American Sniper

An action movie, and a recently unparalleled work of magical thinking.

The chief virtue of Late Clint is its frank, guileless, audience-friendly presentation of a wide variety of material. The traditionalist style, with its [pick from anywhere along the spectrum of squareness/stodginess/cheesiness/transparency], prevents us from strolling into the films through their front doors, but all its inherent old-school and old-man infelicities of execution (overuse of music, borderline distrust of nuance in dialogue) direct us to alternate angles of approach: rather than sell us on an overt ideology, Eastwood movies invite us to consider how they're filtered through a very specific authorial sensibility, which is also, in its long-pedigreed aesthetic and off-screen resonances (and, on an overarching level, its subject-to-subject emotional commitment and ideological inconsistency), an I'm-not-even-gonna-scare-quote-this-next-word American sensibility.

The grains in AMERICAN SNIPER, though, are almost too fine to read against.

This is maybe in large party because of the chord the film has struck on the right, and on the left via pundit pushback as well—so far, AMERICAN SNIPER seems to be existing at more or less face value for a whole hell of a lot of people. (It's also partly because the movie's depiction of Muslims—my god, Mustafa's eyelashes!—like the depiction of so many Hollywood Indians, has overt political and ethical implications which ought to trump auteurism on a first pass.)

In the film's biographical outline; its rousing scenes of male camaraderie; its focus on understanding the toll of war through its impact on the alpha psyche on one hand and in the ladypart of the country on the other; and most of all its take on war as sporting competition against an unpersonified other (and its ludicrously triumphalist sports-movie climax), the film AMERICAN SNIPER most resembles is surely TOP GUN. (I love TOP GUN as a piece of Reaganite and TonyScottian camp, but I was born in 1984, and it's always seemed to me to be a film about an imaginary war.)

It's hard to pick up the movie's dangled threads of contradiction. While the homefront scenes give us notes of regressive patriarchy and rationalized and/or channeled violent male id, there is no credible tonal corollary for any of these potentially uneasy moments in the war scenes—scenes of Marines bursting into houses and pointing rifles at screaming women & children are extensions of Kyle's dehumanizing references to Middle Easterners as "savages," but when he tells the shrink that he only feels guilty for the bros he couldn't save, we've seen nothing to make us doubt him.

So completely wish-fulfilling is the war (with its hero's journey of prodigious talent, trials through the loss of friends, and catharsis through the magic-bullet scene), and its psychic aftermath, that the film only pushes us away, towards a sense of distance or skepticism, when it stumbles, egregiously, at the finish-line, sidestepping Kyles dramaturgically complicated death—what *was* the deal with that soldier?—and getting us to question AMERICAN SNIPER's airtightness like it's a Clint Eastwood movie.