' Cinema Romantico: American Sniper & The Scourge of Tunnel Vision

Thursday, February 05, 2015

American Sniper & The Scourge of Tunnel Vision

There’s a sequence in Clint Eastwood’s already legendarily incendiary “American Sniper” when Bradley Cooper’s version of the real-life marine Chris Kyle (who may or may not have been, in official Internet language, a “hero”, though that is not what we are discussing here), in advance of his latest Middle East tour of duty, encounters his brother Jeff (Keir O’Donnell) on the tarmac. It finds Cooper’s Kyle gung-ho to see his little bro but his little bro looking more like one of the eerie dudes Charlie Sheen first encounters on the tarmac in Vietnam in “Platoon.” Jeff can’t seem to make heads or tails of Chris’s jovial disposition and Chris seems taken aback by Jeff’s vacant-eyed detachment. In that moment, two dudes on opposite sides of the viewpoint fence meet in the middle without actually meeting in the middle, if you catch my meaning.


No one in modern America likes meeting in the middle. The middle’s a scary, scary place to the holier-than-thou moralists, those who know what you don’t know because they know EVERYTHING, and so rather than wade into the matter-of-fact murkiness that “American Sniper” chronicles – not flawlessly, not at all (I see you fake baby LOLer’s!) – dingbats on the right and wackadoos on the left would rather stand on opposite sides of the barbed wire and scream and curse at one another on Twitter. The right probably see that scene on the tarmac and call Jeff an “idiot” and the left probably see that scene on the tarmac and call Kyle a “moron” without noticing how beautifully Bradley Cooper plays a moment of sudden internal angst. Because who wants to deal with internal angst when they can metaphorically torch a village instead?

Of the many criticisms lobbed at Eastwood’s account of a story that probably was embellished by the real life person is how it adopts a narrow viewpoint. “The movie,” writes David Edelstein for Vulture, “is scandalously blinkered.” Scandalously! As in, it assumes a Chris Kyle perspective and a Chris Kyle perspective only, as if he only sees life through the scope of a sniper rifle. We hear nothing from the military that prepares him for war or from the government that sends him to war or from the society he engages in war or from the spouse, Teya (Sienna Miller), he leaves on the homefront while he goes off to war. Why did we go to war? How do those Kyle is tasked to kill feel about their country being invaded? What is Teya thinking in moments all to herself? To not present these alternate points-of-view, the film’s opponents will tell you, is irresponsible.

And it is! It is irresponsible! To adopt a single stance and then cling to it is mightily irresponsible! It’s akin to dividing the world into “wolves, sheep and sheepdogs” which is precisely what Chris Kyle’s father does in an early sequence in front of his boys. This, that, or the other, and nothing else. “(T)he analogy is simplistic,” write Michael and Eric Cummings for Slate, “and in its simplicity, dangerous. It divides the world into black and white, into a good-versus-evil struggle that the real world doesn’t match. We aren’t divided into sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. We are all humans.” Yes, Michael and Eric Cummings. We ARE all humans. We are full of scattershot emotions and complicated belief systems and wheelbarrows of complexities, even if we so often choose not to admit it. And usually we don’t choose to admit it. Why do you think politicians are always getting caught in lies? Because it's fucking hard to just be one thing.


Film critic James Helmsworth, in reviewing the film, cites the scene when Chris Kyle guns down a man carrying a Quran. “I don’t know what a Quran looks like,” Kyle says. To Helmsworth, “A scene like this offers the perfect chance to explore war’s moral ambiguities”, and he is disappointed that Eastwood “doesn’t bother.” But it’s not that Eastwood “doesn’t bother”, it’s that he’s pointedly choosing not to in an effort to underline his main character’s “blinkered” ideology. The Chris Kyle of “American Sniper” is at war because these guys (us) are good and those guys (them) are bad. He's a gun-toting “legend” who views the enemies as “savages”, end of story. It’s an intentionally limited viewpoint, and when it gets challenged – such as the sequence with his brother on the tarmac – he doesn’t really know how to respond. He just retreats further and further into himself, closing off from the thoughts and feelings of others until he is ready to burst. If you don’t want to listen, you can’t hear.

Patton Dodd addresses this scene too in writing exclusively about the importance of an occasionally glimpsed Bible that “American Sniper’s” Chris Kyle carries with him, a Bible that he seems sure stands for “God, country, family, right?” without “bothering to” really, truly “find out what it says.” He’s content in his beliefs, set in his ways, impervious to questioning. Even at the end when he's ostensibly made some sort of the peace that peace manifests itself in a sequence where his son quite audibly plays some sort of shoot 'em up video game in the background while Kyle pretends to pull a pistol on his wife. This has insulted some viewers, as well it should, since it's almost as if he didn't learn anything, as if his shockingly narrow viewpoint has, in spite of the preceding two hours, remained intact.

That shockingly narrow viewpoint is precisely what Eastwood’s “American Sniper” is attacking and yet, here’s all of America, keeping its own version of that Bible closed, maintaining its own shockingly narrow viewpoint, content in its belief, set in its way, impervious to questioning, and firing social media broadsides without taking a step back to consider the other side.

It was Bob Dylan who once satirically croaked: “You never ask questions when God's on your side.” No. You don’t. You surely don’t.

1 comment:

Kevin Powers said...

Excellent review! I disagree a bit. I saw this very early on, before all the controversy started, and I am one of those that just took it at face value. I was endlessly entertained and quite moved. Sure, this movie has no message about this ridiculous war, but that's not really what it's about. It's a love letter to patriotism about a man doing what he feels he's called to do and doing it very well. I just loved this movie for being a really well-made American war film...plain and simple. I didn't think it need to address any other ends. That's not what it was, is, or ever will be for.