Friday, January 16, 2015

Bradley Cooper is Excellent in the Movie 'American Sniper'; Chris Kyle is Still a Psychopathic Killer

All "Anti-War" Movies are Actually "Pro-War" Despite Their Intent

I attended a Thursday night viewing of the new movie American Sniper about the life and military exploits of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history.

Some quick thoughts.

Kyle is embodied by actor Bradley Cooper. He is Chris Kyle. He is not a cheap pantomime or parlor trick biographical actor: Cooper has earned his 2014 Oscar nomination for best actor.

While I admire Bradley Cooper's performance, American Sniper is a functional film that in many ways is fundamentally dishonest about politics, war, Kyle's life, and the Iraq misadventure that ruined the bodies and souls of thousands of American soldiers, and many millions of innocent Iraqis. 

The movie American Sniper reinforces my thoughts from 2 years ago about Chris Kyle, his book, and feting by Bill O'Reilly and Fox News:
Chris Kyle was feted by Bill O'Reilly last week: his deeds were recounted, and killing admired by the Fox News faithful. There is an odd homoeroticism (or is it homosocial worship?) in this interview, where O'Reilly as an archconservative is channeling a deep fascination with the "how" of death, and a type of hyper-masculinity that is the bleeding heart of Right-wing authoritarianism. Here, O'Reilly reminds the viewer of why straight men enjoy watching the freakishly large penises that dominate much of American pornography. Hero worship, with no small amount of projection, is, and remains, the thing--it is the means for a visceral thrill...
This is not a claim that elite soldiers such as the Navy Seals, the unit which Chris Kyle was a member of, are "crazy," sociopaths, or are especially prone to violence outside of a combat situation. It is however, an acknowledgement that there are bad and dangerous men who are born that way. The training sharpens the edge. 
The son of a Sunday-school teacher and a church deacon, Kyle credits a higher authority for his longest kill. 
From 2,100 yards away from a village just outside of Sadr City in 2008, he spied a man aiming a rocket launcher at an Army convoy and squeezed off one shot from his .338 Lapua Magnum rifle. Dead. From more than a mile away.
“God blew that bullet and hit him,” he said. 
For Kyle, the enemy is a “savage” — there’s no room for gray, only black or white. 
America is a militiarized society. Warfare and martial culture are at the heart of the country's economy and entertainment. Militarism is also central to America's political culture as well. For example, onservatives such as Gingrich, Romney, Bush, Santorum, Perry, and others play the tough guy as chicken hawks who swagger in a phallocentric game and performance which titillates their populist base, even as the irony that all either avoided military service (or exaggerated their responsibilities) remains uncommented upon.
Film theorists have incisively argued that there is no such thing as an "anti-war" movie because all movies about armed conflict are channels for a mediated reality. As such, they distort the horrors of battle, and the basic fact that war-fighting is a life and death matter, one that cannot be accurately communicated by the visual and aural codes or symbols and grammar of film. Consequently, even "anti-war" films like Platoon, Saving Private Ryan, and Full Metal Jacket are actually endorsements of the violence and human ruin they purport to condemn.

The ideology of the film American Sniper is presented through a narrative that lacks a substantive critical engagement with the causal forces that sent Chris Kyle to war--and where his skills as a sniper were refined and honored by the military.

History is flat--the teleology of the Iraq War is presented through the myopic lens of American Exceptionalism and the epistemically closed Right-wing media--in American Sniper. And of course, the Iraqis in the movie are cartoon villains and victims.

For American Sniper, the Iraq War began because of Iraq's (non) involvement with the terrorist attacks on September 11th. The lie of the premise is never engaged or exposed except in fleeting scenes of soldiers, they who are now tired from war, dead, limbs amputated, their eyes weary as they write regretful letters that are read at funerals, or when Kyle's brother hints at how he is a broken man, one who is unable to equal his brother's martial prowess, and sentenced to existential malaise and unavoidable doom by service as an anonymous grunt.

In those scenes "war is hell". However, there is no further move to put that truism in context: the Iraq War(s) is in fact a type of hell, one based on an evil set of lies knowingly sold to the American people by the second Bush Administration.

Ultimately, the movie American Sniper is a hagiography that pretends to be an anti-hagiography. My muddied language is an intentional choice that signals to the clumsy slight of hand of an ideologically duplicitous film-making exercise. 

Chris Kyle is made a hero in a quasi anti-war film by virtue of his confusion and vulnerability, need to reconnect with his family, and the healing he offered to his fellow veterans stateside. The audience is cheated of the moral and human consequences of war in the film's conclusion, where even the best of efforts for broken warriors to heal one another can result in death.

Kyle's murder by a fellow veteran, one more broken than he, is only alluded to by an epilogue. We do not see Kyle's death. Instead, nationalism and the "sacrifice" of America's "selfless" warriors is reified by the tired civil religion routine that is waving American flags, cops and firefighters, and a funeral montage featuring obligatory military regalia and Kyle's brother SEALs.

A "great warrior" laid out in a random killing on a gun range is too much truth about the futility of war for American Sniper--a major Hollywood film that seeks to resuscitate the memory of the Iraq War and its soldiers--to entertain an audience that is comprised of those folks who desire Bradley Cooper the heart throb, and the others who want to see a lethal killer ply his craft on human Arab Iraqi targets in a movie that is a 2 hour plus advertisement for the Navy SEALS and the U.S. military.

Chris Kyle did not need to be a twenty-first century Agamemnon in the movie American Sniper. But the Christian fundamentalist Crusader-sniper who borrowed the insignia of the Marvel comic book anti-hero The Punisher as his own, had no regrets about all of his killing, exaggerated and lied about his exploits, and exhibited signs of psychopathy, is a much more compelling subject for a movie than the person artfully depicted by Bradly Cooper. 

If cinema is a lie, American Sniper is one of the most recent and greatest examples of said reality.


kokanee said...

Well, I'm glad that you saw this movie so that I don't have to (go see it). Once again, the country that invades and occupies another country is the aggressor nation and guilty of the greatest war crime of all. Also, if you join the US military, know that you will most likely become a murderer.

Black Sci-Fi said...

Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" was a very good film. But, his reliance on paint by numbers cliche' dooms any attempt at art in his other films. In affect, His use of the "white male savior" is standard focus group writing. And, the insertion of himself as the lead actor has more than hamstrung what have been called his best films.
When your reputation allows you to have access to the very best of actors and production tools there shoud be something more substantial created than "pick a headline, dumb it down, victimize minority viewers and save heroism for white guys".
"Eastwood is to directing what the NYC Police are to Sherlock Holms."

Dan Kasteray said...

The first red flag for Kyle is that bill O'Reilly vetted him. I'd never heard of the man until recently but I was shocked and horrified by the way he was assigned to gun down random civilians in the streets and looted the dead. These are the tactics and methods of the waffen as. For sane people a war crimw is a war crime, the damn star and stripes a war criminal wears are no better than swastikas of past wars

James Estrada-Scaminaci III said...

Allow me to post something irrelevant to the topic but relevant to the day. Last night I heard a conversation with Dr. Cornel West (and Van Jones) at the Castro Street Theater in San Francisco. Dr. West was a torrent of wisdom, knowledge, and information about "Brother Martin" and "Brother Malcolm" and many many others involved in the freedom struggle. He also has a new book out, The Radical King, a compilation of MLK Jr. speeches arranged thematically, but all pointing to the real radical and incisive critiques Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. had of a militaristic, imperialist, racist, misogynist, and anti-poor society. Well, maybe that does fit in with the topic at hand.

kokanee said...

Guess what? Here it is:

joe manning said...

We should appreciate that MLK was a man for all seasons.

joe manning said...

The fact that Kyle used the firing range as therapy for persons with PTSD has to make one question his sanity. As if that's a good idea.

Hurt Locker, O Dark 30, and American Sniper are studies in Goebbelization. They hook their audience into thinking they're anti-war films then proceed to engulf the viewer in a celebration of sociopathy. This sophisticated propaganda heroizes male chauvinists such as Kyle and O'Really who espouse the psychological illiteracy that rationalizes war criminality.

Wild Cat said...

Great post, albeit I wouldn't give a nickel to serial chair lyncher Clint Eastwood.

I was at a hockey game last Friday. After I was patted down and had my water taken away in the name of freedom, the ultraviolence on ice began (it was a rowdy crowd of mostly rich, white, drunken suburban kids from NJ and LI). Of note, some young women seemed more enthusiastic about the one fight that broke out than the men.

Of course, the Military Sucker of the Game was introduced midway during the game, this being the uniformed wanker of the night who did two tours in Afghanistan to save the universe for feminism or Apple or something. He received a two-minute circle jerk of applause as loud as if he scored a goal for the home team. Every chickenhawk then did a Nuremburgesque "USA! USA!" chant. None of course would ever serve themselves. (My father, badly damaged by WWII, though he'd never admit to it when he was alive, never cheered for war or needed to tell old war stories. they were written on his face, poor bastard.)

I've been watching this militarization for years. We observed how militarization affects the cops. Imagine what's next: Waves and waves of armed white supremacists heading back, no jobs, no funds and no perceived need for PTSD therapy.

We're going to achieve the Bush/Cheney-caused Hell on Earth in the US beyond our wildest fears.

chauncey devega said...

It fits very well actually. American militarism is at the center of American injustice and inequality. What was West like? Was he doing anything new? Standard routine? How did the people respond?

chauncey devega said...

I am a huge Eastwood fan. I felt like--to the degree he was actually involved--his typical lighting and camera angles were there in the Million Dollar Baby style but he should have pushed this into Unforgiven or Sands of Iwo Jima territory. The audience was a mix of young women swooning over Cooper, a few veterans, Fox News ra ra types, and this group of people next to me who I think spoke Arabic that were laughing and pretty happy at the end of the movie. For a second I thought there was going to be a fight because folks didn't know what they were saying and their glee was very off putting.

chauncey devega said...

The American ritual that sends young people to be eaten alive in war. My father didn't like tough guys who talked about World War 2 and held Sergeant York and Audrey Murphy in very high regard as "real men". Kyle was/is a very very disturbed person.

chauncey devega said...

What are your thoughts on Hurt Locker?

Wild Cat said...

Well, we should be be prepared for another 100,000 of these very disturbed people coming home soon to be in a militia, in a police cruiser, guarding our gulags, or just dying slowly from mental illness on the streets.

It's gonna be ugly.

joe manning said...

Hurt Locker goes to the evolution of Hollywood's hero machine, they've got it down to an exact science. Nowadays people routinely consider a uniform a hero. During Viet Nam the stateside uniform was reviled.

Shady Grady said...

I will have to see the film for myself but I would definitely disagree with the idea that there is no such thing as an anti-war movie.

Also within the "rules" of war Kyle's job was to kill enemy fighters and protect Americans. I'm not sure how you get from that to psychopathy. Was Kyle any different from Henry Lincoln Johnson, Audie Murphy, Bhanbhata Gurung, Vasily Zaytzev, Charles Martel or any number of other warriors throughout history? We send them to kill people. Some of them are pretty good at it and become archetypes of badassery. Some, like Ron Kovic or Smedly Butler rethink the reasons behind what they did..

chauncey devega said...

Being a sociopath or psychopathic is a mental health and personality condition that has been over-simplified by the mass media.

There are ranges of those conditions--many of us exhibit them.

Lt. Colonel's Grossman's book Killology explains this in great deal as it applies to war fighters. The majority of combat kills have historically been made by a small percentage of soldiers. Having psycopathic traits--emotional distance, lack of empathy, etc.--are value addeds for those professions. One tends to see soldiers w. those traits in the special forces, shock troops, snipers, and the like.

Check out some of his lectures, books, or website.

Ask yourself, what abut them makes them "archetypes of badassery". I would say they are good at killing and most are broken people either before or after said deeds.

One of my favorite pop psyche books is "The Sociopath Next Door". You should read it. Very disturbing and accurate in many regards.

Buddy H said...

Because of our limited budget, we've been making use of our local library's extensive dvd collection. It's not the same as the big screen experience, but we just can't afford ticket prices anymore.

Buddy H said...

I've never read the Sociopath Next Door, but I've read reviews and fragments here and there, and I recognized my sister's husband, just about every boss and middle manager I've ever had, some high school phys ed teachers, and several neighbors. Of course, they were all on various parts of the spectrum.

Courtney H. said...

That is a good idea that a lot of people are taking advantage of nowadays.

Stanley Rogouski said...

Good balanced review, but American Sniper is even worse than you say it is. It's one of the most openly fascist mainstream Hollywood movies I've ever seen.

The Girl Next Door is Black said...

Thought-provoking analysis. Thanks for the great read.

LeftCoastLean said...

Do see the original black and white 1930 version of 'All Quiet on the Western Front', its available online. Let me also recommend Stanley Kubrick's 1957 'Paths of Glory' with Kirk Douglas. WWI was the first wide scale war of the industrial age and an exercise in abject misery for the men who lived and died it.

chauncey devega said...

Familiar w. all those movies. Despite the original intent, the way that many audience members "receive" those films' meaning and message can be "pro-war". Yes, stunning. But that is the tension between authorial intent and how film and other art is processed and received. I have 2 great podcast episodes on The Great War that you may find of interest in the next few weeks and months.

After King's holiday we will return to the idea of "anti-war" movies again.

Courtney H. said...

Thanks for the recommendations. No, I have not seen the b/w version of **All Quiet on the Western Front,** and I have not heard of **Paths of Glory.** There is another WWI movie, a Canadian movie called **Passchendaele** (sp?). I would not consider it to be anti-war, and it is very soap opera-ish and predictable. However, it does show the grisliness of trench warfare.

Courtney H. said...

Disgusting! However, this hatred is not surprising, which is sad indeed.

Gina said...

Here's a veteran of another kidney:
Ultimately I believe there was a child killed. & that burden is placed on
me. (...) [The commander] just basically said: "It's god's plan." -
It's god's fucking plan for people to die like ... I don't want to hear that
shit. I didn't feel like I was part of anything good or wholesome or healthy or
contributing to the greater good. I felt like I was destroying
myself.He managed to break away, but the people who go on
participating in this insanity are - insane. & that's what the 1% need -
disintegrated & mutilated personalities. There're a lot around.

Quote of Pakistani from the
Usually drones strike a second time after five or ten minutes. It's to kill the
relatives who come out to help.That's too unequal to be war.

Gina said...

Clint Eastwood's film is as the Charlie Hebdo cartoons an affront to the Islamic world, on which the USA in connection with its European as well as Arab allies & Israel inflict so much barbaric actions.

Reactions to the new provocation by Charlie Hebdo:

A young Muslim woman holds out a white rose near the Capitole building in Toulouse, southern France, on January 9th
Go to photo 19 / 68 or "pause slideshow</strong" above left immediately:

Lewis MacKenzie said...

The film is not a complete dog-turd, but only because the high production values, strong central performance and fine craftsmanship are sufficient to give the effect of rolling it in glitter. All the Iraqi "characters" in the movie serve as nothing more than props to demonstrate the righteousness of America's war. Those who are permitted agency are pantomime villains like "The Butcher", or wild-eyed anti-american protestors, demonstrating their savage ingratitude at the near destruction of their civilisation by foreign invaders. Others are simply torture fodder for the terrrr'sts. At one point, you think Eastwood is going to show us a"good Iraqi", who offers the soldiers a seat at his table, to take the edge of the obvious racism, but even that is subverted - the guy turns out to be a terrorist after all.

Most gut-wrenching moment - when an evil Iraqi Al Qaida child nearly forces our hero to execute his 2nd minor.
Most unintentionally funny moment - either the fake baby, or the bit when Kyle has a heart-warming phone conversation with his wife as he scopes Iraqi civilians down the sight of his gun and casually weighs their lives in the balance while she offers to talk dirty to him.
Main take-home message: While all Iraqis are evil, it's the women and kids you really have to watch out for.