and antagonist.” It’s a line that connects with a recurring Eastwood theme of black and white hats, but I think it gives more insight into Hoover’s mindset—and our nation’s mythology rooted in Eastwood’s embryotic Western mileau—than Eastwood’s. (Again, as if he’s never really considered the implications of "Unforgiven" or Eastwood’s "Iwo Jima" movies, Taibbi writes, “The characters in Eastwood’s movies almost always wear white and black hats or their equivalents, so you know at all times who’s the good guy on the one hand, and whose exploding head we’re to applaud on the other.”) The tone of suffusing dread Eastwood wrangles in "American Sniper," like the eerie blankness in "J. Edgar," makes such topical absences (the Iraq dead, WMDs, the policy of the Bush cabinet) feel more like repression than jingoistic whitewashing, encapsulated with an image of Chris returning home amongst servicemen’s caskets, something the Bush White House didn’t want photographers to publish. 

The link between the two films is repression, which ties into the startling transgressive sense that "American Sniper" could be read as what the late Marxist critic Robin Wood defined as an “Incoherent Text.” The idea is a throwback to Eastwood’s heyday of the 1970s, when Classical Hollywood had collapsed. Wood writes, “There are two keys to understanding the development of the Hollywood cinema in the 70s: the impingement of Vietnam on the national consciousness and the unconscious, and the astonishing evolution of the horror film.” The war led to doubts about patriarchal guidelines, “the symbolic figure of the Father in all its manifestations,” while motifs of the horror genre began to permeate and undermine all facets of the era’s cinema, Wood focusing on three key motifs: the monster-as-human-psychopath who is a product of “normality”; the descent-into-hell; and the doppelganger. While art strives to make coherent meaning out of human experience, the maker of the “incoherent text” perceives the chaos that art represses and reorders. With these films, meaning is defeated. Built on Classical foundations of meaning, the films are fracturing as they play out before us. They’re bewildering, and “they are works that do not know what they want to say.” 

I can’t say authoritatively that Wood would read "American Sniper" as an incoherent text any more than I can affirm Clint Eastwood would nod in approval to having his work interpreted through the prism of Marxist theory, and many others might have a hard time believing “one take Clint” as a transgressive artist (though that certainly would explain the whole Invisible Obama In A Chair fiasco at the 2012 RNC). But "American Sniper," while classical enough to satisfy millions of middle American viewers and infuriate others, seems in its very design to function through schizophrenic entropy, its narrative of violent stalwart heroism riddled with cancerous doubts that malignantly enfold it. The young Chris Kyle, aimless as a rodeo cowboy, is framed through a door like Ethan Edwards in "The Searchers" (which Wood calls one of the definitive incoherent texts). He’s led to war not so much by patriotism as by rage (“You’re pissed off,” the recruiting official says as the 30-year-old Kyle, somewhat past his prime, enlists following the 1998 U.S. embassy bombings). Jason Hall’s screenplay assigns him a doppelganger, Mustafa, a maneuver that is as structurally egregious as it is disarmingly meaningful in showing how the Chris Kyle worldview requires a villain who is a repressive mirror exemplifying the shortcomings of the Father’s strict but hollow categories (in "Sniper," Chris’ father sternly lists them as sheep, wolves, and sheep dogs) that deny agency to other people (and races or nations); as Wood writes of homophobia in (the characters of) William Friedkin’s controversial Cruising, the “savage” that Chris Kyle hates is the unacknowledged “savage” within himself—and his country. 

After the father initiates Kyle into America’s culture of guns, God, and rigid categories, his absence from the rest of the narrative denotes a pronounced disintegration of authoritative validity. It’s as markedly eerie as the presence of the fake robotic baby in Chris’ arms as he squabbles with Taya between tours. Much blabber has surrounded this conspicuous prop, used as ammunition by the film’s attackers who like to condescend its presumed ideology, and while the excuse is one of Eastwood’s on-set just-shoot-it methodology (there were problems with the real baby), the fact that Mustafa seems to have progeny from the same plastic toy manufacturer further effuses the whole movie with an off-note but purposeful dissonance, a sense of invasion and possession, especially when we look at Chris’ affectless eyes while talking to his wife. Just earlier while pregnant, she says to Chris on the phone, “I have an alien growing inside of me,” a line of jokey marital rapport, but in the full context of "American Sniper" it moves us out of familiar Over There War Movie territory and into the foreboding sleepless zone of devil spawn Vietnam/Nixon era horror, as varied as "Rosemary’s Baby," "The Omen," "The Exorcist," and "It’s Alive." 

In contrast to his own father, new dad Chris is a hero writhing between the western and horror film, protector of a hellish town and committed to the Law of the Father, but he’s also a manufactured product of sorts, a killing machine produced by a system that’s gradually losing its credibility (as expressed in characters surrounding Chris, like his shell-shocked brother, exasperated and anxious wife, frustrated superiors, and fellow servicemen who’ve lost their faith in the Iraq mission—all elements glossed over by Eastwood’s critics). As Robin Wood describes the relationship between Ethan Edwards in "The Searchers" and Travis Bickle in "Taxi Driver," we could include a description of Eastwood’s Chris Kyle, the central incoherence here in “the failure to establish a consistent, and adequately rigorous, attitude to the protagonist.” After Travis’ “heroic” assault on a pimp’s den, we realize this New York Hell will nevertheless remain execrable, just as Iraq, after “Mission Accomplished” (Mustafa’s death, and certainly the larger picture of U.S. foreign policy) will sink deeper into hell. Ethan Edwards, Travis Bickle, and the fictional Chris Kyle remain the Hero, though with unresolved thorns of ambivalence following us out of the theater and into our myriad think pieces. 

"American Sniper" begins exactly as "The Exorcist" does—with the call of “Allahu Akbar” in Iraq. This cloaks both films with a veil of suspect xenophobia, but on examination it really expresses a condition of despair as applied to the Western protagonists that also interrogates us as moviegoers. In "The Exorcist," matters of the eternal are taken very seriously by the Iraqi Muslims. They are conscious of Good and Evil in a way that the First World citizens dwelling Georgetown are not. It’s not any allegiance to the devil that brings Satan into the household of Ellen Burstyn and her daughter (Linda Blair), but secular acquiescence and apathy. What’s significant is that director William Friedkin and writer William Peter Blatty show how similarly weighty issues are trivialized by the medium in which they’re working, motion pictures. Burstyn plays a Hollywood actress who’s relocated with her daughter to Georgetown for a movie that seems to be about social unrest on college campuses, but processed as mere entertainment it’s humorously dismissed by Burstyn’s character as “Walt Disney’s version of the Ho Chi Minh story.” The film meanwhile works as a horror film because of how the supernatural fractures Friedkin’s verisimilitudinous universe, the abrasiveness stealing us away from entertainment where Good and Evil are mere abstractions. By the conclusion, “God is Great” means something, even if the war between Good and Evil is unresolved and mysterious. Satan is cast out (really moving from one vessel to another), but the safe confines of secular America with its movie houses and luxuries no longer feel safe. Georgetown becomes uncanny, familiar and yet as removed as the prologue’s Iraq. 

In "American Sniper," “Allahu Akbar” is followed by the epitome of profane destruction, a tank.  As it moves through a Fallujah warzone and Chris readies his aim on a woman and child preparing an RPG to kill U.S. troops, we have a chilling mural of "The Exorcist"’s “evil against evil.” Eastwood cuts from the moment before Chris will have his first confirmed kills to his childhood in Texas, a landscape of blue skies, well kept yards, and amber waves of grain. It’s racially homogenic and tightly structured with the stern but encouraging authority of Chris’ father, who takes the boy hunting (where Chris will kill his first deer, and warned to never leave his rifle in the dirt) and presides over affairs as values are handed down, namely the apologetics of St. Paul in the Book of Acts, where the new Christians spread the gospel and balance the divine authority of Christ with that of Caesar, and the three distinct categories of men. 

The flashback functions as a defense mechanism for someone who must necessarily enact evil to stop it. He falls back on the knowledge of Good and Evil, even though the divide between the two was more important that examining the possibility of co-existence. Chris, who steals a bible from church (but never seems to open it), and beats the hell out of a schoolyard bully, is anointed with the binary but has no tools to process it. His brand of justice is a form of righteousness that follows him into adulthood. There’s no deliberation, dialogue, or inquiry. He’s impelled by rage, as if the role of sheep dog gives him the right to become a wolf at the right moment. His beastliness is given fuel and vented with the schoolyard bully, his unfaithful girlfriend and her lover, and finally by terrorist acts. He was bestowed a cowboy ideology, but as he competes in a rodeo, the bleachers feel empty. 

What’s so tragic about "American Sniper" is that terrorism once more gives meaning to discredited and decaying ideology, the sheep-dog representatives of which follow like sheep. We may dislike Eastwood’s Kyle or sympathize for him deeply. But the human treatment the director and Bradley Cooper give him is heart wrenching because it puts a face on the faceless, murderous foot soldier, which is a conversation about warfare few people, of any political wing, is comfortable having. And while Eastwood gives his accusers fuel by presenting Mustafa in eye-catching black wardrobe and matching stubble, is his representation any more monstrous than the menacing death-signifying skulls on U.S. tanks, or Chris’ gradual metamorphosis into an Angel of Death, not unlike Eastwood’s William Munny from Unforgiven (or for that matter “Preacher” from Pale Rider)? 

The media rabble around the film fires back and forth about Chris Kyle as hero and monster, a problem Eastwood cannot solve but shows us in "American Sniper"’s final scene, as Chris flirtatiously mimics a black hat from Western moviedom while pointing a gun at Taya, and at his daughter’s request imitates a frightening bear. The latter impression loudly recalls Marlon Brando’s final scene in "The Godfather," a fortuitous bit of improvisation the great actor wrought in order to accomplish the scene with an uncooperative child actor. Vito Corleone, another “American Hero” who molded a murderous reputation born of trying to protect his family, plays the part of menacing monster with his grandson before collapsing of a fatal heart attack. Whether deliberate or not (like the mystery of Eastwood’s fake baby), the metaphor is powerful: the godfather dies like he lived, as a monster, a tragic cycle repeated by his son Michael, whose entropy parallels Chris Kyle’s decisive, but necessary, first kill. 

As a consequence of real life, "American Sniper"’s rehabilitation of Chris, where he gradually overcomes the PTSD that he’s been rejecting by reaching out to physically wounded veterans, is tragically overwhelmed by the horrific return of the repressed. I regret that sounds like a trivialization of an actual tragedy, but the film’s conclusion is, for me, an all-too-appropriate way to express the insoluble character of America’s last 15 years, with its rampant and contradictory foreign invasions coupled with disengaged psychological hermeticism. Chris Kyle says goodbye to his wife and children before taking a young vet with PTSD to a gun range, where we know the young man will—inexplicably—shoot Chris. Taya’s perspective of the mysterious young man waiting for Chris by a truck is one of the most unsettling images in recent memory, the film’s third angel of death recognized by the knowing audience, or perhaps another doppelganger heralding a terrifying psychosis we/Chris/America cannot snap out of. Eastwood again invokes The Godfather, as the husband’s enigma and burrowed sins walk away from the gaze of a long suffering wife, the closing door blotting her out from what calls him away. 

"American Sniper"’s success stands on contradictions, but in that sense it recalls its R-rated cultural phenom forebears; "The Godfather" films were intended to be a criticism of capitalism by Francis Ford Coppola, but that hasn’t stopped it from being adored and emulated by everyone from Ayn Randians to U.S. foreign policy analysts (as Tom Hanks’ mega-successful entrepreneur calls it in Nora Ephron’s "You’ve Got Mail," it’s the I Ching). As for "American Sniper," which oscillates between its protagonist being a hero and murderer, the epilogue consisting of media footage of Chris’ funeral feels like the single note of hagiographic excess that throws a marked criticism of the film’s subject off track. But it reinforces the film’s incoherent design and makes it forcefully haunting. Nothing, within the film’s American ideology, feels resolvable, and so the film feels like the antithesis of what it’s alleged to be by detractors. 

My theatrical experiences of "American Sniper" remind me of Seth Rogen’s publicized tweet, likening the film to “Nation’s Pride,” the fictional Joseph Goebbels propaganda film from "Inglourious Basterds." It’s an ironic statement, as I was one of the very few who caught Rogen’s own holiday war film, "The Interview," in a sold out theater on Christmas Day. I confess to liking it quite a lot, but the crowd was incessantly laughing and cheering as North Korea’s brass met violent death, Kim Jong-Un’s demise leading to particularly clamorous applause: it was a replication of Tarantino’s Parisian theater screening of “Nation’s Pride.” On the other hand, I repeatedly hear how nothing but somber audience silence follows "American Sniper." It supplants "Unforgiven" to become Eastwood’s last Western, but without the chiaroscuro buffer of genre, instead hurling us into evenly lit recent events a lot of us have resisted and repressed. There’s no catharsis following the kill shots, only a nonsensical and inexorable abyss. 

Hollywood from Vietnam to Reagan…and Beyond by Robin Wood

On J. Edgar

Matt Taibbi on American Sniper



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