I haven’t seen Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, and I probably won’t, because a film that essentially celebrates a man who boasted about his killing ability and regarded Iraqis as ‘savages’ is not something I am prepared to go to the cinema for. I’ve seen the UK trailer several times, and it hasn’t done anything to change my mind. In it the sniper Chris Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper, is lying on a rooftop looking through his scoped rifle at a devastated urban landscape from Insurgentsville Iraq, when he sees a ‘military-aged male’ in a block of flats who is speaking into a mobile phone.
Cooper describes him to his superiors and is told that he has a green light to shoot him if he thinks the man might be passing on information about US troop movements down below. The scene then shows a woman in a niqab walking across the square with a young boy. Cooper tells his superiors that her arms are not moving and that she must be carrying something. When she hands an RPG grenade to the boy, Cooper’s officers say ‘your call’ as the scene intercuts to flashbacks of Cooper in a white suit dancing with his wife at their wedding, standing over her newborn baby in a hospital, and hugging his own son in bed.
We then see Cooper’s finger on the trigger and we see him sitting in an airplane filled with coffins draped in the American flag, as the thumping heartbeat in the background rises to a crescendo and Cooper’s companion drawls ‘they’ll fry you if you’re wrong’, before the scene cuts out.
It’s tense, gripping, and extremely powerful, no doubt about it, because no one can say that Eastwood doesn’t know how to make movies. But it’s also instantly insidious, in the way that it invites the audience to look down Kyle’s scope and ask itself what it would do if it was faced with the same ‘dilemma’ about whether or not to shoot an Arab.
This isn’t the first time Hollywood has asked this question. In Rules of Engagement (2000), the Marine commander played by Samuel Jackson orders his troops to fire into an entire crowd of demonstrators in Yemen, killing dozens of them. For most of the film the audience is as mystified by Jackson’s protestations of innocence as the military court that tries him. But gradually we find out that the crowd wasn’t innocent at all, and that all of them were jihadist fanatics and that most of them were actually armed and firing at the marines, including a fetchingly vulnerable young girl on crutches whose initial appearance seems to confirm Jackson as the perpetrator of an atrocity.
In the end Jackson is vindicated as a courageous and decisive combat commander, forced to make extraordinarily difficult choices because of the situation that the Arabs have placed him in. At the time some critics of the film asked why Yemen, a US ally, had been chosen as the stage for this scenario, but from Hollywood’s point of view one Arab has generally been as good as any other, and fighting them always seems to recreate very similar moral problems.
In The Siege, the question is whether the military and security forces should torture and intern Muslims in the United States after a spate of terror attacks in New York. In Zero Dark Thirty the audience is invited to accept that torture may have been necessary to locate and kill Osama bin Laden.
Whenever Hollywood poses these questions, it invariably does so by dehumanizing or reducing the humanity of the Arab objects of cinematic violence, and by inviting the audience to identify with the American torturer/shooter/soldier who is obliged to do things that would otherwise be considered unacceptable in other context.
In another trailer for American Sniper, we see Cooper/Kyle aiming his rifle at a child who picks up an RPG. As he does so, we hear Cooper’s anguished voice begging him not to touch it and not to pick it up so that he won’t have to shoot him. A number of critics of the film have pointed out that the real-life Kyle appeared to have enjoyed what he did, that he once stated that he didn’t regret a single shot that he fired, and that he described Iraqis as ‘savages.’
By presenting Kyle as the anguished humane executioner, forced by an inhuman enemy to make difficult choices in order to save American lives, Eastwood not only whitewashes Kyle himself, he also offers his audience a grotesquely sanitized and one-dimensional version of the Iraq war.
Hollywood has done this many times, in other wars, and it often does so by concentrating on the ‘soldier’s story’. But there are other less pleasing soldiers’ stories that could be told about the Iraq war than the anguished patriotic assassin who Eastwood is clearly intent on glorifying.
There are the Apache helicopter pilots in the Wikileaks ‘collateral murder’ video, who unlike Bradley Cooper, can be heard eagerly begging the unarmed reporters below them to pick up what they believed was a weapon so that they could kill them, and gleefully exulting in the ‘dead bastards’ they have killed afterwards. In Fallujah and Ramadi, American snipers not only fired in order to ‘save lives’. They also shot at ambulances, hospitals, pedestrians and civilians carrying white flags. This was not accidental. Snipers were used to terrorize and intimidate the civilian population as part of an ongoing strategy that did not recognize clear distinctions between ‘military-aged males’ and the civilians who supported or simply accepted their presence.
A similar strategy underpins US drone strikes in Pakistan, where targets are often chosen on the basis of nebulous intelligence or simply because ‘military-aged males’ happen to be within a certain area.
There are films that could be made about this kind of violence. Such a film might not ask its audience to identify with an ‘American Sniper’, but pose far more disturbing questions about the purpose of American violence and military aggression and the reasons for its endless wars. It might look not just at the consequences of these wars on the men and women who fight them, but might also consider the lives and motives of their victims, and the devastation that these wars have left in their wake.
But that isn’t the kind of film that Eastwood or Hollywood want to make. And unfortunately, the massive box-office takings of American Sniper suggest that it isn’t the kind of film that many Americans want to see.