• “American Sniper,” directed by Clint Eastwood, Warner Brothers, 132 minutes, released Jan. 15.
RALEIGH — Long before he produced and directed “American Sniper,” Clint Eastwood played detective Harry Callahan, who tells the mayor of San Francisco that the murderer he seeks will kill again. “How do you know that?” says the mayor. “Because he likes it,” Callahan says. The 1971 “Dirty Harry” was the first movie to talk back to liberalism, then preoccupied with the rights of violent criminals. A similar dynamic is at work in “American Sniper.”
The film shows the modern U.S. military engaging the sort of people they actually fight these days, as opposed to such Hollywood favorites as Nazis, neo-Nazis, neo-fascists, and white supremacists. Even so, the script does sanitize things more than a little bit. Viewers see the 9/11 attacks and hear a news broadcast about the bombing of the U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, but the term “terrorist” is missing in action. The venue is Iraq and the enemy are insurgents, extremists, and militants but never called Muslims or identified with Islam, apart from a few references to the Koran.
They don’t self-identify, shout “Allah is great!” or denounce the United States as the Great Satan. The U.S. soldiers routinely call the enemy “savages,” and that proves authentic. One, known as “The Butcher,” dismembers people and tortures children with an electric drill. The Butcher gets some threatening lines of dialogue but the chief villain, the elusive sniper “Mustafa,” remains silent as Rudolf Valentino.
“American Sniper” is openly patriotic and unapologetic about the U.S. military fighting in Iraq, both frontal attacks on the Hollywood Left, which believes America is bad and capitalism evil — except for the part of capitalism financing their three-picture deals, Mercedes-Benzes, and Malibu mansions. The patriotism comes through the hero, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), who acts on his belief that the United States is the “greatest country on Earth.” The film shows the young Kyle hunting with this father, and the family in church, and both come across as positive experiences, violating more Hollywood taboos.
Kyle leaves his fun career as a cowboy to sign up with the SEALs, who put him through rigorous training and pack him off to sniper school. He meets his future wife Taya (Sienna Miller) in a bar, so as legendary film critic Pauline Kael might say, this is in part a “kiss kiss” movie. But soon Kyle is off on his first tour of duty to Iraq, where he becomes “The Legend,” picking off the enemy. At one point he has to shoot a child and a woman about to hurl a grenade at Kyle’s fellow soldiers. It pains him to do this, but toward the end of the story Kyle makes it clear that his greatest regret is the ones he didn’t get, those killing his fellow U.S. soldiers. That also breaks some Hollywood taboos.
American filmmakers are normally big on homage and American Sniper might have mentioned Chuck Mawhinney, a Marine with 103 confirmed kills who took down 16 enemy soldiers in a single engagement. Of course, that was in Vietnam, where Hollywood has cast the USA as the permanent villain and U.S. soldiers as wackos.
The “American Sniper” combat scenes are crisply directed and about as realistic as it gets. Kael might say on one level it is a “bang bang” movie, consistent with Eastwood’s long experience. There is nothing glamorous about house-to-house combat, with sudden death lurking around every corner. “American Sniper” does not shy away from the toll such combat takes on the soldiers, shown taking bloody hits, absent limbs, and in surgery.
Chris Kyle must deal with this, as Taya remains stateside with their son and daughter. They stay in touch by phone, even when Chris is drawing a bead on the bad guys, something Sgt. York couldn’t do. Through it all Chris remains someone the audience will like, and a genuine American hero to boot.
Back in Iraq, the insurgents have put a price on Kyle’s head and Mustafa is running up his kill count. The U.S. soldiers will have to take him down, and Kyle is the man for the job. Few viewers will be surprised at the outcome. Kyle makes a dramatic narrow escape and returns stateside, where Taya and family await, along with other perils, as “The Legend” discovers.
Audiences have been cheering and the movie finds favor with critics. Cooper and Miller may bag Academy Awards, but one doubts “American Sniper” will win best picture or Eastwood best director. The industry doesn’t like it when anyone, however famous or talented, challenges their prejudices and waves the American flag.
Mercifully, not a single politician speaks or appears in “American Sniper,” but national leaders may derive some benefit from the story. The film hit theatres shortly after terrorists mounted a deadly military operation in Paris. Eastwood, 84, knows that the bad guys are still out to kill Americans because they like it. So odds are that such attacks will take place in American cities.
As Eastwood’s film shows, even with all the military spending, intelligence, and high-tech weaponry, victory in key engagements may hinge on one brave man who can shoot straight from distance. So future Chris Kyles doubtless will be needed on the home front. “American Sniper” may inspire them to step forward and volunteer, even under a commander-in-chief who, like the film, fails to identify the adversary precisely.
Lloyd Billingsley is the author of Hollywood Party: Stalinist Adventures in the American Movie Industry (Event Horizon Press).