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25 January 2015

American Sniper: “Ideology and the Incomplete Narrative” (Film Criticism)

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“American Sniper” is more like a misguided “Dirty Harry” than the exceptional “Unforgiven”

“American Sniper” is a good example of the way ideology operates. To start, we should separate the real life story of Chris Kyle from the film even though the film is based on his life. The film should be read not as an accurate dramatization of Chris Kyle's life but a film narrative about ideology. I dare say that Kyle’s life is simply the basis of the story but since his life has been rendered into film language, the true events take on new dimensions. This means that the intention and the ideology of the filmmakers are the ones at the forefront. The style of the film, the choices of shots and screenplay deliver a different message perhaps far different from the message we should get from the life of the real Chris Kyle. 

To make this distinction clear, I shall refer to the hero of the film as the “film’s protagonist” rather than calling him Chris Kyle. 


The film begins with shots of American soldiers and tanks treading through an unspecified city in Iraq. Then, we see the protagonist aiming his sniper at two targets, a mother and her child. As he decides if he should shoot or not, the film reverts to a flashback to the his childhood.  We see him being indoctrinated into the prevailing American ideology, which is Christian, operating on a mysterious divine plan coupled with a “savior complex.” His father teaches him the proper way to shoot and praises him for skillfully killing a wild animal. This scene is crucial and disturbing because Iraqis are being compared to a wild animal.

At the dinner table, his father instructs him about the three kinds of people in the world. First, there are the sheep who do not believe that evil exists and so they are unable to protect themselves.  The second type are the predators or wolves “who used violence to prey on the weak,” and third, as the film clearly puts,

“There are those who’ve been blessed with the gift of aggression and an overpowering need to protect the flock. These men are a rare breed, live to confront the wolf.  They are the sheep dog.”

The dinner scene set the ideology of the film. The above statement is a justification for aggression. Aggression is a divine gift. Aggression is just if it is meant to protect the weak. There is nothing wrong with that but the big question is: “Who decides who the sheep are, who the wolves are and who the sheep dogs are?” Unfortunately, whoever is in power decides, and the powerful always has a selfish agenda (to be cynical about all of this).

America with its capitalist ideology is in power. In a smaller context, the American government through its military arm is the sheep dog and the rest of the American people are the sheep. America’s enemies namely Arab terrorists and other people who do not subscribe to American ideology are the wolves. In a bigger context, America is the sheep dog, developing/underdeveloped countries are the sheep, and whomever America brands as their enemies are the wolves.   

This is the narrative of the film but it is a dangerous one because it is an incomplete narrative. I think this is where the film betrays the American viewers, and perhaps the legacy of the real Chris Kyle.

Viewers see that the 9/11 terrorist attack on the World Trade Center is one of the catalysts that push the protagonist to participate in the invasion of Iraq but the film failed to present the reason why 9/11 happened in the first place.  In addition, Iraqi resistance is demonized and ordinary citizens, with a few exceptions, are mostly willing accomplices.  Interestingly, American soldiers are often shot at close up or medium-shot, which gives them human faces. In contrasts, Iraqis are mostly shot from a distance, making them faceless and thus denying them a human face.  This is important because it makes it difficult for some viewers to sympathize with them.  In fact, at some point, the film resembles a video game than an accurate portrayal of the horrors of war.

Killing Iraqis is justified. They are the enemies. However, how can good Americans, including the rest of us, willingly risk our lives and kill our supposed “evil enemies.” Killing many people is not an easy task. American physicist Steven Weinberg offers an explanation, he states:

“Religion is an insult to humanity. With or without it you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.”

Before anything else, I want to reinterpret Weinberg’s definition of religion, especially in relation to this film. When I use the word “religion,” I am not solely referring to the God-centered religion, but this also includes something secular. Religion, for me, includes any mythic magical subjective ideology that an individual believes to be the true moral guide. In this sense, “religion” can be the nation, a specific way of life, a specific culture or even specific dogma. For instance, ultra-nationalism, communism and capitalism also fall under religion. Therefore, an atheist can also behave like a religious zealot if his style of secularism justifies his inhumane actions. This is how ideology works. It masks your evil actions and brands them as good.

The soldiers fighting in Iraq are not invincible and their cause is not entirely holy. However, they believe their cause is justified because they are fighting for the American way of life, which in a way like a “religion.”  The film’s protagonist is their symbolic savior in the field of battle. He is the American sniper placed above all ordinary soldiers like a messianic figure. One scene best encapsulates this pseudo-religious theme.

  • Soldier 1: “All these guys, they know your name, they feel invincible if they know you’re up there.”
  • Film protagonist: “They’re not.”
  • Soldier 1: “They are if they think they are.”

This also applies to Arab fundamentalists. They also feel that their cause is divine. In fact, the American sniper’s archenemy is an Arab sniper who is interestingly dressed in black, which is traditionally the color of evil in Christian motif. 

“American Sniper” is entertaining and engaging but it is a ticking bomb because its vision is shortsighted and its point of view is narrow. The film failed to present the bigger picture and the root cause of the war. America and its perceived enemies are not totally innocent. In a way, both are products of their ideological “religion.”

In the end, the rational character of the film is the protagonist’s wife. She begs her husband to stop fighting a misguided war and return home. She pleads, “I want you to be human again,” because, bottom line, our blind obedience to our ideology robs us of our humanity. We become un-human akin to a wind-up soldier.

On a last note, “American Sniper” is far inferior to another Clint Eastwood movie, “Unforgiven.” (1992) “Unforgiven” also examines ideology but this film has a more complete narrative. The film questions the very act of killing and presents its true ugly nature.  The story starts after one man disfigures a female sex worker but the town sheriff simply orders the male attacker to pay the woman. For the sheriff, prostituted women are commodities and not full humans and so any abuse is simply a commercial transgression. It is like accidentally hurting a cow so just paying the owner of the cow is sufficient. Again, we see ideology’s ugly head. However, the women refuse to accept the sheriff’s brand of justice and decide to hire a hit man to kill the male attackers. Unlike “American Sniper,” “Unforgiven” brilliantly portrays the grey areas of heroism and the hypocrisy of those who are in power.

“American Sniper,” in contrast, ends as propaganda.

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NOTE:
Brun Philippines Critics Circle will not publish full-length film reviews anymore. From time to time, we may publish review snippets with corresponding film ratings but our critics will focus more on full-length film criticism. This is our way of spotlighting more on the film work rather than on the subjective tastes of our critics.

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