Clint Eastwood’s blockbuster American Sniper is a war movie about an actual conflict and based on the life of a celebrated soldier. But one big reason the film is such a big hit is that it succeeds as an action movie.
In action movies, unreflective, spectacularly skilled and violent heroes face down horrible, threatening and sometimes alien evil. Back stories and character development are far less important than the fight sequences, the underlying tension and the battle between good and evil — us versus them.
Great war movies, like Eastwood’s own films about World War Two, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, or the classic films that followed the Vietnam War, are very different. For all their violence, they grapple with serious issues and profound conflicts — whether within society, among groups of soldiers or in one individual’s emotions. Vietnam War movies often feature complex portraits of veterans who return home damaged and even broken. They regularly confront the controversy that the war caused in the United States, and how this compromised the respect with which the nation welcomed the veterans back.
Director Clint Eastwood (L), holding his Directors Guild of America nomination medallion for ‘American Sniper,’ with the film’s star, Bradley Cooper, at the DGA Awards in Los Angeles, California, February 7, 2015.
Yet Bradley Cooper’s Chris Kyle, the hero in American Sniper, is not troubled by doubts about why the United States is fighting the war in Iraq — even though the 9/11 terrorists who motivated him to take up arms did not come from there. He is such an expert marksman that he becomes “the legend” among military snipers. Not only do his exploits save countless American lives, but his targets do not even seem human by our ordinary standards.
In the opening action sequence, for example, an Iraqi mother sends her young son out as a suicide bomber. After Kyle kills him, she has no thoughts for her lost child — only for carrying out the attack. Kyle has to kill her, too.
No characters in the film are conflicted or torn. The U.S. soldiers are honest and focused; the Iraqis are either vicious terrorists, duplicitous or helpless victims. The good guys’ goal is clear and just about impossible to dispute: They are fighting, Kyle explains, to keep evil “from San Diego or New York.”
In many of Eastwood’s best films – Unforgiven, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby — he uses his stories to examine the shattering price that men and women of violence have to pay for the way they live their lives. Kyle paid the ultimate price, though not in the war. But his death is neither shown nor lamented in American Sniper. We do glimpse his discomfort at having to shoot children, and some difficulty he has re-adjusting to civilian family life. Mainly, however, Eastwood has chosen to construct a simple fable around Kyle’s life and death — as in many action movies.
Bradley Cooper as Chis Kyle in ‘American Sniper.’
A boy is given a simple code by which to live — we are all either “sheep, wolves or sheepdogs” Kyle’s father explains to his young son early in the film — and is instructed in how to live it. After being lost for a time, the young man is shocked by external events and a threat to his people into assuming his heroic role. Celebrated, he returns home from battle, chastened but unbowed, and passes the same lessons on to his son. Then, suddenly, with no warning, he is taken from us forever, exalted now in his heroism for all time.
The great skill with which this action fable is executed, by both the director and his star, accounts for much of the film’s popularity and appeal.
But it’s not the only reason. Though American Sniper is a far better action film than it is a war movie, Eastwood also gives it a certain effectiveness as a war movie. Like the films about the Vietnam War, American Sniper is about a real war, controversial historical events and tragic death.
In choosing to construct an action fable from Kyle’s life, Eastwood claims to have made an apolitical character study. But he has given us a film with an implicit political message — and without any of the complex, memorable soldiers and veterans who populate most Vietnam War movies.
Compared to them, American Sniper is utterly without irony or reflection. Its brief basic-training sequence recalls the brilliant, scathing beginning of Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. But with none of the humor or examination of the dehumanization that is part of that training, or the souls it leaves behind.
Movie poster for ‘Platoon.’ Courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer/Orion Pictures.
Unlike the soldiers in all the major Vietnam War movies, neither Cooper’s Kyle nor any other soldier in American Sniper grapples with the complexities of their situation or the problems of a war that is not, after all, going the way the American commanders said it would. We see nothing comparable, for example, to the wrenching agony of Bruce Dern’s Bob Hyde in Coming Home. A gung-ho officer unaware that he is losing his wife to a disabled veteran during his first tour of duty, Hyde returns home from the war tormented not by his personal situation but by what he and his men did in Vietnam.
Nor is there in American Sniper any of the frustration and conflict that consumed the soldiers fighting the war in Oliver Stone’s Platoon. These GI’s are torn as much by the battle between their two squad leaders — over the meaning of the war and heart of the American soldier – as they are by combat with the enemy.
In Michael Cimino’s heartfelt and deeply patriotic 1978 Vietnam War film The Deer Hunter, the hero, Michael Vronsky, played by Robert De Niro, is an expert hunter and marksman, much like Kyle in American Sniper. Vronsky is a character with as much internal strength. But when he returns from Vietnam, his wartime heroism notwithstanding, Vronsky finds that he can no longer pull the trigger to destroy the deer.
Of course, The Deer Hunter, like all the powerful Vietnam War movies, was made after the fighting ended, and the war had visibly torn this country apart. Today’s war against “terror” and Islamic radicalism is far from over. But the war in Iraq quickly became as unpopular as the Vietnam War was, if without the continued massive public protests, and has had no less as devastating an effect on many of the men and women who fought it.
By not seriously examining any of this in his film, Eastwood seems to promote the message of the architects of the misguided war in Iraq, which, as its many critics predicted, has only helped to advance the cause of Islamic radicalism and make the American position in the world more vulnerable.
Movie poster of ‘The Deer Hunter.’ Courtesy of Universal Pictures.
At the end of The Deer Hunter, Vronsky and his lifelong friends gather after the funeral of their comrade Nick, who was psychologically wrecked by the war and could not survive his tormentors — despite Mike’s valiant effort to save him. The friends all raise a glass and sing God Bless America. Their love of country, the emotional complexity of the moment and what the war has done to their lives breaks your heart.
At the end of American Sniper, after Kyle’s memorial service in the Dallas Cowboys’ football stadium, the flag-waving spectators watching his funeral procession make you want to pick up a gun and enlist.
Perhaps that was Eastwood’s intent. Perhaps it is appropriate for a war movie about an ongoing conflict that still has to be won. But it doesn’t help viewers think critically or creatively about how to do so.
It’s also the difference between this and even the most flag-waving of Vietnam War movies. It’s also another reason why American Sniper is a bigger box office success than any of them.
Allen Steinberg, professor emeritus of American history at the University of Iowa, specializes in the social history of law and politics. He is working on a book about the Vietnam War on film. He is also the author of "The Transformation of Criminal Justice: Philadelphia 1800-1880."
The opinion expressed is his.