Liberal writers have been lining up for the last month to decry American Sniper along predictable, ideologically comfortable lines. “Macho Sludge” was the title of an Alternet piece by David Masciotra. Chris Hedges called it “a grotesque hypermasculinity that banishes compassion and pity.” These reviewers, driven perhaps by their own political distaste of American Sniper miss much – or most of what is at work politically in the film. Straight propaganda rarely makes for compelling entertainment, so the enormous popularity of American Sniper (hauling in $30.6 million in its fourth weekend to total to nearly $250 million in 17 days of broad release) suggests that it has reached far beyond the hard core of ultraconservatives one would expect to embrace the film these reviewers describe.
Let’s start with Clint Eastwood himself, who says that American Sniper was meant to criticize war. “The biggest antiwar statement any film” can make is to show, he said, “the fact of what [war] does to the family and the people who have to go back into civilian life like Chris Kyle did.” There are two Eastwoods in the popular imagination – the celebrant of violence in the Sergio Leone “spaghetti westerns” and the Dirty Harry movies; and the lamenter of violence in films such as Unforgiven and Gran Torino. But as American Sniper demonstrates, those two modes are not so far apart. Eastwood does here what he has done repeatedly in his career – resolves his hero’s ambivalence, psychic pain, and sense of structural powerlessness through masculine honor, sacrifice, and vulnerability (often played out on a highly racialized landscape).
Eastwood hit on this formula in one of the first films he directed, The Outlaw Josey Wales. In that film a poor farmer in the Missouri Territory becomes a Confederate guerilla when his home is attacked by Union soldiers. Like the protagonist of American Sniper (Chris Kyle) seeing the World Trade Center come down, Josey Wales sees no choice but to take up arms, and in so doing proves to be an unusually good, if reluctant, marksman and killer. In both films, the purposes of war remain ambivalent. Both Wales’s and Kyle’s challenge, ultimately is to work out a postwar existence. As Josey says to a Comanche warrior, “Dyin’ ain’t so hard for men like us . . . its living that’s hard.”
The Outlaw Josey Wales, released in 1976, had an anti-government politics that appealed to an American public by expressing sentiments on both left and right. It came on the heels of both the Vietnam War and Watergate, and reflected popular disillusionment with both. Yet its Confederate, anti-statist hero also anticipated insurgency on the right. When promoting the film, Eastwood always mentioned Vietnam and Watergate, and the kind of profound distrust that had developed toward government at the time. But his sentiment was not just that of an opponent of the war and the Nixon administration; he was openly, angrily anti-statist in a way that blamed not only the government but impoverished recipients of government assistance. As he told one audience, “Today we live in a welfare-oriented society, and people expect more from Big Daddy Government, more from Big Daddy Charity. That philosophy never got you anywhere. I worked for every crust of bread I ever ate.” It was the state and people of color who ultimately violated Josey Wales and his family, even though he makes common cause with a Cherokee against imperial expansion of the US state. It is political ambivalence that made The Outlaw Josey Wales popular with a broad public, not unlike American Sniper.
In reference to a scene in the film Sudden Impact where a white man trains his gun at the head of a black man holding a white woman at knifepoint, the late political theorist Michael Rogin wrote that a fantasized demonic love triangle between women, blacks, and the state authorized the rage of white men in Reagan-era America. But unlike Dirty Harry Callahan, both Josey Wales and Chris Kyle evince a woundedness, and ultimately a kind of powerlessness that does not re-establish white male hegemony. It is this sense that American Sniper is deeply reactionary even as it articulates no clear political vision.
One can see, in Eastwood’s rendering of Chris Kyle, that his desire – his need – to be a killer of almost superhuman proportions makes him not sociopathic, but rather a “sheepdog,” someone operating in a state of anxious alertness at all times against inevitable attack. His violence is justified in advance. Kyle provides protection from the chaotic aggression of people of color (just as the real-life Kyle told stories about picking off bad guys from the roof of the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina).
It is neither male bravado nor triumphant nationalism that compels viewers to sympathize with Chris Kyle. But nor is it an antiwar film. It is rather an assertion of both the grim inevitability of certain kinds of violence, and of our obligation to those who wage violence for that very reason. It is this logic that brings together the violence and anti-violence in Eastwood’s oeuvre, as well as his seeming anti-racism and racism.
We can see this logic of white fear and vulnerability echoed by the recently publicized cases of police who have killed unarmed African Americans, and by those who support them. Think of the testimony of Darren Wilson: “I felt like a five-year-old holding onto Hulk Hogan.” Or better yet think of Police Benevolent Association President Patrick Lynch defending Daniel Pantaleo, the cop who killed Eric Garner with an illegal chokehold on Staten Island: “Garner’s death was a tragedy for Garner’s family,” he said. “It’s also a tragedy for a police officer who has to live with that death.” Pantaleo, Lynch went on, “is literally, literally an Eagle Scout, and I think that story isn’t being told. That a New York City police officer went out and did a difficult job, a job where there’s no script, and sometimes with that, a tragedy comes.”
American Sniper need not directly claim a link between 9/11 and Iraq, it need not subscribe to the Chris Kyle’s claim that Iraqis are “savage” and “evil.” One could easily read both as meant to convey the narrow, provincial perception of the protagonist. It need not even endorse any American presence in the Middle East at all. American Sniper dispenses with conventional politics to portray the raw, emotional core of white vulnerability. James Baldwin once wrote that the monstrous violence visited by white Americans on the world is due to this people having opted for safety over life. American Sniper, attending to the triple insecurities of race, gender, and empire, serves is an exclamation point to that observation.
Joseph E. Lowndes is associate professor of political science, University of Oregon. He is the author of From the New Deal to the New Right: Race and the Origins of Modern Conservatism. He lives in Eugene.