The mission impossible of films against war.

Films that unexpectedly attract an audience much larger than initially anticipated are often referred to as “Zeitgeist films”, in the sense that they seem to have captured something that was in the air at that point in time that made the film a must-see for everyone. Clint Eastwood’s

American Sniper is such a film and with over $350 million in US receipts, the film is easily Eastwood’s most successful to date. What is it that made American Sniper such a hit at home? The first thing to note is that it is based on the true story of Chris Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper, who was known as “the Legend”, the “deadliest marksman in U.S. military history”, with over 160 enemy deaths to his name, accumulated during four tours of duty in Iraq, post 9/11. 

His story’s adapted from his popular 2012 memoir. So the story of Kyle, who died in 2013, was already a familiar one, especially in army circles, a demographic that doesn’t go to the cinema often but loves a story about a hero from their ranks.

Switching between the home front, where Kyle’s wife, Taye (Sienna Miller), has to raise two kids alone, and the battle theatres in Iraq where the white Chris is deployed, the film features quite a lot of action scenes, many of them involving a rival Syrian sniper, Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), who personifies evil, is all dressed in black, has long, feminine eyelashes and who is —last but not least — an entirely fictional construct. By giving Kyle an enemy who’s his exact equal, the film essentially negates the fact the US’ War on Terror is an almost impossible one because the tactics of the opposing side are not part of regular warfare and the enemy is often faceless since terrorism doesn’t emanate from one specific regime but from a very loosely associated group of violent ideologues without borders.

American Sniper never addresses the war in any larger sense, and not a single highranking army official or politician is seen, not even on TV. This extremely narrow view reduces the combatants’ responsibility to simply honouring their country and fellow soldiers, making it impossible to criticize the war being fought. This is a convenient storytelling device which allows not only those supporting the war to identify themselves with a ‘hero’ but even makes it possible for those who are opposed to the war to enjoy it since the mission of the SEALs is completely decontextualized and fictionalized; they need to simply get Mustafa and a ruthless (and equally fictional) Al-Qaida leader nicknamed the Butcher (Mido Hamada) and their mission’s done. Never mind the fact that US war tactics in the Middle East might have actually helped to give rise to groups such as IS, thus not solving the region’s crisis through specific military interventions, such as those in the film, but actually making it worse.

The film’s screenwriter, Jason Hall, and Eastwood himself have repeatedly said that their film is anti-war. But is it possible to even make such a film? A quote attributed to French director François Truffaut suggested that there’s no such thing as an anti-war film as the immediacy of a film turns warfare into a thrilling spectacle. For most of Eastwood’s film, the action is actually relatively subdued, though there is one especially ill-advised sequence: A US soldier invokes the lex talionis (an eye for an eye) after one of their men is shot and the film’s score grows heavy with percussion as the Americans shoot at any foreign- looking person around them before their tank crushes the car from which some enemies are shooting. It doesn’t get much more gung-ho than this.

The fact Kyle has neglected his family during his absence and even after he returns, one supposes because of PTSD, has been read as an anti-war statement by some. Leftleaning audiences might see it as the heavy price to be paid for engaging in war; however, for most military families, it will simply look like reality. What’s certain is that American Sniper manages to be many different films at once while artfully avoiding the topic of why the US engages in war.

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