The Passion of Chris Kyle
The warrior has held a deep fascination for both artists and their publics alike.
The children of Attic Greece were weaned on the tales of the mighty Achilles fighting the Trojans. It is said that Alexander the Great slept with a copy of Homer’s Iliad under his pillow every night during his eastern campaigns. I take the success of Clint Eastwood’s film, ‘American Sniper’, to be the latest chapter in this tradition.
At the same time, there is also a long tradition of profound criticism of this same glorification of the warrior as the archetype of manhood. Plato’s Socratic dialogues were written specifically to offer an alternative literary “hero”, to what he viewed as a deeply problematic veneration of an obviously flawed man (anyone with even a cursory knowledge of the Iliad, will remember that Achilles is undeniably a spoiled brat, without any self-control). And of course, the Christian Gospels venerated a figure, who could not (at least on the surface) be more different than the Greco-Roman “war heroes” who were all the rage at the time.
Personally, I liked this movie, and I think the reason I liked it, is similar to the reason I (and so many men around the globe) love old cowboy movies, with John Wayne and Clint Eastwood, or gangster movies, like Brian de Palma’s Scarface. They are about men of great force of action, who live by their own personal codes, and will not break these codes, whatever the cost, whatever the burden. They are men without a shred of hypocrisy (there is no “lying” in them, so to speak). Even if one does not agree personally with the choices they have made, one respects these choices, as well as the single-minded effectiveness with which they take these choices to their limits.
This is why I have titled this opinion piece: “The Passion of Chris Kyle”; because this movie portrays a man who has single-mindedly pursued a life-path, owing to his personal obsessions and convictions, that would seem to the average man, so contrary to a happy existence. Like any good action movie, ‘American Sniper’, is as much about the moral choices a man makes and their consequences, as it is about the violence on the screen.
What especially struck me was how Kyle’s actions make him a man who, on the one hand, is deeply loved and admired by his peers and friends, while on the other hand, loses his family. In fact, Kyle clearly chooses his friends and work over his woman, over the happy life of a family man. This is a typical trait of the classic American film action hero, who while often getting the girl in the end, always chooses his friends and work first, i. e., during the first two acts of the movie. Clint Eastwood understands this action movie formula as well as any man living, and he has executed accordingly.
Is this a war propaganda film? I assume that at this stage of his life and career, Clint Eastwood makes a film, because he wants to make a film, and not because anyone instructed him to do so. Could it be used for military recruitment? Undoubtedly. Every military, every country, needs men like Chris Kyle. These are men of great force and single-minded determination.
The great American film director, John Ford, made his cowboy movies with this same premise in mind. In ‘Red River’, ‘The Searchers’, and ‘The Man Who Shot liberty Vance’ (just to name a few), we are presented with leading men (played by John Wayne) of great force and determination. Despite the obvious character flaws of these men, the overriding lesson is that these were the kind of men necessary to settle the Wild West. The tragedy of these stories is that once these men finish their work and attempt to find a happy life in civilized society, they are lost. Moreover, nobody really wants them around, because they are scared of them. Who wants a man who has spent much of his adult life killing men, women, and children without compunction, hanging around their own families?
Who wants traumatized violent men spending time with one’s wife and children? The manner of Kyle’s death only confirms these harsh, but nonetheless practical apprehensions that civilians have toward soldiers returning from war. In fact, most of these characters are what we would today call: “soldiers suffering from PTSD”, since they all seem to be coming back from the US Civil War, when the cowboy movie begins.
I have written this short piece, because I think that the “liberal” versus “conservative” debate on this lightning rod of a movie, has failed to really capture what I think is important about Clint Eastwood’s film, and the tradition of American film storytelling out of which it comes.
As far as the Middle East wars we have waged since September 11, 2001, I think that there is consensus that they have been a disaster, and that they have made the world a more dangerous place. ‘American Sniper’ does not concern itself with such issues. Its story is from the soldier’s perspective. The soldier at war cannot afford to waste too much time pondering the reasons for the war, because he must focus his attention single-mindedly on his priorities, preservation of self and his friends. Any distraction from such focus puts him and his peers in danger. For this reason, I regard attacks on the film’s failure to critically examine the reasons behind the Iraq war as misguided.
The film is simply not about that. It’s from the soldier’s perspective. A movie about the reasons we went to war would focus on the politicians, a far more risky topic for a major film studio.