Propaganda and “American Sniper”

by Andrew Kingsley | 2/8/15 6:05pm

It’s odd seeing a propaganda film nowadays. There seems so little to cheer about in America — what could a director praise? Clint Eastwood’s hagiographic “American Sniper” (2014) lauds the murders of the deadliest sniper in American military history, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), while introducing a brand of colonialist racism reminiscent of the American settlers’ against the Native Americans. This cloying, skewed film plays more like an army recruitment video than a biopic. Coming from the man who spoke to an empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention, I’m not surprised.

In the film, Chris Kyle begins as an aimless, paunchy Texan cowboy looking for purpose, who runs to the nearest Army recruitment site after hearing about the 1998 United States embassy bombings. Impulsive, protective and likely with a Y chromosome to spare, Kyle values only three things in life — “God, country and family.” Raised by a father who demands his son be a protector — a “sheepdog” to defend the sheep from the world’s wolves — Kyle becomes a Navy sniper, driven by the ghost of his uber-conservative father.

To play Kyle, Bradley Cooper pulled a “Raging Bull” (1980) and gained around 40 pounds to embody his bulky, muscular build. Working within a fairly archetypal script, Cooper captures the slowly fraying yet highly dutiful soldier. Like a true masochist, Kyle returns to Iraq for four tours of war, unable to stop until his mind snaps. This is Cooper’s second Best Actor in a Leading Role Oscar nod and third for acting overall, and he has certainly earned it this year, transforming himself into an embattled, scarred warrior and veteran.

Cooper’s valiant performance, however, cannot hide the racist, imperialist ideology of the film, which seems reminiscent of World War II propaganda at times. Like something out of “Pocahontas” (1995), Kyle deems all Iraqis to be “savages.” Except there’s no singing, and most are sniped down by Kyle. The Iraqis become Disney-esque stock characters, lurking and scurrying behind corners, donning black and hoarding weapons. Eastwood recreates the exaggerated, manipulative portrait of foreigners that convinced Americans to enter the war. A master in “othering,” Eastwood teaches us to fear even the most harmless child, who can pick up a bazooka and fire at American tanks. To amp up the nationalist cheerleading, Kyle is pitted against an Olympic gold medalist, the top al-Qaeda sniper named Mustafa. The ultimate melodramatic contrivance (there was no gold medalist turned terrorist ), Mustafa turns “American Sniper” into “Miracle” (2004) a la Iraq. Like Luke Skywalker taking out the Death Star, Kyle hits an impossible shot and kills Mustafa for our American alliance.

The war scenes surrounding Kyle fall flat. The explosions and contrived gun fights seem straight out of “Call of Duty,” with dead bodies everywhere. Eastwood aptly translates the intense, high stakes, high rewards game of snipers. One wrong shot of an innocent mother means the end of a career.

The slew of Afghanistan and Iraq war films, such as “The Hurt Locker” (2008), “Restrepo” (2010) and “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012) parallels the profusion of post-Vietnam war films, such as “Apocalypse Now” (1979), “Platoon” (1986) and “Full Metal Jacket” (1987). Yet none of these war films wax as sycophantic as this one, as Eastwood sweeps all the post-war aftermath and debt under the rug to serve his own party’s gains. As the next presidential election looms, it is clear Eastwood wants Americans thinking more positively about our efforts in the Middle East. A propaganda film under the thin veil of a hagiographic biopic, “American Sniper” serves more as a jingoistic eulogy to a disastrous war rather than to its hero.

Rating: 5/10“American Sniper” is now playing at The Nugget at 4 and 6:40 pm.