Tuesday, March 17, 2015

AMERICAN SNIPER: Cinematic Rorschach (1 Feb. 2014)

            One totally clear thing about Clint Eastwood's American Sniper: It's a well done film, including (as a friend of mine noted) well done in overall gritty realism right down to truly admirable use of surround-sound for the battle sequences.
            It's not totally clear, but it's a safe bet that the "take-away" for a large swath of viewers of American Sniper is going to be something like the great line in Team America: World Police — though not the whole song — "America, Fuck Yeah!"
            Or, as encapsulated in the words of Andrea Tataros responding to the US Senate Intelligence Committee report on torture: "The United States of America is awesome. […] We are awesome.But we’ve had this discussion. We’ve closed the book on it. The reason they [the Democrats et al.] want the discussion is not to show how awesome we are. It’s to show us how we’re not awesome. They apologized for something. They don’t like this country."
            We Americans are awesome; awesome people do awesome things; if we did it — any "it" — it is awesome. So there can be no ambiguities about the Gulf War, Afghan War, Iraq War, or any US actions of the awesome, military variety, and Chris Kyle, American Sniper (a k a "The Legend") is an unambiguous hero. As we used to say in high school, "Can't argue with logic like that."
            However, you also can't blame Clint Eastwood or the film for such logic, and I'll join those saying that rather than a simplistic Gung ho/Hoo-yah!-America-Fuck-Yeah! flick, American Sniper is a political Rorschach movie, where people's responses are determined by the attitudes and background they — that is, we (mostly unconsciously) — bring to the film: attitudes and background often themselves determined by personal history, generational issues, and the sort of films and — part of the generational bit — newsreels viewers grew up on.
             And here may follow some "spoilers." That's may, but probably not for people likely to read blog posts on movies on Open Salon. More serious Caution: some of the following will include repetitions of points I've made elsewhere — and some will be in Recovering Academic mode, so note well the parenthetical bit above suggesting that few viewers will be conscious, ever, of what I'm talking about and that while viewing the movie people shouldn't be: If the movie is working, viewers should be too involved to do much instant analysis.
             One group of people who will do some analysis during the movie is those who fought for the US in Iraq as some variety of grunt in the battles for the cities: they can judge whether or not the film is true to their experiences. Beyond that, though, it's hard to generalize about the response of military and ex-military people; one of the reasons I saw American Sniper was to talk about it with a friend who'd been coaxed into seeing it by another Vietnam veteran, and they'd responded quite differently: my friend being something of a Leftish Peacenik Dove nowadays, his veteran friend on the Hawkish Right.
            Another, probably overlapping group, is people who've seen a lot of war films. For such folk — my people — the film might seem long and occasionally slow because (perhaps significantly for a film strongly based in an actual SEAL's experience) because in parts it was familiar and predictable. For one thing, unless this was Eastwood's sly sick joke, identifying the redshirt/"Ensign Deadmeat" character was too easy to be involving as an exercise and was no surprise. Unfortunately, old folk who've seen numerous war movies probably have a hearing loss and to do even later analyses need to pay close attention to Sniper. During The Fog of War sequence, or Sandstorm of War, as my friend corrected, there's a crucial bit of dialog that's difficult to hear: a complaint by an officer or NCO that Our Heroic Sniper’s climactically deciding to take out Their (handsome and super-competent but) Antagonist Sniper endangered the Marines he — our Hero — was supposed to protect.
            And we were cued early in the film that judgment and protection are going to be crucial for the movie, in the later scenes where Chris Kyle is told explicitly that it is his call as sniper when and whether to kill someone who may be a civilian, or who may be an "irregular" hostile combatant, or who may indeed be a dangerous enemy — but killing him here and now would be a bad idea. And if Chris Kyle endangers Marines by firing on an enemy sniper as part of a deadly variation on an Olympic marksmanship contest … well, that would be very bad judgment; and it is pretty clear in the film, but not quite clear enough, that that is exactly what the film's Chris Kyle did.
            In an early sequence on Chris as a kid, we hear a sermon dealing with judgment, a sermon citing — if I heard right — Paul's story in the Book of Acts. And we see young Chris picking up a Bible and taking it with him. It was one of those little handout Bibles, so he wasn't stealing it; that isn't an issue. What comes of the Bible bit is we learn that adult Chris carries it with him but isn't seen to read it.
            One thing I brought to American Sniper was forty years of living off and on something of the old (and dated) joke of "University of Chicago: Jewish professors teaching Catholicism to a class of atheists." I wasn't at any place as classy as U of Chicago, but I was a Jewish professor who frequently had to teach classes of often-pious Christians the basic doctrines of their faith. For me it's significant that Chris Kyle in the film is a Bible-toting but not Bible-reading Christian.
            Actually reading the Bible might've been useful to Chris and other folk in judging wars and judging judgment.
            Much of Hebrew Scriptures are bloody enough, but what Christians call "the Old Testament" might also get one to remember that the lex talionis, the ancient law of "an eye for an eye" — ancient long before the Bible was written — was a way to limit revenge: somebody pokes out my eye, and I want to maim him and then kill him, not just get one of his eyes for a souvenir. And with the idea of blood revenge we can get some real nastiness.
             The beautiful Psalm 137 begins
By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
It ends, though, with the law of revenge with a vengeance:
Remember, Lord, what the Edomites did
    on the day Jerusalem fell.
“Tear it down,” they cried,
    “tear it down to its foundations!”
Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction,
    happy is the one who repays you
    according to what you have done to us.
Happy is the one who seizes your infants
    and dashes them against the rocks.
 If we decided that "Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord" is well and good, but "payback is a motherfucker" is better, and if we repaid "an eye for an eye" after the terrorist attacks on the US, we would have stopped killing Taliban when we'd racked up four or five thousand or so, and if we wished to expand to more "holy war" standards, we should have invaded Saudi Arabia, not Iraq.
            If Chris had read on to the later parts of the Bible, he would've gotten to another aspect of Paul, in his radical teaching in Romans 12 to "Bless those who persecute you [***].Repay no one evil for evil […]. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave [vengeance] to the wrath of God […]" (verses 4-19). And in the Gospels, there's Jesus's Sermons on the Plain and Mountain calling for Christian pacifism — even if long since explained away by most respectable churches — and, highly relevantly, Jesus's straightforward injunction, "Judge not […]."
            Viewers of Sniper who treat the Bible like the US Constitution, to be venerated but not necessarily read, can just groove on Chris Kyle, Bible-carrying member of Christendom. Bible readers might have problems with Chris's easy acceptance of what he thinks are his duties to God and country. Family is Chris's other value, and there his conflicts are conscious and that far admirable.
            Jesus also had some things to say about rendering unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's, but not necessarily more (which means patriotism has it's limits), and Jesus and Paul and the Primitive and early Church weren't all that big on the family — but I'll let that go: the film is upfront and insistent on family issues.
            Judgment and protection were the themes I announced for this section, and I'll move on to protection.
            A small complaint — potentially — to start: During the SEAL-training sequence, there's a nasty aside about a dropout from the program being suited only to be a corpsman, the Navy's name for a medic. Michael Moore tweeted, "We were taught snipers were cowards." That teaching is wrong, of course. Standing off and lobbing ordnance on people doesn't take much courage so long as your guns have more range than theirs, or they lack artillery to fire back; and dropping bombs on people without good surface-to-air defense doesn't take much courage, to say nothing of sitting in a trailer and killing people by drone. Snipers, though, are major targets, and what they do has the advantage of being highly personal. Snipers are close to pure warriors, embodying the great principles of war of maneuver and surprise — the goal is an ambush — but do without "mass," i.e., working in formation with a lot of others. Which is why a world-class sniper is a good topic for a war film.
            But Moore's ’s uncle was killed by a sniper during World War II, so that legitimately conditions his views. One of my uncles was a corpsman with the Marines, island hopping in the Pacific, and if we're to take the SEAL trainer straight, I can do without the snide aside. Perhaps, though, we're at least to put the comment into the context of protection.
            Chris Kyle sees himself as a protector of Marines, and his most impressive act of heroism is the corpsmanlike deed of rescuing a wounded Marine.
            Which gets us to the second big scene with Chris Kyle as a kid, one with both his parents, before they disappear from the film.
            One part of the set-up for (or follow-up of) the scene is Chris and his father, Wayne Kyle, deer hunting and Chris's first kill, which may condition audience response depending on one's view of hunting. Personally, I don't eat mammal meat (or octopus), for ethical and political reasons; but I don't think I'm obnoxious on the subject except on the occasions I'll remark that if one is to eat mammals one should hunt them down oneself and kill them, personally and cleanly. Chris and his father kill the deer, and it's a buck, and for all I know at the dinner table in the scene I'm getting to — Honest! — they're finishing up venison. So Chris Kyles as "The Deer Hunter" as such is not an issue except as it can raise the question of whether he sees his targets in Iraq as just another variety of killable quarry.
            For sure part of the setup for the major scene at the dinner table is Chris's act of protection in saving his kid brother from being beaten up more thoroughly by a schoolyard bully and Dad at the dinner table making obvious — like ostentatiously putting his belt on the table — that he'll be upset if the fight wasn't justified. Dad is satisfied that Chris was protecting his brother, and gets his one big speech in the film before the script drops him:
There are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Some people prefer to believe that evil doesn't exist in the world, and if it ever darkened their doorstep, they wouldn't know how to protect themselves. Those are the sheep. Then you've got predators, who use violence to prey on the weak. They're the wolves. And then there are those blessed with the gift of aggression, an overpowering need to protect the flock. These men are the rare breed who live to confront the wolf. They are the sheepdogs.

            Some auditors will take this speech straight, and that may be the way Clint Eastwood and the scriptwriter intended it. Still, if you've been subjected one time too often to "All we like sheep" in Handel's Messiah — or have seen the film The Good Shepherd — you may have noted to yourself at least once that shepherds keep and protect sheep in order to fleece them and/or butcher them. And sheepdogs work for the shepherd, not the sheep. Tell some in the audience that a guy is a sheepdog, and they'll want to check his dog tags for who owns him and check out his employment history.
            If I were with a small detachment of Marines breaking down doors in Fallujah, I'd definitely want a crack shot "good shepherd" up on the roof shooting down anyone who might be trying to kill me. Most other contexts … well, "I'm from the Government, and I'm here to protect you" is not always reassuring, and usually sends through my mind the cynical old question, "And who will protect us from our protectors themselves?"
* * *
            So much for the big stuff. Much of our reaction to films (etc.) comes from little touches that accumulate mostly subliminally: stuff we note, sort of, but not necessarily consciously or immediately. And so I'll suggest that American Sniper is less rah-rah and more ambiguous if, but maybe only if:
                        * You’ve grown up on movies where sunglasses are important. I didn’t spot any "mirror shades," but with all the shots of eyes, Chris’s "shades" have iconic significance as well as practical value in very sunny places. It also helps if you know that our troops in Iraq were cautioned about wearing sunglasses when trying to make nice with the locals. Sunglasses can hide your eyes, those "windows to the soul" — or cues to motives — and the many shots of Chris in cool-looking shades correlate with the way he is frequently cut off: which is a virtue in a sniper, but not so much husband or brother or friend.
                        * A death's head in your eyes isn't a neat mask for a Day of the Dead party or something from Pirates of the Caribbean or just from some dumb-ass tattoo or from a comic book read superficially by adolescent males. For some older viewers, the early shot of a large tank in a city street, and later shots of armored vehicles with death’s heads on them are reminders of World War II SS-Totenkopf panzers — murderous German units; and modern US helmets can look uncomfortably Wehrmacht-ish. Younger viewers may see skulls as bad-ass symbols favored by "the U.S. Special operations community," and the one in Sniper specifically Marvel Comics' symbol for The Punisher, "a Marine Corp veteran with Special Forces training," used as a/the symbol for SEAL Team 3 and at the center of the logo for Chris Kyle's tactical training company in retirement. "God Will Judge Our Enemies", as one unit patch has it; "We'll Arrange the Meeting." There is much to be said for the honesty of a death's head symbol but really old-fart viewers may have very negative connotations for it, and somewhat younger but still "older-guy" viewers may recall that Marvel Comic's Punisher started out as very much an antihero, conflicted in the great Marvel tradition and a role-model only for the kids who think the hero of The Terminator (1984) was The Terminator, an inhuman killer-robot.
                        * The shots of the Bad Guy insurgents — especially the kids — confronting the Marines in Sniper invoke newsreel images of heroic Partizans — especially the kids — resisting SS-Totenkopf panzer tanks and Wehrmacht soldiers in Wehrmacht helmets.
                        * You find the SEAL training sequence and later bar scene as (a) inevitable in The War Movie, and/or (b) mildly laughable in being quite so explicit on the sadomasochistic implications.
                        * The Crusaders' Cross used by the insurgents to mark Chris Kyle's wanted posters brings up thoughts of historical Crusaders from the historical Crusades. The Crusaders' Cross is a mildly positive symbol for most Americans and very positive symbol if you're a kid attending the Christian school around the corner for me, and "The Crusaders" is the name for your sports teams. It's less positive if you grew up Muslim or Jewish or Eastern Orthodox and were taught that those literal Crusaders from the historical Crusades were Western Catholic Christian barbarians who slaughtered your ancestors and ravaged their cities. It's negative also for people who grew up on Kurt Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse-Five (1969), given by its ethical atheist author the alternative title, "or The Children's Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death." Vonnegut's novel, a masterpiece of sustained satire, has a powerful section on the historical Crusades and their horrors. For most viewers, the Crusaders' Cross will be merely what you'd expect Jihadists to use in their wanted posters for Chris Kyle: their propaganda would have him with "the Zionist-Crusader enemy"; for others, it will be indeed that bit of grotesque propaganda, but it can also raise disturbing questions about The Great Silence in Sniper.

            American Sniper does a fine job looking at the horrors and costs of modern urban "asymmetrical" warfare seen in personal terms. The "Great Silence" in the movie comes from precisely that personalizing: what with Vietnam films we called "the grunt's-eye view." It has little to say about context, and that is legitimate. But like all silences in narratives, the silences in Sniper are an invitation to fill in the gaps from our own experiences, with our own ideologies, including those in which America and Americans and American actions are not always and necessarily awesome

No comments:

Post a Comment