There’s an early dinner table scene in Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2014) that might well make you cringe—perhaps because it’s the sort of episode that made for satirical fodder in Eastwood’s Unforgiven (1992), where bumptious behaviour and love of guns was exposed to ridicule. Unfortunately, the scene from this biopic of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is played straight, and sets the tone for the rest of the film.
After taking down a deer and then taking in a pious sermon, the young Chris Kyle (Cole Konis) gets another life lesson from his father, Wayne (Ben Reed). There are, the patriarch says, “three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves, and sheep dogs.” Sheep, he explains, are innocent about the violence that exists in the world; wolves are those who prey on the weak, innocent sheep; and sheep dogs are “blessed with the power of aggression” and exist to protect the sheep. “[W]e protect our own,” the father adds with a note finality. Later, when Chris Kyle is taking down several of his 160 “confirmed kills” on Iraqi soil, the early lesson is reinforced: “sheep dogs” protect other American “sheep.” Apparently, there are no sheep—or sheep dogs—in the Iraqi population. Kyle gets to be called “The Legend” and also a “hero,” protecting his new little brothers (as he once protected his own younger brother from a schoolyard bully), while one of his Iraqi counterparts earns the moniker “The Butcher.” Iraqis can only be wolves. Savages.
In treating the admittedly difficult subject of a publicly brash and bigoted individual, Eastwood opted to portray Kyle as a humble soldier who is somewhat reluctant about his “legend” status. And yet, as reviewer Amy Nicholson points out in LA Weekly, this portrait is false and, as a consequence, one of the reasons for the film’s heroic narrative arc. “The humble Kyle on screen is Kyle with his flaws written out. We’re not watching a biopic. We’re watching a drama about an idealized soldier, a patriot beyond reproach, which bolsters Kyle’s legend while gutting the man.” Hence the father’s dinner table pep-talk. Hence the portrayal of Kyle as a “sheep dog”—when the reality seems less neat. He may, indeed, be a wolf in sheep dog’s clothing.
This insistence on whitewashing Kyle’s real-life unsavory character—his self-aggrandizing and crass indifference to those he killed (again, see Nicholson’s piece or Kyle’s autobiography)—might help to explain the film’s uneven pacing.
Sean O’Donnell, in Cinema Blend, argues that “the first act of American Sniper almost tanks as Eastwood, Cooper and [co-star Sienna] Miller rush through self-appointed ‘important’ moments from Kyle’s timeline without establishing a real flow. There’s a troubling speed with which Eastwood ticks off the prestige-biopic visuals like he’s playing Awards-Bait Bingo. (His daddy takes him hunting! He enlists! He marries! He heads overseas!).”
This jarring pace is the product of Eastwood’s strained attempt to squeeze Kyle’s life into a neat box. And this is the essential problem with so many biopics (Walk the Line, Ray, Ali, and so forth): “life” has more depth and breadth than narrative formulas allow.
To save himself the trouble of vexing moral questions, Eastwood needed the tidy “sheep-wolf-sheep dog” triad. Otherwise, we’d have no hero. Otherwise, we’d have a Travis Bickle. And there would be some defamiliarizing moment (like the contrast Scorsese makes in Taxi Driver between Bickle’s bloody rampage and the newspaper reports that declare him a “hero”). True, both in his public life and in other films, Eastwood has espoused an anti-war stance, but it’s hard to take the view that American Sniper is distinctly “anti-war.” Nor am I convinced by the position of The Beast reviewer Asawin Suebsaeng, who quotes Bradley Cooper himself as stating that the film was “a character study about what the plight is for a soldier” and “not a political discussion about war.” You can’t simply eliminate the politics at the root of the individual who makes the decision to fight in Iraq. Kyle’s political position is precisely that instilled in him by his father and consistently embraced in his adult life: he is a sheep dog and his enemies are beasts. This attitude fuels both Kyle’s decision to fight and, clearly, the decision-making process of the military superiors, one of whom tells Kyle, “I want you to put the fear of God into those savages.” Kyle agrees: “they’re fucking savages,” he tells his wife Taya just before he begins his second tour.
So, after all, we do get a glimpse of the real sniper. Perhaps not the wolf, but maybe the wolf in sheep dog’s clothing.
American Sniper is currently on general release.
Adam Lawrence is a writer living in Montreal. His work has appeared in Quills: Canadian Poetry and Vallum: Contemporary Poetry (forthcoming in 2015)