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How American Sniper is like Rambo

Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Warning: The following article discusses the plot of American Sniper in its entirety.

In the 1980s, America found someone who could heal the wounds of Vietnam — at least metaphorically. His name was John Rambo, he was played by Sylvester Stallone, and his movies were sensations.

As much a sociopolitical flick as an action film, First Blood (the first film to feature the character) is an edgy, unlikely mix. The character of Rambo blatantly attempts to reintegrate the damaged Vietnam veteran into the American community, through blood and chaos. In the sequel, Rambo: First Blood Part II, Rambo actually refights certain parts of Vietnam, rescuing prisoners of war who had been left behind. Wounds left bleeding were cauterized with the fire of the action film.

The first two Rambo films were sensations, and in their own way, they each attempted to "fix" Vietnam. But Vietnam was a story America wanted a new ending to, a story that had ripped apart the country.

The Iraq war, in contrast, was a story America largely forgot about. As such, much of the art around it has been mostly ignored. That's what makes the huge success of American Sniper so fascinating. The movie is well-made and well-acted, yet it's also weirdly indifferent to its protagonist, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, whose autobiography the film is based on.

But in its own way, American Sniper is doing just what First Blood did all those years ago.

First, it's going to force Americans to face, again, that the war was fought in the first place. And then it's going to reintegrate the soldiers who fought it back into society — but instead of doing so by metaphorically confronting their pain, it's going to do this by insisting, forcefully, that they were good men and that because they were good men, their cause was just.

American Sniper reimagines a moral quagmire as a moral triumph — if only everybody back home had been paying attention.

A brief history of Iraq war cinema

Structurally, the film American Sniper is most similar to is Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker. Like that film, Sniper follows a military man in a specialist position into several tense situations in Iraq, then follows him home to a life he no longer entirely understands. Hurt Locker, which notably struggled at the box office, nevertheless proved the ideal way to talk about the war in Iraq. It was political in a way that felt deeply apolitical, because what it was concerned with — how we care for and treat those in the military — was a theoretically nonpartisan issue.

Yet Hurt Locker advances its argument all the same. It says modern warfare hollows people out into mechanical beings, fit only to perform the task of warfare, turning the world back home into an unfamiliar terror. The ending of Hurt Locker argues this can never end and that this is, in some ways, a tragedy. Those in the military aren't inherently heroes, though they all have the potential for heroism. But the way they are used by the military as an institution turns them into machines.

This theme was given even fuller fruition in Zero Dark Thirty, the next film from Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow. Though that film doesn't follow a military character as its protagonist — Maya is in the CIA — it's also about the way that the task eventually becomes the self, how nobody can ever entirely separate themselves from the violence done in their name. The protagonists of both of these films are something of blank slates, because they're meant to stand in, in some ways, for all Americans. And even though Zero Dark ends on the death of Osama Bin Laden, the death is not treated as a triumph but, rather, as a side note in an otherwise brutal raid. The celebration is for later, for those who don't actually have to engage in the fight.

Zero Dark was more successful at the box office than Hurt Locker, but both films were rife with ambiguity that spilled over into discussions of the films' politics, particularly in the case of the former, which was discussed endlessly in terms of whether it supported torture. Neither proved terribly popular.

No, the real antecedent to American Sniper's approach to these events is 2013's Lone Survivor, Peter Berg's account of the war in Afghanistan's Operation Red Wings. Lone Survivor proved a surprise hit, and in its story — a celebration of the highly trained SEAL as a basically good man and regular Joe; an examination of military camaraderie; highly fraught action sequences — we see the Hurt Locker formula turned into something that can prove a box office success. The old war movie tropes have been sprinkled with just enough of a sense of modern mournfulness to feel edgy and new.

American Sniper takes this approach to new extremes.

Good Eastwood meets Bad Eastwood

Like many films directed by Clint Eastwood, American Sniper is about the weight of violence on the soul and the need for codes of masculinity. (Thematically speaking, it is essentially a reworking of Unforgiven, Eastwood's greatest film.)

Chris (played perfectly by Bradley Cooper), for instance, is told as a child that men are either sheep, wolves, or sheepdogs. The first two are pure good and pure evil. The last is good, but good that uses tactics that might be considered evil to protect the sheep. It's the code he accepts unquestioningly, and we're meant to see that he's in trouble because he almost kills a literal sheepdog in a late scene. (He suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder and is having trouble adjusting to life in the US.)

It's unclear throughout how much Eastwood wants to question these codes, or just how comfortable he is with the ambiguity of his film's subject matter. The sequences set in Iraq are among the best of the director's career, particularly on a technical level. They expertly raise tension, and Eastwood even sneaks in a few sly critiques of the dehumanizing effects of war. If this movie consisted entirely of its Iraq war sequences, it would be one of Eastwood's best films.

But this is also a movie that keeps going back to the home front, as it simultaneously wants to be about Chris's struggles to reintegrate into society and his battle against PTSD. In these sequences, where Cooper is more engaged than ever, Eastwood becomes weirdly detached. These scenes are the crux of whatever argument American Sniper is trying to make about masculinity and warfare, but they're also rote and rushed, the worst in the picture. (The creepy fake baby many have mocked is rather indicative of Eastwood's entire approach to these sequences.)

This leads, in particular, to the ending of the film, which is almost completely botched. After Chris manages to kill Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), the film's "evil sniper" character and his main antagonist, he heads back to the US, where he finally consents to see a psychiatrist (after almost killing the aforementioned dog), then talks to a couple of veterans about his experiences.

And the editing, at least, suggests he's instantly cured, even if he will later meet his death when a PTSD-suffering veteran shoots him. But even the title card about that is weirdly detached, stating simply that Chris was killed by someone he was trying to help. It pulls away from a tragic death and toward something much more passive, even in terms of sentence structure.

Eastwood is famously known for liking to film his movies very quickly, often completing scenes in a handful of takes. It's what allows the director to be so prolific, and it's simultaneously what makes his good movies so very good (as he can ride a wave of momentum) and his bad movies so boring (because they lack personality). American Sniper, somehow, is good Eastwood stitched to bad Eastwood, and instead of adding up to some sort of larger point or moral calculus, the movie becomes a collection of things Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall have noticed about the world and think worth mentioning.

That would be okay, perhaps, if this were a fictional story about an entirely fictional conflict. But it's not. This is an opportunity to say something — anything! — about the modern state of warfare other than "the military is great." And Eastwood can't be bothered.

American Sniper Warner Bros. Pictures

Bradley Cooper (right) stars as Chris Kyle in American Sniper. The film is never quite sure what to make of Chris, to its detriment. (Warner Bros.)

Difficult protagonists

Weirdly, American Sniper also resembles Martin Scorsese's titanic Wolf of Wall Street, one of the best movies of 2013. There, too, Scorsese practices a certain detachment from his subject (Wall Street fraudster Jordan Belfort), but mostly to give Jordan enough rope to hang himself throughout the film's second half. The ending of Wolf flips the film right back on the audience. Sure, it's infuriating that Jordan gets away with what he does, but we in America let this happen every single day. Why do we celebrate it? The movie is audacious and disquieting.

That's kinda, sorta what American Sniper is going for, too. It just fails in the execution.

If I were to boil down the question it wants us to ask at the end of the movie, it would be something, like, why do we turn men into killers, then abandon them when they need our help most? That's an absolutely valid question, and it's one you can definitely center Chris Kyle's story on, but the film's ending refuses us the moments of disquiet, restoring Chris to his position of primacy as family man and shooting the final sequences with all the gentle domesticity of a department store commercial.

There are linkages here between the film's first half hour and its final scenes, between Chris's father telling him about the need for sheepdogs and Chris finally becoming one. Eastwood shoots the sequences similarly, and the editing of scenes — which can skip across months and years in giant gulps of jump cuts — is similar.

But there's also the rather strange attempt to completely disengage from the parts of Chris that don't allow him to admit how much he's hurting, how much trouble he's having readjusting.

The weird history of American Sniper

Much has been made of the fact that the Chris Kyle of the movie is very different from the Chris Kyle who co-authored the book the film is based on. That Chris Kyle is said to have made shit up and celebrated how many "savages" he had killed. (Notably, the film's Chris uses the word "savages" a handful of times.) There's a scene in the film where Chris trembles at the thought of having to shoot another child and is relieved when the kid his sights are trained on drops his weapon. Suffice to say the Chris Kyle of the book doesn't present himself as the sort of person who would struggle with this choice.

But it's also clear that the book wasn't chosen by Hollywood because of Kyle's skill with narrative or anything similar. It, instead, offers a nifty way to reflect on the Iraq war through a distancing lens — that of the sniper's scope — that also allows for the PTSD scenes to work in some nice, Oscar-baiting scenes for an actor of Cooper's caliber to sink his teeth into. Yes, the film has distorted Kyle's narrative and character, but that's because the burdens of fiction are very different from the burdens of journalism. All stories distort. It's just a question of which direction they distort in.

American Sniper was originally developed at length by Steven Spielberg, who inserted the character of the Iraqi sniper, but also, crucially, wanted that character to be one of the film's most important, thus turning the movie into a riff on the idea of how wartime turns sides into opposing mirror images of each other. This would put the film in league with Spielberg's Munich as a meditation on the way violence begets violence, and it surely could have played into Eastwood's wheelhouse. But it also reportedly made the film too expensive for Warner Bros. to finance.

There's a moment in the film when Eastwood, nevertheless, tips his cap to this version of the story. Mustafa pulls out his own rifle while at home, ready to head into battle. His wife, cradling their child, furrows her brow in worry, and Eastwood shoots the scene to visually rhyme with scenes of Chris's own wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), who mostly exists in the film's cosmology to worry about her own husband. It's as if Eastwood is nodding toward both the universality of the human experience and the disposability of the women in the film in the same shot.

Sadly, this willingness to grapple with the story's complexity doesn't last. The scenes with any nuance in the film are rapidly bulldozed by the movie's feel-good mechanisms.

Everything is awesome

If Wolf of Wall Street, Munich, and Unforgiven are designed to challenge the principles we hold dear, American Sniper is designed to let us believe, ultimately, that everything is okay, that the men and women we sent to Iraq were there for just reasons, and that we did all right by them when they came back home.

Throughout the film, Chris defines himself as a good guy, fighting against bad guys, and while the movie questions him in the abstract, it doesn't particularly mount a sustained attempt to push back against his self-definitions. But that's not because it's trusting the audience to see through his image or anything like that. No, it just doesn't want to push back against him. In the story's narrative, Chris is a good guy, who makes the right choices and does the hard things and makes sacrifices. He's played with great intensity by a movie star, and he's framed constantly by Eastwood as a big, damn hero.

There's nothing inherently wrong with this. It's just that enough of the movie exists as a kind of shadow version of itself as to suggest that all involved want to question something but don't dare question the man at the center. Every time the movie pushes toward a question as simple as "Does killing over 100 people change you in some way?" it freezes up. Eastwood creates lots of dots, all over the film's landscape, but he refuses to connect even a couple of them.

Thus, Chris Kyle becomes the 21st century John Rambo, rapidly retconning a major world conflict and letting Americans know that we are still okay. Most films about the Iraq war have openly asked audiences to consider what part of America's soul was sacrificed in the process of fighting an unnecessary war. Those films' protagonists become empty machines, used up by the government. Ergo, we all have been used.

American Sniper will have none of this. Chris Kyle was a good guy. Chris Kyle was an American. Ergo, we are all good guys. The movie doesn't push or challenge viewers in any way. It doesn't bother making the conservative argument for the war, nor launching liberal attacks against it.

Instead, it tells us what we always want to hear: we are still a good nation, of good people, if only we have the guts to stop listening to those who would say otherwise and embrace both our inherent righteousness and the inherent evilness of a nebulous "somebody else."

Now is it any wonder why this movie is a hit?

Correction: The original version of this piece claimed that the final title card did not say Chris was killed by a veteran. The version of the film in release does have this information in the final card. The piece has been updated.

Image courtesy of Warner Bros.


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