by Janet Weil
“Hollywood and Washington share the same genes." - Jack Shaheen, author of “Reel Bad Arabs”
I had planned not to read/view reviews or commentary on “American Sniper” before I saw it, but that proved impossible, with articles about controversies involving Michael Moore’s and Seth Rogen’s critical comments (and being forced to explain/apologize) filling my twitter feed. Headlines about the film’s big opening weekend, its star Bradley Cooper, and Academy Award nominations were/are all over mainstream, alternative and social media. The latest picture by director Clinton Eastwood about Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle is having a major moment in our national culture, and as a CODEPINKer and a military family member I felt a responsibility to watch and report back on it.
“American Sniper’s” audio track begins with the recitation of “Allahu Akbar” from a mosque in Fallujah. (The Iraqi scenes were filmed in Morocco.) Then the screen fills with US Humvees, rolling through the destroyed streets of a former residential district, and the rumble of the vehicles interweaves with the repetition of the call to prayer, creating an auditory/emotional confrontation between the exotic, dangerous Orient and the techno-military US forces. Soon we see Kyle, lying belly-down on the roof of what was once an Iraqi home, looking through his scope, providing “overcover” for the marines going house-to-house on a brutal, door-smashing manhunt. Soon he spots an Iraqi man on a cellphone, then a woman and young boy emerge from a still-standing house, and the woman passes an RPG to the boy, to fire off at the approaching marines. Kyle’s large green eye behind the scope expresses anxiety and doubt -- what’s he going to do?
Cue the childhood flashbacks: Chris as a young boy going with his father to kill his first deer (“you have a gift, son” is the father’s praise for his precise shot); Chris beating up a schoolyard bully hurting his younger brother; Chris as a young rodeo cowboy, throwing his cheating girlfriend out of his house. So far, it’s an almost comical presentation of deeds that an adolescent boy -- the target demographic of most major motion pictures -- would most admire. Young Chris, a church-going but hard-drinking Texas youth, is shown developing as a protector, a theme that will repeat throughout the movie, in others’ grateful recognition of his (violent) “gifts” and in his own words about his motivations.
The 9/11 attacks shake 30-year-old Kyle out of his rather unsatisfying life as a cowboy, and he joins the Navy SEALs to protect “America”. A sense of purpose and the love of a good, albeit often whiny woman, Taya (played by an unrecognizable Sienna Miller) follow the cornball scenes of SEALs training on the beach, in the cold surf, slathered in mud and hanging tough in face of taunts by their instructors. At his wedding to Taya, the call comes through for Kyle and his buddies to take the fight to Iraq, thus making a narrative link between the reason for his joining the military (9/11) and Iraq. Thus is the Bush administration’s lie about the link between the attacks in 2001 and the country of Iraq repeated and emotionally underscored through the film.
Long scenes of gun battles with “the bad guys” over the course of Kyle’s four, increasingly harrowing tours of duty ensue. In his brilliant analysis in “Reel Bad Arabs”, Professor Shaheen gives a sort of taxonomy of Arab male types -- the evil Arab, the silly/horny Arab, the primitive Arab, and the nervous/arrogant Arab - and with the exception of the “primitive” type with camels, these stereotypes are on display in “American Sniper” plus a couple of others I would name “Pitiful Father” and “Kid as Target.”
The presentation of children as potential/actual evildoers, and thus “deserving” victims of Kyle’s kill shots, seems to me a sinister new development in American film, and something US culture is taking on under Israeli influence. (This stereotype deserves its own essays, as does the role of women in this and other war films.)
The first named Arab character is Arch-Villian Zarkawi, shown during a rapid-fire briefing before Kyle and buddies hit the streets to find and “kill or capture”, as ordered, “this motherfucker.” Al-Qaeda in Iraq, or AQI, is mentioned frequently throughout the film, without one line of dialogue as to WHY Al-Qaeda had penetrated Iraq following the US invasion, or what Zarkawi’s political allegiances might be. Another named character is Zarkawi’s second-in-command, nicknamed The Butcher for his MO of maiming and killing his Iraqi victims with an electric drill. The “Pitiful Father” meme/role is represented by a man called “The Sheikh” whose daughter has been maimed by The Butcher and who is forced, in a horrifying house raid scene, to give information about this evil man’s whereabouts, though he pleads that he and his family will be killed if he does so.
In this scene, of necessity, an Iraqi interpreter suddenly appears. The interpreter is not presented as a character beforehand, is not named, and has no scenes outside of those showing his utility as a translator. What is his motivation, his relationship with Kyle (and other US soldiers), his feelings about the US occupation of his country? We’ll never know, and this is one of many blanks. Never mentioned: Saddam Hussein, Al-Malaki, oil coporations, Abu Ghraib or other US detention camps -- not one word. The word “mercenaries”occurs in one fleeting line of dialogue, but any corporate name such as Blackwater stays as unmentionable as undies in a Victorian lady’s parlor. These absences absolve the United States of its many war crimes in Iraq and perpetuate the American war-mongering narrative we are all too familiar in the still-ongoing “War on Terror” era.
The Bay Guy Supremo in “American Sniper”, however, is not Zarkawi nor The Butcher but The Best Iraqi Sniper, a former Olympic athlete who is Kyle’s counterpart and competitor in killing. Handsome, nimble and cunning, the Iraqi Sniper evades death by leaping from roof to roof, or running into a tunnel, after shooting Kyle’s teammates. In the interminable final gun battle scene, the American Sniper locates and kills the Iraqi Sniper, whose death is shown in slow motion for maximum emotional impact. This is a revenge killing that endangers the entire “operation” and brings down fire from other Iraqis, until a last-minute rescue by US helicopter bombing as a sandstorm sweeps in. Kyle as Protector has been reduced by the hell of war to a scared fuck-up, crying to Taya on a satellite phone (their long distance conversations punctuate the battle scenes), “I’m ready to come home!”
The violent battle scenes had, for me at least, a tedious inevitability that kept me from being pulled in emotionally. What hurt me the most, as I flashed back to my own memories of the two terrible sieges of Fallujah in April and November 2004, was my sense of Iraq being used as backdrop, a hot, dirty place that “smells like dog shit” as one marine says in the opening scene. “This place is evil,” Kyle’s psychologically shattered younger brother, a marine, tells him as he departs the country. One war-blasted city looks much like another, almost as if a painted stage backdrop representing “Urban War Scene” were just hauled from one scene to the next. Fallujah… Ramadi… Sadr City… whatever. The important data points are Kyle’s escalating kill counts in those places, which soon earn him the honorific of “The Legend.” The dead Iraqis lie flat, literally and metaphorically, like images in a video game, where they are slain, and we hear no one weep for them, with the exception of “The Sheikh” whose screaming daughter runs to his corpse. The American dead are pulled at great risk from the battleground, wept over, accompanied in their flag-covered coffins in flights home, laid to rest in dramatic beautiful ceremonies, remembered.
The American dead were persons, and they count. The Iraqi dead were objects in a sniper’s scope, and they are counted. That in a nutshell is the message of “American Sniper.”
How Chris Kyle and hundreds of thousands of other, mostly very young Americans came to invade and occupy, smash doors and faces and artworks and hearts, wound and be wounded, kill and be killed in Iraq -- for what politics, for whose profits -- cannot be touched upon in “American Sniper.” Because to do so would be to move the narrative away from the isolated, tragic white male, that hoary old trope of Western Civ, toward something more politically and historically informed, and much less of a money maker and “hit.”
And the boy in Fallujah with the RPG in his arms? Kyle kills him. It’s Kyle’s initiation as sniper. We as audience are asked to listen to Kyle’s fellow SEAL’s reassuring justification for his first kill, and to empathize, not with the boy in the devastated street trying to fight foreign invaders, but with a “tormented” man becoming a Killing Machine in the US occupation of Iraq. Snipers are protectors, and invaders are The Good Guys.
In war propaganda, a huge genre in which “American Sniper” stands as a lavishly funded, high-production-values example, fictional narratives borrow just enough from true-life stories to reinforce already established memes. Navy Seal, sniper, trainer, author, celebrity, murderer, murder victim of another tormented combat veteran - Chris Kyle was a mystery, as any human being is, and has now become through this film a blank on which other Americans can project their free-floating rage, angst and ignorant misconceptions about Iraqis and indeed all Arabs, as well as their -- our -- many conflicted feelings about war, “the troops” and veterans.
As the US bombing campaign continues in Syria and Iraq, with the question of a new Authorization to Use Military Force hanging, “American Sniper” has come out at a fraught moment. I left the movie theatre with an aching head and a heavy heart, and the feeling that this is a very dangerous film.
Janet Weil is a military family member since January 2003 and a CODEPINK staffer. She is planning to livetweet the 2015 Academy Awards, and she hopes Bradley Cooper does NOT win for Best Performance by an Actor.