When my American colleague gave me a pirated copy of American Sniper, he obviously felt obliged to point out that it was a “controversial movie.” A kind of warning, as it were. I don’t know whether he said it to avoid looking like a staunch American patriot approving of his nation’s military interventions in the Middle East—not a very popular position here in Pakistan especially, where we both teach—or whether he merely wanted to draw my attention to current debate on the film.
One thing is certain in any case: American Sniper is a movie. Moreover, it belongs to a very specific genre that follows very specific rules: the genre of the war film, not, say, the documentary film. Even if the boundaries appear to be increasingly blurred, as everywhere else in society, that doesn’t invalidate them.
I should, moreover, add a value judgment right off: In my view, the film is far better than the other war film of the season, Fury, which is dominated by Brad Pitt’s pudgy face and updates the theme of 300 to the twentieth century: a small, brave troop confronts certain death at the hands of the enemy’s superior numbers. A state of imbalance places the main role in American Sniper as well: here it is a single man who has to make the difference and confronts, albeit not directly, the enemies. Who lies in wait for them. Who murders them behind their backs—literally, since he often shoots them in the back. But perhaps we should be precise here: Naturally soldiers are not murderers, at least not from the perspective of the law. The poetic justice is that in the end the sniper is also killed in a cowardly way—murdered, in this case—albeit by a fellow countryman who has obviously been traumatized by the war. One could say the sniper is done in by war itself.
The shot in the back plays a crucial role in Fury as well: within the dramaturgy, it functions as a crux, turning the apprentice soldier into a real one. It is fortunate that the German who gets shot in the back is not only a wimp, who whines about his life in a very un-German way, but also kind of ugly. (Indeed, his physiognomy is strikingly reminiscent of the features the Nazi’s identified as “Jewish.”)
Eastwood does not just depict the american sniper as a cowardly murder from the background, as some critics have written: he was clever enough to show his hero in hand-to-hand fighting, thus attesting to his bravery and making him more sympathetic. A sharpshooter may not be a hero, as Seth Rogen announced on the occasion of this film, and the German sniper played by Daniel Brühl in Quentin Tarantino’s Hitler opera, Inglourious Basterds, does not seem like one to us but an occasional sharpshooter who is not too good for house-to-house fighting to support inexperienced recruits, is certainly suitable as a hero.
It seems plausible that the character of the sharpshooter could be a metaphor for the American war with drones. That becomes abundantly clear in the film above all at what could be called its climax: when Kyle kills his counterpart, the Islamic sniper. The animation of the bullet flying across a great distance is reminiscent of videos of bombs dropping, except that this bomb—the bullet—is moving not vertically but horizontally toward the enemy. There is no confrontation, no struggle. Kyle moves his finger, just as the gamers who are hired by the American military to control drones fire them by means of a “mouse click.” The outrage of the media at Prince Harry’s statement linking real killing with virtual killing—“It’s a joy for me because I’m one of those people who loves playing PlayStation and Xbox, so with my thumbs I like to think that I’m probably quite useful”—was a clear indication that the wild prince had struck a nerve, that is, had spoken all too openly about how modern Western warfare functions, including its recruiting strategies.
The director of Fury relies on the beauty of apocalyptically devastated, smoking landscapes of rubble: The film begins with a wonderful tableau and the contrast of nature versus culture in the form of black tanks vs. a white horse, which most certainly takes up the aesthetic of the likes of Leni Riefenstahl. Thus it is processing a paradox: an anti-Nazi film that wants to be Nazistic. The motif of longing for death contributes to this, with the difference that here it is the Americans who want to travel to the beyond. The director would have been able to achieve something if he had spent more time watching Zack Snyder to learn about choreographing battle scenes. For that sort of rigorous aestheticizing, however, he seemed to lack the courage his heroes show in the face of the Germans who die like flies. At least there is some sort of choreography of exploding heads. By contrast, Eastwood follows more American visual traditions: the aesthetic of Normal Rockwell, for example, in the flashbacks to childhood, but above all the grizzly, I am tempted to say masculine sobriety of the likes of John Ford.
There is no law against films that celebrate war; they would even represent a good opportunity to look once again on the connection between war and culture, which we in the West especially like to overlook. (On this subject, Heiner Mühlmann’s The Nature of Cultures, a study of culture genetics, can be strongly recommended). The mass media also like to overlook this constitutional connection, since it makes it more difficult to moralize nonchalantly in their reporting. Nor is there any law against films celebrating a sadist who enjoys killing people. That is precisely what Kyle seems like in his autobiography. Eastwood’s film lacks that honesty; it tries to transform Kyle into a character whose motive is not the pleasure of killing but love of his homeland—and I am grateful to the director for that, since I would have had a difficult time with such a film. It would have been transformed from an agreeable art into beautiful art, to borrow Kant’s old distinction. It would have resulted in the large distance from the protagonist that is categorically demanded by so many art theorists. If Eastwood had portrayed Kyle as a merciless killer of children, he might have perhaps succeeded in producing a work of art. But Eastwood is not an artist who processes beauty in the Kantian sense; he is a Hollywood director.
It was all those exploding heads in Fury that first got me thinking, for heads also play a major role in ISIS productions, the films of the opposite camp, which belong to a different genre—pornography, to be precise: snuff film. When Kyle and his American friends storm an enemy building, these heads are lying around on a shelf; Eastwood offers, relatively late, the reason why the enemies are “savages” who must be countered with zero tolerance, while the Americans stand for civilization. Much the same is true of Fury, in which the children the Germans send into war and the strung-up “conscientious objectors” function as the legitimization of war that ultimately convinces the trainee who is having doubts about it. It is an ancient distinction, which can already be found in Aristotle, who gave license to his student Alexander the Great to slaughter mercilessly by saying that enemies are merely plants. Just as one can mow a lawn, enemies can and should also be mowed down. There the barbarians, here civilization. The opposite side works with the same distinction: there the frivolous, immoral, barbaric West, here the strict order of Islam.
The terrorists have learned a lot from the USA, especially about the form of warfare that the American National Defense University has called “Shock and Awe”, which includes the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki—not so much the actual material destruction but the mental effects the pictures of that destruction had on the enemy. (The United States is, by the way, the only country to have used atomic bombs in war, which should not be forgotten amid the uproar over North Korea and Iran.) The “image bombs” IS are dropping are as well not intended to “achieve strategic goals of limited extent,” as the military scholars wrote, but rather to “influence the population as a whole […], its leaders, its public.” American Sniper is a good bomb, and one that Eastwood is dropping on his native country. As the success of the movie with American audiences shows, it is clearly needed: it solves a problem. A problem for which Bush, Donald Rumsfeld, and Paul Wolfowitz are responsible: it transforms an unjust, evil, and dilettantish war into a noble and professional one. Into the war Brad Pitt fights against Germany in Fury, the Americans’ last “good” war. Eastwood pulls off the trick of contrast the dilettantism of George W. Bush’s conduct of the war with a professional film that makes up for that dilettantism somewhat. One could say that he accomplishes the mission. On the one hand, there was the ridiculous leading man and a bungling government that, despite countless think tanks and advisors, could not hide its fundamental amateurism—one need only think of the presentation of the photographs “proving” that the Iraqis were producing chemical weapons. On the other hand, there is another God-fearing Texan whose nonexistent eloquence even to the point of obtuseness is beautifully transformed in Eastwood’s film into taciturn honesty and uprightness, into the Bush that the Americans would have loved to have. This ‘Bush’ is backed by a highly, clever military organization, which is backed in turn by a wonderful medical organization, that accepts the veterans and cares for them, for both in war and in peace: “We take care of each other.” (This is the answer that Kyle, having returned to the civilian world, gives a wounded veteran why he, the great hero, is devoting so much time to them, the losing winners.) The rogue crusade of the Americans is presented as a just cause; corruption becomes morality; Joschka Fischer’s famous “I am not convinced” is turned into a quite convincing movie. Of course Eastwood can scarcely allow himself to dispense entirely with any discussion of the “greatest disaster in American foreign policy” (Madeleine Albright), but he does manage to respond to that doubt—in the form of two or three sentences from one of Kyle’s comrades on the front—with the shaking head of his main character. Not only that, this doubting soldier later gladly gives away his life for his country.
Everyone knows, even if only subconsciously, that America had lost the war on terror on the visual level at the moment it officially began—when the gigantic double phallus of the World Trade Center collapsed, the embodiment of Western potency. The enormous symbolic power of those images was clearly long misunderestimated by the Americans. One need only consult history, from the building of the Tower of Babel to the collapsing tower that represents the judgment of God in a set of tarot cards. In response to these images, all the United States could offer was the helpless, desperate bombing of barren mountain landscapes. Dilettantism on both the symbolic and the real level. Eastwood’s film at least corrects these symbolic dilettantisms. The director was clever enough to show the imposing images of the collapsing towers, which inspired the composer Karlheinz Stockhausen to employ the metaphor of “the greatest work of art of all times,” only very briefly, highly miniaturized on a television screen.
How did I watch the film? Not primarily as a critic. More like the way I used to, as a child, watch a Western: the slaughter of the Indians, the savages, was part of the game. I remember that I never wanted to be an Indian when playing Cowboys and Indians. But even as I child I asked myself why I didn’t. Because the stupid feathers, the whole feminine environmentalist outfit, couldn’t stand up to the coolness of the cowboy hat and the Colt gun belt. And because I wanted to be on the side of the winners, of course. That’s what games are about: victory is the preference value. It was not until the great Little Big Man, a real antiwar film, that I later switched sides to the Indians. It was hardly a coincidence that American Sniper draws this connecting line from cowboy to soldier, from one crusade to the next. Kyle rides the war just like he rides a horse in a rodeo competition. Yet, the Americans are not likely to pull off the triumph of genocide in this case.
I have not confused the real world—the real so-called terrorists, the Middle East—with the terrorists and Iraqi population shown in this film who, just like the Germans in Fury, are not enemies to be taken seriously; every shot hits its mark; sometimes I had to laugh at how unrealistically, even fantastically both films are in their effort to allow the viewers to experience the success of which they might dream as first-person shooters when gaming. In older narratives, such marksmanship could be achieved only with the help of the devil, who provided the marksman with magic bullets for the purpose. In Eastwood’s film, the gift of precise killing seems rather to be of divine nature (the Bible, at which Kyle never glances, is less a text than a talisman for him). Of course one can discuss the ideology underlying both films, just like its ideological opposite—and the depiction of its ideological opposite in the ideology of the West, and vice versa. But ultimately one should clearly distinguish between fiction reality and real reality even if the feedback between the two areas should not be ignored.
Postscript: It was not the Americans who defeated the evil Germans, as Fury wants us to believe. It was the Russians. Here again we see the astonishing efficiency of Hollywood, which one can hardly help but admire. If ever one could speak of a “propaganda lie,” the term could be applied here. For given the concentration of German troops on the eastern front, the Germans were extremely sparse on the Western front, so the fact that it is teaming with German soldiers in Fury is anything but accurate historically. But what matters is only whether this nonsense makes sense on the level of the narrative. In American Sniper, that is unquestionably the case. But I doubt that it will be able to rewrite history. It mainly has a therapeutic function, offering comfort and consolation to the American audience. Pure fiction—a fairy tale—couldn’t have done that. It is the construction of authenticity, backed both by the fact that the story is based on an autobiography as well as by Eastwood’s prosaic, documentary-esque, and conservative style, that serves this function.