A lot of Clint Eastwood-directed films are quite terrible. I found Million Dollar Baby, Invictus and J. Edgar unwatchable. Gran Torino was made watchable only because it embraced the cranky old man chasing kids off his lawn cliche so earnestly that its badness was somehow hard to look away from. Sully was a weird attempt to turn the National Transportation Safety Board - a government institution tasked with ensuring that every plane, train and bus you ride in the United States is safe - into a villain. And yet, his popularity as a director endures, so clearly his films - their tone, content and style - are speaking to a part of America that I don't really get. With the benefit of hindsight, this should have given some warning as to the shit sandwich that was coming down the pipeline.
When it was released in 2014, American Sniper blew up the box office. It grossed $350 million in the US and almost $550 worldwide. It was a runaway hit that found a home in the hearts of America's conservatives the same way The Passion of the Christ did. It appealed to red-state bible-thumpers and jingoistic gun-wavers in the Deep South, Big Sky Country and Appalachian Mountains. A large section of America absolutely loved this movie about Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in American military history and a good old boy from Texas who embodied the Sparknotes version of American values in the way he could ride, fight, shoot and drink. Not only that, but he was turned loose in Iraq to wreak divine vengeance on the enemy, saving the lives of countless American soldiers in the process as he extinguished evil from this Earth. He ultimately died a martyr's death, not on the battle field but still in service to his country trying to save those who came back from war.
It is the perfect movie to appeal to people with simple world views. The movie establishes that Chris Kyle has a black and white sense of morality, and it never questions whether he is right or wrong. It takes that black and white mentality, and reinforces its rightness by portraying the Iraqi insurgents as evil incarnate. It depicts Iraqis in general as untrustworthy Others, and more or less justifies Kyle's killing of them in the interest of saving American lives no matter what. The film is thus built entirely on an oversimplified Us vs Them dichotomy, and any ambiguity people might have is driven away by directorial choices. The most famous scene in the film is the opening, where Kyle is forced to shoot a kid because he is about to throw a grenade at a convoy of Marines. The moment is loaded with tension and we are to understand that Kyle was forced to make difficult life or death decisions on a daily basis. Yet, his decisions are always excused by the caveat that killing Iraqis saves American lives. The kid was bad and Iraqi, so let's not dwell on it.
This is, of course, too simple by half. It strips any nuance or moral ambiguity from what is and was, in reality, a deeply ambiguous and complicated situation. It never questions the fact that the United States invaded a sovereign country, threw it into chaos and then sent snipers out in its cities to kill Iraqis who opposed the invaders. Instead, we cheer these snipers for killing our enemies. We cheer because the enemy is defined as anyone who isn't us, who doesn't love our God, or our way of life or look like us - a dangerous understanding of reality that in 2017 is becoming increasing entrenched in American politics, society and life. This is why this movie is deeply problematic. It offers a simple binary interpretation of a complex situation, and then goads you into cheering for your team without questioning the beliefs or circumstances underpinning their actions. And Americans cheered. They cheered to the tune of $350 million.
The media of course fell right into this trap. They fact-checked the film, noting some of its problematic aspects and the fact that Chris Kyle had a tendency to exaggerate and fabricate stories, while openly referring to the Iraqis that he killed as "savages." This is exactly the kind of criticism - based in reality as it is- that conservative culture warriors cannot handle, because it undermines the simplicity of their worldview. If the impossibly good Iraqi-killing machine is actually NOT impossibly good, and if Iraqis do NOT all deserve to be killed, then the house of cards upon which tens of millions of road kill aficionados are resting their ideas about life would quickly come tumbling down.
The fact that so many people did love this movie, vehemently defending it because it appealed to their tribal instincts in a way that was back then not yet entirely clear, should have tipped us off to the fact that the national nightmare of Donald Trump was nearly upon us. That so many people had either forgotten, ignored or never learned the lessons of the Iraqi War, and indeed were willing to close tribal and racial ranks behind a simplified re-imagining of what happened there should have tipped us off. In a remarkable piece for Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi seems to have had some inkling of what was going on before the rest of us:
"Sniper is a movie whose politics are so ludicrous and idiotic that under normal circumstances it would be beneath criticism. The only thing that forces us to take it seriously is the extraordinary fact that an almost exactly similar worldview consumed the walnut-sized mind of the president who got us into the war in question. It's the fact that the movie is popular, and actually makes sense to so many people, that's the problem."
Why didn't you warn us sooner Matt Taibbi?! I will say that on the merits as a film, Bradley Cooper is truly excellent as Chris Kyle. I think this was where I finally realized Bradley Cooper is a deeply talented, real actor - not just a movie star. So maybe that is ultimately the take-away from American Sniper. It heralded the arrival of a supremely talented actor, while hinting that parts of the country were buried so deep in their simplistic tribalism that they would be willing to let a Fat Orange Idiot drive the country into a dumpster as long as he reinforced their world view.