There’s a bitter irony to the American ethos. For a land in which, presumably, “all men are created equal,” it is necessary for one’s social survival to dehumanize those that aren’t “our own.” If proof is what you’re looking for, turn on the television.
This realization hit me in January 2015, and it’s haunted me ever since.
I was 15 when Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper hit theaters across the country. Its runaway success during a platform release shocked me. “How did this rah-rah military movie do so well in New York and LA,” I found myself wondering. On its first wide-release weekend, it grossed nearly 100 million dollars. My father, a war film acolyte since childhood, was thrilled to see it. To be fair, the trailer was a remarkable short film in itself, and I was more than intrigued. So, on a cold Sunday afternoon, we loaded the family up and drove to the theater.
For context’s sake, I’ll take a bit of a detour here. My family moved to Statesboro, Georgia when I was two years old. Its population has only grown in recent years to due increased enrollment at Georgia Southern University, which drives the local economy. Situated in the deep-red Bulloch County, it’s the heartland of the Bible Belt. As a child, I played army and grew comfortable with a firearm in my hands, just as any young boy did. My grandfather even gifted me a subscription to the NRA’s magazine while I was in elementary school. Everyone fiercely loved America, and Independence Day was one of the biggest holidays.
I grew out of these behaviors as I developed my own conscience, all thanks to my parents’ insistence on a neutral household, one welcoming of my own ideas. But it also led to alienation. Though I developed close bonds to my high school peers, my increasingly leftist principles made any meaningful connections difficult to obtain, and an anger grew out of that frustration.
So, back to the movies. It’s a four-o’clock showing and the theater is packed, sold out. Pretty much the entire population of Statesboro is here. I’m seated next to an elderly man sporting a “Vietnam Veteran” baseball cap. The lights go down, and a collective hush falls over the audience.
The theater erupts into sporadic applause whenever one of Chris Kyle’s bullets enters someone’s body. Everyone around me sees a hero, but I see a villain. I feel like I’m watching a monster, Hannibal Lecter minus the self-conscious scenery chewing, and his victims are being demonized right before my eyes. I want to stand up and leave, but I remain seated.
After the credits roll, I leave the theater frustrated. What is this anger boiling inside me? Was it Eastwood, or was it the audience? Is this discomfort appropriate? What am I even feeling? But I’m certain of one thing — that I never want to experience it again. Though I cherish the public nature of moviegoing, this was the first (and only) time I’d feel disgusted to be a part of it.
Out of a surprising curiosity, I recently decided to watch American Sniper again, nearly four years removed from that experience. This time, I sat alone in my room. Despite my initial timidity, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. It terrified me in an entirely different way. What I saw was one of the most confrontational, self-critical American films of the 21st century. My discomfort was not eased, but redefined by a newfound fascination.
The film begins with a cold open. Eastwood immediately plunges viewers into Chris Kyle’s subjectivity. In the opening scene, he’s sitting on a rooftop in Iraq, keeping a close eye on his convoy. A woman and child step out onto the street. She hands the child a grenade, which he prepares to throw at the American soldiers, Kyle’s crosshairs aimed at his chest. A gunshot startles the soundtrack, and Eastwood cuts to Kyle’s childhood. A deer drops dead in the woods, and his father congratulates him, waxing poetic about how he’ll become a great marksman one day. At the dinner table, his father explains that he must become a “sheepdog,” one who uses violent means to protect his own. That’s where the irony kicks in.
Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is representative of a sinister cycle of abuse prevalent in American culture. In order to be a man, you must take a life for your own reasons. If you refuse, you are punished, as is evidenced by his father’s slam of a belt on the kitchen table, threatening his younger brother for taking a beating. By training boys, at the earliest possible age, to be proficient in weapons of mass destruction (in this case, something as common as a gun), they are set up to become efficient killing machines, activated by the slightest call of duty. This abuse becomes more physical when Kyle attends boot camp, where drill sergeants push the limits of each recruit. While they’re being doused with the blasts of a pressure washer, Kyle shoots a concerned look to another trainee, who returns his glance with resignation. They can’t simply ring the bell and quit.
As Kyle’s body count exponentially grows, he becomes a sort of tall tale among the soldiers. He’s visibly uncomfortable at first, and an early montage of his kills shows the internalized regret he feels with each body left in the sand. As time goes on, the man becomes the folk hero, a ruthless, reliable tool to not only kill in the name of country, but represent that country in its own popular culture. Yet, his sensitivity returns upon his homecoming, after his final tour in Iraq. Kyle sits in a bar when he receives a call from his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller). She asks if he’s coming home, and he breaks into tears. He’s reached the point of no return. It’s here where Cooper’s performance as Kyle achieves its peak horror, a heartbreaking loss of humanity that’s swallowed up by a second skin he must live within, and his death is a result of that loss. If you print the legend, the legend comes back for your soul.
There’s a linguistic motif in Jason Hall’s script that nips at the film like an irritated canker sore, one informed by an image of the ideal American that, if anyone, Eastwood is complicit in creating — that of the cowboy. Eastwood seems to be aware of this, so each instance stands out in its delivery, landing like a punch in the gut. After Kyle dumps one of his early girlfriends, she lashes out, exclaiming that “You’re not a cowboy” as he faces her, adorned with a comically ridiculous 10-gallon stetson. To him, being a cowboy is entirely representative of the manhood he was conditioned into, a give-no-fucks, take-what’s-yours ambition buried within a stoic visage. Later, one of his squadmates describes the “old Middle East” as the “new Wild West.”
And, most crucially, what follows this dialogue is Kyle’s commanding officer referring to the Iraqis as “savages,” the word slipping from his lips with a casual ease. It immediately brings back uncomfortable memories of early western stories, ones in which the extermination of indigenous peoples is justified by labeling them with the term. Here, the ideology of Manifest Destiny has evolved into one of military imperialism, wars fought abroad for resources that don’t belong to us. And, just as the first pioneers were told, those are ours for the taking.
A young Kyle, fresh out of boot camp, sheds his youthful western garb for a plainer, more mature appearance. Taya, calls out for him, and they watch the 9/11 attacks live on television. Something as simple as a news report can bring out the violence caged within Kyle, and the cowboy grows into the sniper with nothing more than the flicker of a screen. When one of his squadmates dies in combat, Kyle tells Taya that it was because his friend lost his belief in the cause. If you don’t demonize the other, you don’t survive. If you don’t ride with the gunslingers, you’re not a real soldier. Eastwood earned his fame playing the original tall tales — big-screen western heroes. But he, too, has evolved into something else, someone aware of that image’s problematic legacy. After all, Kyle says that “I wanted to be a cowboy, but then I wanted something more.”
I didn’t feel nostalgic about my hometown until my freshman year of college. I was an angry teenager, and Statesboro was my Sacramento. I foolishly thought I was better than everyone, and I desperately wanted to claw my way out. Through a critical lens, I cannot condone most of the culture, even if I sometimes yearn for parts of it. A rabid patriotism, an oppositional force, molded my political awakening, even if it always comes back to knock on my door, whether it’s an Army recruitment call or the lyrics of Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.” Simply, if I hadn’t learned who I was from that little town, I wouldn’t be the person I am today, and I only received that opportunity due to some eternally skeptical parenting. For better or worse, where we come from — and our struggles with it — define who we are.
And there’s no better way to describe Kyle. His actions may be indefensible, the public’s heroization of those actions even more so, but he was a victim of the bitter irony that raised him. Eastwood shows the havoc he wreaks with unflinching detail, a level of detail that made me turn away at every pull of the trigger. This unflinching nature of the film’s violence can be easily misconstrued as exploitative, but it’s supposed to make the viewer squirm, not applaud. Even if the question stills hangs in the air — did Eastwood, as a white man, have the right to depict this violence of such a graphic, politically oppressive nature — his mastery of the form speaks volumes. What he shows is the result of “protecting” one’s “own,” a detached view of its consequences, and Kyle builds up strategic reinforcements to avoid facing them.
As Jason Isbell sang in “White Man’s World,” “there’s no such thing as someone else’s war.” When violence occurs, we are all implicit, and America is particularly bad at coming to terms with that notion. Upon my revisitation, this was my realization. When I first saw American Sniper, I identified this irony, but now I realize what it has to say, and it took years of reflection on my own childhood to reach that point. However, the film still gnaws at my conscience, and it always will. The true terror of American Sniper is that it’s an ugly reflection of masculinity, a reflection of myself and every man, young or old, raised in our culture. In my case, it’s an alternate ending, a realization of who I could’ve been if certain factors had not intervened. For others, it’s their own Greek tragedy, an unhappy ending befitting of a nation born out of violence and insecurity.
Movies aren’t proverbs — their morals are questionable, their questions are impossible to answer. This is the case for good films, at least. I’ll never feel comfortable with American Sniper, and, perhaps, I may never fully appreciate its value because of that one experience. But that’s Eastwood’s point. If Kyle’s actions make you feel safe or secure, then something’s wrong. What Eastwood provides is a capital-T text, a treatise on American masculinity and the systems of violence that instill it at a young age. I’d like to believe that I’ve never been subject to those systems, but I unavoidably have, and I wrestle with them every day. It’s no individual’s fault that boys are raised to be killers, and that we instinctively reinforce that in our stories, but it’s something that needs to be addressed and changed. And movies are a way to accomplish that fateful first step. We just have to open our eyes and see them in a different light.
Evan Amaral (@evandamaral) is a student of film, media studies and anthropology at Emory University. His writing can be found at the Emory Wheel, where he is the senior film critic. He also edits the journal Anthropos and works with the Emory Cinematheque.