After hearing both extraordinary reviews and scathing critiques, I decided to go see American Sniper. This film focused on Chris Kyle, “the most lethal sniper in U.S. history,” who is both revered as a martyr and considered a heartless killer. Throughout the film, viewers witness Kyle transition from his first kill, in which he clearly struggles, to distancing himself enough that he is able to kill and move on. Besides following his experience with four tours of duty, the film also follows his subsequent troubled time at home, dealing with PTSD. The film ends somewhat unexpectedly in Kyle’s death, after he left his home with another soldier, who ended up shooting him that day. This drama, directed by well-known Clint Eastwood, took in over $89 million during it’s wide-release weekend, and since then has grossed over $540,611,000 worldwide. It was nominated for 6 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay, and it won the award for Sound Editing. Despite sparking a lawsuit from Jesse Ventura, Kyle’s book also called American Sniper has seen massive success. It found itself at number 1 at all the major best-seller lists, and has sold over 700,000 copies in 2015 alone, on top of the 1.2 million copies that were sold in 2012 and 2013. Clearly, something has been done right to draw in such a large fan-base.
The question then lies in what cinematic and plot elements created a film of cold-blooded murders that was so easily viewed by so many people. The first thing that caught my attention was that Chris Kyle was played by Bradley Cooper. I personally find Cooper very attractive, and I’m sure many other people share that sentiment. For this role, Cooper had to put on 39 pounds, and he sported very full facial hair. In other words, he had to be as typically manly as possible. In this way, men could view him as this strong manly man, and therefore align themselves with him, potentially as their ideal selves. Women could view him also as a strong, desirable, masculine man, and therefore his actions as protective and admirable. We as the audience are also aligned with his perspective for almost the entire film, making him our hero, and his actions more respectable. It is from this that we also see the gaze employed, and the audience’s subsequent scopophilia. Most obviously, whenever he is preparing himself to make a kill, he is viewing his victim through a scope. The victim never knows that they are being watched, and their part is usually nothing more than a mere kill. We are never aligned with them or their story. They aren’t given any sort of attributes that we are able to relate with as an audience. They are only portrayed as the enemy. It is in this that after the film, I didn’t hear anyone express any sort of disgust for watching the murders of women, children, etc. Perhaps the audience was able to overlook the gruesome scenes by finding pleasure in their looking, especially since this isn’t a subject that was easily seen prior to this film (Mulvey 7).
One scene that struck me as disturbing was the scene that showed a dangerous looking dog acting threateningly on a roof where Kyle was trying to make a kill. There was also a scene in which we saw his PTSD very clearly, when he almost killed a barking dog at a family gathering. These scenes, along with several others, helped to create a correlation in the minds of the audience that these people were merely animals, since these dogs were in those instances also considered the enemy to Kyle, and taking their lives wasn’t a big deal at all. In this way, I would describe this film as propaganda. While that may seem like a very aggressive parallel to make, after looking through Twitter, there is no doubt in my mind that this film had a very dangerous effect.
It was also interesting to note that, cinematically, there was a clear juxtaposition made between Kyle and his victims. They were usually below him, or pictured smaller, and as stated earlier, we would view them through his perspective. They were set up visually as having less valuable lives from the very beginning. Even in their deaths, there was a clear distinction. Any time that an American soldier was killed, there was a strong audience reaction. Screentime was spent on their deaths. They were made to seem extremely tragic. When Kyle was killed, the film went silent. They didn’t show his death, as that would have been considered disrespectful. The screen went black and the text across the screen read “Chris Kyle was killed that day by a veteran he was trying to help.” When the screen switches to the footage of his funeral procession, the music quietly begins. Over three minutes were spent just focusing on Kyle’s funeral and death. The scene with the woman and child carrying a grenade, which wasn’t even a factual event, only included a brief shot of the dead bodies, shockingly spending more screen time focused on Kyle’s partner saying “fuck that was gnarly” when Kyle killed a child, and then calling the woman a “fucking evil bitch” after he killed her.
On the other hand, looking at this film objectively, it was well made. The cinematic elements really drew in the audience. The use of sound and lighting created a sense of panic and anxiety in the audience when necessary. The ending utilized a strong silence, and then played “The Funeral” by Ennio Morricone during the real footage of Kyle’s funeral which was incredibly emotionally moving.
Watching this film without employing an oppositional gaze is where the issue lies. Eastwood is an experienced filmmaker, he knows what techniques to employ to make his audience feel how he wants them to. From what I have heard, most of the information showing the actual story of Kyle has had very little reach, and is only found when one is searching for it. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem as though the general public took the time to do their own research, merely taking the film representation as the true facts. On the contrary, there are many examples from his book that say otherwise.
I think that it is also very interesting to note that this film came out on Christmas Day. I can’t imagine anyone considering this a feel-good movie that is appropriate for such a holiday, but I think that it shows a clear religious purpose. Christmas Day is a very popular day to go to films for those who celebrate Christmas. I think that this in a way aimed the film towards a Christian audience, which only furthered the clear anti-Islam sentiment that was present in the film.
Watching this movie in the theater left me feeling very isolated in my feelings about the film. I watched this film in a small town with residents that are primarily conservative in their political affiliations. Every time Kyle made a kill, the audience would cheer. When he was in danger, the audience gasped. They very easily distanced themselves from the deaths of anyone who wasn’t an American. Walking out of the theater, I heard many people even go as far as to express blatant hate for all muslims, and worship Kyle as a hero.
I went to this film with my grandparents at Spicer Cinema 4 in Spicer, Minnesota. My ticket was $7, and we were encouraged to purchase food, as we bought our tickets at the snack counter. It’s the only theater in town, and there are only 4 screens in the theater. We got to the theater early, so I was able to watch most of the audience walk in. I noticed a distinct lack of diversity in the audience, as most, if not all, of the audience were white and most of the viewers were over 40-years-old. The audience was male-dominated.
I think that if this film was viewed by a more educated audience, employing bell hooks’ oppositional gaze, in which they “[interrogate] the work, [cultivate] a way to look past race and gender for aspects of content, form, language” it wouldn’t have been so problematic (hooks 122). Unfortunately, especially with its advertised base in a true story, the audience viewed this film as the factual representation of an “American hero,” and with its release amongst already strong Islamophobia, this film just fueled the ignorant fire.