Sunday, March 8, 2015

"American Sniper:" A Flawed Movie for a Flawed War

I'm late to viewing Clint Eastwood's American Sniper.  Like our overall effort in Iraq, it's a movie that doesn't know what it's about. 

In Special Providence (2002) Walter Russell Mead argues that America has four foreign-policy traditions. Peter Beinart summarized them as follows:
Wilsonianism” () represents America’s missionary desire to spread civilization across the globe. Once upon a time, spreading “civilization” meant spreading Christianity. Now it means spreading democracy and human rights. Samantha Power is a Wilsonian. 
Hamiltonianism” () refers to the belief that America, as a trading nation separated from our largest markets by vast oceans, must make the world safe for American commerce. For our domestic prosperity, we must maintain an economically open, politically stable world order. George H.W. Bush is a Hamiltonian. 
Jeffersonianism” () reflects a deep-seated fear that if America entangles itself in imperial ventures abroad, we will destroy liberty at home. Glenn Greenwald and Ron Paul are Jeffersonians. 
Jacksonianism” () refers to the peculiar combination of jingoism and isolationism forged on the American frontier. Bill O’Reilly is a Jacksonian. Jacksonians don’t want to fashion other countries in America’s image. They don’t care about fattening corporate bottom lines. But if you mess with them—violate their honor—they’ll pursue you to the gates of hell.
Like a personality trait chart, no administration and no period in history is all one of these things to the exclusion of the others.  These traits, we might say, are present at all times in greater or lesser measure in all administrations, and in individual men or women, and in our Iraq adventure.

That said, the Jacksonian world view is present in spades in Chris Kyle, the protagonist of  American Sniper.  The Jacksonian sensibility was instilled as a harsh lesson by his deer hunter Texas father.  "There are sheep and wolves," he said, "and then there are those rare, righteous souls called to protect the innocent from the wicked" (as A. O. Scott put it in his review of the film).  Shaping the world in our image (definitely an aspect of the politics that led us to Iraq), or fattening the bottom line (the Halliburton angle), are absent from Kyle's motivation. He's all about vengeance and justice in response to the bombing of U.S. embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam in 1998, and the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center on September 1, 2001.  "You're pissed off," notes the Armed Services recruiter as Kyle volunteers to enlist in the Navy Seals.  Yes, he's pissed off and ready to pursue terrorists to the gates of hell, but he's also a bit muddled. 

Just like Kyle is a flawed character, it's a flawed movie. The morality lesson at the beginning of the film is ham-fisted, the scene where Kyle meets his wife in a bar lacks authenticity; the suggestion that Kyle was "cured" of his post traumatic stress syndrome at the end of the movie is utterly implausible and just plain weird (the gun play?); the movie lacks a dramatic or moral center.  It's less Unforgiven and more "empty chair flop" at the GOP convention. 

Like our overall efforts in Iraq, the film does not know what it's about. Contrary to the suggestion in A. O. Scott's review, the film does not in fact pit good vs. evil. Kyle's motivation is shown as "pissed off" and "welcome escape from an empty and fucked up life" in equal measure. Kyle's nemesis (an Olympic gold medalist sharpshooter) is portrayed as attractive--he has a pleasing and composed face, an attractive wife, a young baby; he is doing a parallel job to Kyle's (protecting combatants in the field).  Yes, there is an aftermath of torture scene, but in light of Guantanamo, enhanced interrogation, Abhu Graib, rendering for outsourced torture, and drone strikes on women and children--none of which is shown but all of which is in the consciousness of every movie goer--this scene does not starkly distinguish the good from the evil. 

Kyle volunteered for four tours of duty. Pushed by his wife for an explanation, he provides the lame excuse that he is doing it to protect her, to protect our country. It's the explanation George W. Bush provided.  It's B.S. and she is not buying it. Like the war itself, we are left wondering what this movie's about.