I wrote the following piece on AMERICAN SNIPER a few years ago for a book of essays dedicated to different aspects of Clint Eastwood’s controversial film that was to have been published by a University press. I was specifically asked to analyze the movie through the lens of “reception studies.” Unfortunately, the book was postponed indefinitely, so I’m offering the piece here instead. I enjoyed researching and writing it and I hope some of you find it interesting.
American Sniper: A Critical Historiography
By Michael Glover Smith
While American Sniper was an unmitigated success at the American box office upon its initial theatrical release (it was in fact the highest-grossing domestic film of 2014), its critical reputation has been far more controversial, drawing praise and ire in equal measure. Interestingly, the movie’s divisiveness has extended beyond the realm of traditional film criticism, as many cultural commentators have also felt the need to weigh in with editorials and “think pieces” on whether it is a xenophobic and racist recruitment tool for the United States military, a thoughtful examination of post-traumatic stress disorder with a decidedly anti-war bent, or perhaps, most maddening of all, somehow a combination of both of these things at the same time. Interestingly, as in the movies of the late, great Samuel Fuller, Clint Eastwood appears to have succeeded in the difficult task of angering viewers on both the left and right wings of the political spectrum simultaneously, arguably the surest indication that he has done something right.
American Sniper is therefore an ideal candidate to be looked at through the lens of reception studies; this essay will provide an overview of the many articles, scholarly as well as more pop-culture oriented, that have appeared in print and online examining Eastwood’s controversial film, and will illustrate how American Sniper’s formal complexity and thematic ambiguity ultimately provide a kind of Rorschach inkblot test for the political and philosophical points-of-view of each individual viewer.
American Sniper is also important as a case study for how reactions on social media – not only by film critics but also celebrities and ordinary people – can shape the cultural conversation surrounding a movie and help to lift it into the zeitgeist as a subject of proverbial “water-cooler conversation.” American Sniper had its high-profile world premiere at the American Film Institute Festival in Los Angeles on November 11, 2014. This “secret screening” was publicly announced by the AFI only one day before it happened, which meant that the instantaneous reactions to the movie’s first public exhibition on Twitter, even at (or especially at) 140 characters or less, were scrutinized more closely than they otherwise might have been. The immediate narrative created by these tweets had nothing to do with the film’s perceived politics, as would later be the case, but instead focused on the fact that American Sniper was simply Clint Eastwood’s “best work in years” as a director.
Context is important: Eastwood’s reputation as a filmmaker had undergone a period of major critical reappraisal between the years 2003 and 2007: from the release of Mystic River to the Oscar glory of Million Dollar Baby one year later to 2006’s “Iwo Jima diptych” comprised of Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, the latter of which, a predominantly Japanese-language movie seemingly conceived of as a more modest afterthought to the former film, scored a surprise but well-deserved Best Picture Oscar nomination. Between 2008 and 2014, Eastwood produced and directed an additional six feature-length motion pictures (Changeling, Gran Torino, Invictus, Hereafter, J. Edgar and Jersey Boys), all of which, with the exception of 2009’s Gran Torino, had failed to generate the same positive critical and/or commercial response as those from his earlier “miracle run.“
Late-period Eastwood (like the divisive work of “late Ford” or “late Hawks” in the post-Hollywood studio system era just before Eastwood directed Play Misty for Me in 1971) had become, and to a certain extent still is, something of a litmus test for critics subscribing to the auteur theory – with only a small cult of diehard Eastwood aficionados willing to testify to the director’s ingenious, “Brechtian” use of terrible pop songs in his Nelson Mandela biopic Invictus. One could practically hear the sigh of relief then in a typical post-American Sniper premiere tweet like this one from the Hollywood Reporter critic Jon Frosch: “Following a couple of sub-par efforts, American Sniper is a pretty major return to form for Eastwood. Bradley Cooper superb #AFI”
This “return to form” theme was also emphasized in the first two reviews to appear in industry trade publications. Justin Chang’s review in Variety, which was posted on the website of that venerable daily paper on November 11 at 11:30 pm (i.e., at the exact moment that the end credits had begun rolling at the AFI screening), noted that the film was “arguably the director’s strongest, most sustained effort in the eight years since his WWII double-header of ‘Flags of Our Fathers’ and ‘Letters from Iwo Jima.’” Todd McCarthy’s Hollywood Reporter review, which was posted online one minute later at 11:31 pm, likewise announced in its opening paragraph that American Sniper was “Eastwood’s best in a number of years” before correctly – and impressively – predicting that it would go on to become a box office phenomenon on the basis that “its ‘God, country, family’ aspects . . . will draw that part of the public that doesn’t often go to the movies.”
Ironically, American Sniper’s AFI Fest screening had immediately followed the world premiere screening of another important new American movie, Ava Duvernay’s Martin Luther King biopic Selma. Going into the 2015 Oscar race, some journalists would pit these two films against one another in think pieces based on the dubious premise that they constituted an ideological dichotomy of contemporary American cinema – with DuVernay (young, African-American and female) representing its more “progressive” side and Eastwood (old, white and male) representing its more “reactionary” elements. This contrast would become even more pronounced after Eastwood’s film earned triple the Oscar nominations and nearly seven times the box office gross of Duvernay’s movie. But in the days immediately following this provocative double feature at Hollywood’s Egyptian Theatre, most of the press focused not on contrasting the films with one other on ideological grounds but on merely pointing out that their jointly positive reception meant that they were likely to “shake up” an imminent awards season whose potential candidates were previously thought to have been set in stone.
Between American Sniper’s world premiere and its limited theatrical release in the United States on Christmas Day of 2014 (a launch that indicated Warner Brothers executives felt they had a sure-fire Oscar contender on their hands), the vast majority of the reviews were positive and echoed the main talking points first laid out by Justin Chang and Todd McCarthy: that it succeeded as a powerful portrait of the psychological toll of modern warfare, that it fit snugly into the Eastwood canon as a meditation on masculinity and the consequences of violence, and that it featured a terrific performance by an almost unrecognizably bulked-up Bradley Cooper as Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. David Denby’s review in the New Yorker, published in the December 22, 2014 issue, was typical: in a positive dual review alongside of Selma, titled “Living History,” he praised Eastwood’s assured and economical directorial style, which he claimed “makes most directors look like beginners,” and hinted at the film’s thematic ambiguity by noting that it “is both a devastating war movie and a devastating anti-war movie,” without bothering to delve too deeply into what such a seemingly contradictory statement might mean.
One of the first articles to find American Sniper problematic from an ideological perspective was Keith Phipps’ mixed review that appeared on the popular but now defunct website The Dissolve on December 23, 2014. Phipps linked to an article in the Washington Post that understandably questioned the veracity of some of the “unverifiable” stories that Chris Kyle had told, both in his memoir on which the film is based (American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History, written with Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice) and during his interviews to promote the book, while also implicitly criticizing Jason Hall’s adapted screenplay for never addressing this issue and “adopting an uncomplicated print-the-legend attitude toward Kyle, who’s portrayed as unfailingly kind, humble and courageous, if prone to the occasional funk.” Later in the review, Phipps also points out that “Kyle never stops referring to Iraqis – enemies and otherwise – as savages, and the film presents them as such, a mostly undifferentiated mass of anger out for American blood.”
These are mere asides, however, in a review that stops short of calling the movie outright propaganda, and Phipps, who also praises the power of Eastwood’s direction and Cooper’s central performance, concludes his piece by arguing that American Sniper’s primary flaw is its failure to invest Kyle with greater psychological complexity: “Eastwood flirts with the idea of exploring the toll Kyle’s time in hell takes on him, but then backs away as the gunfire and the talk of duty overwhelm more tender human feelings. It’s ultimately a film about putting a kid in crosshairs, pulling the trigger, and learning not only to live with that action, but to live without regret. Is that possible? In the end, American Sniper doesn’t really care. It’s hard not to leave all that chaos with an admiration for Kyle’s heroism, but just as hard to not feel like Eastwood missed a chance to make a more substantial film about the man’s experience, the experiences of all the others who volunteer for duties most would do anything to avoid, and what it’s like to come back from it all to resume the life they fought to protect.”
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s review in the A.V. Club, which appeared online the same day as Phipps’ Dissolve piece, nimbly argues that the movie does achieve a degree of psychological complexity while also making the crucial point that Eastwood’s perspective as a filmmaker was subtly at odds with Kyle’s point-of-view as the protagonist. “American Sniper never undermines the sincerity of Kyle’s worldview,” Vishnevetsky writes. “This isn’t a man haunted by guilt or violence; as far as Kyle is concerned, he did necessary but troubling work in a necessary but troubling war. What the movie does, instead, is complicate that sincerity; much of the direction and script – by Jason Hall, who wrote David Mackenzie’s very underrated and ambivalent Spread – hints at the idea that Kyle isn’t really cognizant of the effect killing so many people has had on him. Instead of giving him an ah-ha moment of self-awareness, the movie preserves this essential part of his character, and then plays it against him, perhaps too subtly for most tastes.”
Prior to its theatrical release, it was still possible for a true Hollywood liberal like Jane Fonda to show support for the film on social media, with either little or no fear of a public backlash. On December 21, she tweeted: “Just saw ‘American Sniper.’ Powerful. Another view of ‘Coming Home.’ Bradley Cooper sensational. Bravo Clint Eastwood.” Among the nearly 100 responses to this tweet in the days that followed were comments ranging from those who predictably called out “Hanoi Jane” for her supposed hypocrisy in praising Eastwood’s ostensibly patriotic movie to film critic Sean Burns who hilariously evoked the gruesome, head-exploding opening of one of David Cronenberg’s most notorious movies when he imagined the response of certain right-wing pundits: “Fox News now a scene from SCANNERS.”
The December 29 issue of New York Magazine featured a mixed review by David Edelstein that amplified both the kind of criticisms and praise seen in Keith Phipps’ review; Edelstein lauded American Sniper for Eastwood’s command of film form but condemned it for its supposedly propagandistic content. On the plus side, according to Edelstein, “It’s a crackerjack piece of filmmaking, a declaration that (Eastwood’s) not yet ready to be classified as an Old Master, that he can out-Bigelow Kathryn Bigelow.” On the minus side: “Morally, though, he has regressed from the heights of Letters From Iwo Jima (2006) . . . The people Kyle shoots always represent a ‘savage, despicable evil,’ and the physical and mental cost to other Americans just comes with the territory. It’s a Republican platform movie.”
But it was not until after American Sniper’s wide release on January 16, 2015 that the furor over its perceived politics truly exploded. Without mentioning American Sniper by name, Fahrenheit 9/11 director and outspoken liberal pundit Michael Moore implicitly criticized the film in a tweet on January 18 in which he stated that his uncle had been killed by a Japanese sniper during World War II and that, as a result, he had been “…taught snipers were cowards. Will shoot you in the back. Snipers aren’t heroes.” This tweet inspired over 10,000 responses on Twitter alone, many of them hostile, including one from former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich who suggested that Moore would better appreciate American Sniper if he spent “a few weeks with ISIS and Boko Haram.” (This is, of course, hardly a fair suggestion since neither of those terrorist groups are among the “enemies” actually depicted in Eastwood’s movie). After the Hollywood Reporter and Deadline Hollywood reported on this Twitter controversy, Moore took to Facebook to elaborate, presumably because of its option of unlimited characters, and praised some aspects of the film (Cooper’s performance and some “anti-war sentiment”) while also criticizing Eastwood for getting “Vietnam and Iraq confused in his storytelling” and “having his characters calling Iraqis ‘savages’ throughout the film” (though this latter criticism again makes the assumption that Chris Kyle and other characters serve the function of being mere mouthpieces for the filmmakers).
Just as controversial was a tweet by actor and comedian Seth Rogen, also published on January 18: “American Sniper kind of reminds me of the movie that’s showing in the third act of Inglorious (sic) Basterds.” This tweet, which referred to the faux Nazi propaganda documentary Nation’s Pride, created by Quentin Tarantino expressly for his celebrated 2009 World War II film, was “liked” by over 16,000 people, retweeted over 9,000 times and elicited nearly 5,500 replies on Twitter alone (again, many of them hostile). Following the outrage, Rogen quickly walked back his jokey criticism by claiming, rather disingenuously, that his words were only meant to compare two movies that both happened to be about lethal snipers and insisted that he was not implying Eastwood’s film was in any way propagandistic. But these controversial celebrity tweets were only the most high-profile examples of a culture war that was being waged by ordinary men and women across the United States at large. An article by David Boroff in the New York Daily News on the Monday following the sensational opening weekend of American Sniper’s wide release claimed that the movie had sparked a “hateful reaction to Arabs on Twitter.” Among the offensive and bigoted statements in the tweets that Boroff cited: “American sniper makes me wanna go shoot some fucking Arabs,” “Nice to see a movie where the Arabs are portrayed for who they really are – vermin scum intent on destroying us,” and “American sniper made me appreciate American soilders (sic) 100x more and hate Muslims 1000000x more.”
Boroff’s piece was one of many articles detailing a correlation between American Sniper and a fresh wave of hate speech against Arabs and/or Muslims on social media. Which begs the question: if the film had not been intended as a work of jingoistic hate mongering but ended up being misinterpreted that way by ignoramuses seeking to have their prejudices flattered, to what extent (if any) should the filmmakers be held responsible for this misunderstanding? The tenor of the reviews going forward would thus be very different: the question of whether Eastwood, Hall, Cooper and Co. were responsible for inciting hatred against Arabs, even if unintentionally, became a question that no one writing about the film could avoid. This phenomenon was not dissimilar to how critics and other journalists felt the need to address the thorny moral question of whether or not Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty had shown in 2012 that “torture worked” in the CIA’s acquisition of intelligence that led to locating and killing Osama bin Laden. In the instance of the reaction to both films, the uproar seems to have begun first on social media before bleeding over and eventually becoming an important part of the critical discourse surrounding each movie on a journalistic level.
Author and journalist Matt Taibbi wrote an op-ed in Rolling Stone published on January 21, 2015 titled “‘American Sniper’ is Almost Too Dumb to Criticize” – less than one month after that same magazine’s official film critic, Peter Travers, had given the movie a three-and-a-half out of four stars rave. Taibbi, who is not a film critic and was therefore unconcerned with Eastwoodian aesthetics or Cooper’s performance, faulted the filmmakers on moral grounds for creating a simplistic “fairy tale” that he felt should have done more to contextualize the war on terror that it depicted (e.g., they should have explicated its root causes as well as clarified that there was no actual connection between the country of Iraq and the terror attacks on 9/11): “. . . filmmakers like Eastwood, who could have cleared things up, only muddy the waters more. Sometimes there’s no such thing as ‘just a human story.’ Sometimes a story is meaningless or worse without real context, and this is one of them.”
Conversely, Mayukh Sen wrote an essay for Vice titled “Is Jane Fonda Right About ‘American Sniper’?,” published on February 4, that used Fonda’s then six-week-old tweet as a jumping-off point to examine how the film had become “the moral outrage police’s latest punching bag.” Sen noted that some of the think pieces criticizing the film were penned by writers who admitted to not having seen it (like the New Republic’s Dennis Jett) and mounted an intelligent defense. While Sen acknowledges that the act of killing undeniably “thrills” Chris Kyle in the movie, he also elaborates on one of Ignatiy Vishnevetsky’s most salient points – that “the experience has numbed him in a way he doesn’t entirely understand” and cites as examples a couple of the film’s subtler details: Kyle not feeling like his alarmingly high blood-pressure is a big deal, and the truly disturbing moment where Kyle almost attacks the family dog. Sen then addresses the broader question of “So what if the American public misses the finer points?” and reminds us that Eastwood has never been a filmmaker to provide easy answers.
The final paragraph of this essay, in which Sen doubles down on his critical defense by going so far as to claim that American Sniper functions as a subversive critique of the “pathology of patriotism,” is worth quoting at length: “Fonda is right. The film shows a side of war that Coming Home glossed over: the troubling pathology of patriotism. In one scene in Sniper, Kyle watches the collapse of the World Trade Center on television, and it’s as if he freezes in time. The moment recalls an early scene in Coming Home, when Fonda, before she becomes ‘radicalized,’ stands firm as she listens to the national anthem on television. In those moments, Cooper and Fonda’s faces cut deep, getting at something perversely authentic —the sad, sorry myth of American exceptionalism some of us never outgrow.”
In an era of instant “hot takes,” one critic who benefited from waiting a while to write about American Sniper was J. Hoberman, whose review, titled “The Great American Shooter,” did not appear in the New York Review of Books until February 13 (nearly two months after the film’s limited release and nearly one month after its wide release). This delayed response allowed Hoberman to explicitly incorporate the controversy surrounding the movie into his carefully considered review, which cheekily begins with a bit of misdirection. “A country boy, who is a fabulous, natural shot,” Hoberman writes, “goes to war and neutralizes an unprecedented number of enemy combatants. Books are written. A respected Hollywood director makes the movie that will be the biggest hit of his career: it’s received with near-unanimous praise, an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, and no small amount of controversy.”
Hoberman’s second paragraph begins by informing readers that he is not talking about American Sniper. Rather, “The movie is Howard Hawks’ Sergeant York, starring Gary Cooper as the real-life World War I hero Alvin York, which opened five months before Pearl Harbor, and went on to be the most popular movie of 1941 – a ‘phenomenon of staggering proportions,’ according to Hawks’ biographer Todd McCarthy. The same can be said of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper.” Hoberman’s comparison between the war films of Hawks and Eastwood, made over 70 years apart, is instructive. By showing how Sergeant York had become a similar cultural phenomenon in the United States on the eve of World War II, he provides some much-needed context; the popularity of Eastwood’s movie may have been due in large part to the way it stoked feelings of nationalism in a certain segment of the American audience but, as had been the case with the unexpected popularity of Sergeant York, American Sniper may also have ended up fulfilling deep cultural needs in ways that its makers could not quite have anticipated nor even intended.
Hoberman, always one of America’s most astute ideologically minded film critics, goes on to invoke Eastwood’s controversial appearance at the 2012 Republican National Convention (where the filmmaker’s mental health was questioned by liberal commentators for merely reviving the old vaudeville routine of speaking to an invisible guest in a chair), compare and contrast American Sniper to Selma, and quote responses to both films by figures as diverse as Jane Fonda, right-wing radio personality Rush Limbaugh, and former Alaska governor and Vice Presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Hoberman also mentions that a French journalist had asked him if he thought the movie’s popularity was a response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre (“I told him that, on the contrary, the success struck me as symptomatic of American self-absorption”).
Perhaps surprisingly, Hoberman’s review of American Sniper was an unequivocal rave; unlike most other critics writing with an undeniably leftist slant, Hoberman saw American Sniper’s status as a cultural bellwether not as any kind of sop to patriotism but rather as proof of its relevance and vitality. In his concluding paragraph, Hoberman acknowledges that Eastwood’s film performed the unique feat of providing a blank canvas onto which different spectators could project different, even contradictory, desires: “American Sniper embodies a national repetition compulsion, what Freud defined as ‘the desire to return to an earlier state of things.’ For the artist that state may be the memory of watching the unambiguously heroic Sgt. York in the reassuring company of his father. For some members of the audience, American Sniper may offer a similarly comforting sense of a guardian angel and a cathartic righteous anger. For others, the movie may serve to assuage contrition for a war that, twelve years after it was begun, has left Iraq, as well as many of our own returning combatants, shattered. But for many, I suspect, American Sniper may be weirdly liberating — gratifying a perhaps hitherto unsuspected desire to see their pessimism, hopeless and unchanging, projected on the screen.”
The further away from opening weekend a piece of critical writing about American Sniper appeared, the less it seems the author felt the need to claim a stake in a hot-button issue cultural battle. Greater distance from the film has arguably provided greater clarity and objectivity, as evidenced by Matthew Gault’s essay “Reality Check – ‘American Sniper’ is an Anti-War Film,” which appeared on the website War is Boring on August 31, 2016, almost two years after the film’s World Premiere. Gault reconciles the film’s ostensibly contradictory elements by noting that “Kyle, the character, is pro-war and the film does glamorize his achievements” before going on to also claim: “But Eastwood takes pains to contrast those glories with painful scenes of Kyle coming home to a country he doesn’t understand, and a family he has trouble connecting to. It’s an anti-war film and obviously, staunchly so.
“Eastwood’s genius is that he crafted a movie that achieves its anti-war message without becoming preachy or overbearing. Unfortunately, that subtlety blew past viewers in their rush to reinforce their preconceived notions about a man who, by all accounts, killed a lot of people.
“For me, it’s hard to imagine a film that opens with the death of a child, even one cast as an enemy combatant, as anything but anti-war.”
It is perhaps surprising that it took almost two years before anyone felt the need to pen an article explicitly stating the idea that the movie could be anti-war even while its protagonist is pro-war; but Gault not only had the benefit of critical hindsight, he was also able to incorporate statements made about the film by Eastwood himself from a talk that the director had given to students at the Loyola Maramount University School of Television and Film in 2015. In response to a question about whether American Sniper glorifies war, Gault quotes Eastwood’s halting reply at length: “’No I don’t think it glorifies,’ he said before switching track. ‘I think it glorifies it, sure. I mean in the first sequence he shoots down . . .’ he trailed off, choosing his words carefully.
“’Yeah, the sniping part is. But you know then eventually as that scene indicates that he’s getting . . . you can see it’s starting to tell on him, and later on when he visits a psychiatrist and has to talk to him, and the psychiatrist says did you do anything along the way over there that you felt you shouldn’t have? And you could tell by the look on his face that yeah, he’s got some regrets in there . . . I think it’s nice for veterans, because it shows what they go through, and that life – and the wives of families and veterans. It has a great indication of the stress they are under. And I think that all adds up to kind of an anti-war [message].”
Gault goes on to cite scenes from the film that he sees as exemplifying what Eastwood termed the film’s anti-war message, chief among them the startling moment where Chris Kyle runs into his younger brother Jeff in Iraq. When Chris embraces the newly enlisted Jeff and tells him that both he and their father are proud of him, Jeff’s response is to grimace and mutter, “Fuck this place,” before backing away and repeating the same phrase in a louder tone of voice. Gault does not go so far as to claim that the point-of-view of the filmmakers is more in line with Jeff’s disillusionment with the war in Iraq than it is with Chris’ unswerving patriotism; rather, he shows that the complex substance of the movie is to be found in Eastwood’s powerful reaction shots of Chris Kyle’s confusion and incomprehension that “someone so close to him” could ever express such disillusionment in the first place.
If Chris Kyle is a tragic hero, a single-minded, deeply flawed and even racist figure, but one who also nonetheless inspires awe because of how his near-superhuman marksmanship differentiates him from the crowds of civilization, then perhaps the character in American cinema he most closely resembles is Ethan Edwards, the unforgettable protagonist played by John Wayne in John Ford’s The Searchers. It took decades for critics to understand the full psychological complexity of Edwards and how Ford deliberately presented the character in a negative critical light for his pathology and racism while also simultaneously asking viewers to bask in the awesome glory of his heroic feats. It is entirely possible that critics writing about American Sniper are still too close to the “war on terror” today to understand how Eastwood could have intended to paint a similarly complicated portrait of Chris Kyle.
For now, I’ll leave the final word to Titus Techera whose article “Clint Eastwood and the Recovery of Manliness as a Civic Virtue” appeared in the National Review on June 3, 2017. Techera sees a direct link between American Sniper and Eastwood’s 2016 follow-up Sully in that both tell the true stories of heroic American males who took responsibility for the lives of others in times of crisis (a trend that apparently continues with Eastwood’s next movie, The 15:17 to Paris): “His movies offer Americans worthwhile stories of leadership, and that’s one part of prudence in our times,” Techera writes. “He wants to give America something that it had when he himself was growing up but that it lost somewhere along the way: popular stories that beautify what’s good about America, in order to inspire, and which include dramatic renderings of what’s gone wrong without inducing despair. He has insisted on true stories for the most part to show that hope is grounded in American realities and that escape into fantasies is not the path to take in a time of troubles.”