If only sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs roam this Earth as Chris Kyle’s (Bradley Cooper) father informs him early on in American Sniper, then Clint Eastwood’s film represents the cross-breed of the hound and sheep – a creation perplexed as to who it is, its identity betwixt and between the protector that it wants to be and the ram that it truly is. At conflict with itself in scenes of both home and war, the tottering ideological stances of the film accentuate more than just cinematic gaucherie; Eastwood here has made a film about a war that he does not believe in, forcing his gaze onto the sole character in the film that does.
In this sense, American Sniper is far from a patriotic film, though patriotism unquestionably plays its part throughout the narrative. No more is it nationalistic than it is rueful, and it is the china shop hesitation with which Eastwood moves between these two sides that make the film transcend politicality for a much more troublesome property; that of nuance and utter estrangement. When the sharp-eyed Kyle is first seen perched atop a rooftop with a fellow soldier, rifle in hand, eyeing a family of would-be insurgents in Iraq, the narrative quickly resettles to the first instance that Cooper’s character ever held a gun, beside his father, who is teaching him how to hunt live prey. Soon enough, the father is also shown commending the boy for protecting his brother with his fists.
The film does not hide its hero’s background of ideological stiltedness, violence over mediation, and the silent mother (the unfortunate, prototypical sheep according to the film) noiseless underneath the shadow of the sheepdog father. Neither does Eastwood hide the fact that though the child grows up to be a very good boy – when it comes to being polite, courteous, and, certainly, devoted to his country – his father’s clenched hands and prejudice have also carried over into adulthood. With an enlivened smile on his face, Kyle tells his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), that he has no doubt that the child inside her womb is a boy, faintly exuding his father’s credo with his beam. He wants a boy, because he believes, as his father seems to have believed, that boys are sheepdogs and women the inevitable sheep.
Neither are any of the soldiers in Eastwood’s film represented by women, and that is, without question, how his hero sees his war: men protecting their women, words he makes sure to tell his son before he takes his John Wayne-amble outside the doorway and into the light. Kyle’s likability in the exterior is perpetually upended by the not-so-kind remarks his tongue mechanically professes time and time again. When a former preacher-turned-soldier confides in him that he has no faith in the war and later dies, Kyle justifies the man’s death by somehow insinuating that he deserved it for having lost his faith. And like any radical, faith is the only bastion with which Kyle accounts for his own killings. There is no other side to his account of how this war is raged. A bombing at an embassy and two planes into two buildings are the only reasons he requires in order to craft his own us-and-them dialectic. For him, it is as clear as day that his side is good and those he deems as “savages” are evil. Upon seeing a woman hand her son a grenade, and after shooting both woman and son, he claims to a fellow soldier “That was hate like I’ve never seen it before.” Or is it self-defense?
Now, as an audience who sees the war through Kyle’s eyes, with only the one narrative that Eastwood appears to be presenting, indeed there is no greater hate, no greater evil than those that Kyle stoutly seems to be eradicating. After all, he is in a land where “savages” drill through heads of little children. Are Kyle’s killings not warranted when he is faced with such, as he himself puts it, “evil?”
Here is where Eastwood’s own, superb indecision seems to come into play to great effect. The director doesn’t seem to know either, and his film doesn’t dare justify a justifiably unjustified war. When the American Army first raids a nearby house, Eastwood boldly displays his hero’s infantrymen as the first aggressors. They self-righteously beat down an innocent man and manhandle his children. “I found these bitches in the back closet,” a soldier says about the man’s daughters. At the same time and on his knees, the Sheikh calmly protests to them that the soldiers are his guests and that they should calm down. “This hadji only want us in here so he can blow us up,” the same soldier says immediately after. In the context of the film, this is the army’s first face-to-face experience with the Arab world, a place that they have consciously chosen to attack. And instead of violence, they are welcomed by a man whose home they’ve already defaced.
Concurrently, however, many of the insurgents are shown in the midst of tremendous violence, and the exterior kindness that Cooper wrests from the Chris Kyle character makes it problematic to make out the distinctive murder in his eyes. At war, Kyle’s killings are continuously seen as a deed done in the line of duty, but it is strictly when he’s situated at home, back in San Diego, that his motives muddy. Many opportunities are put forward for him to stop his tours of war, and yet he accepts neither, considering it a responsibility to go back. Confronted by his wife who rightly wants him home (a wife, it should be noted, who was introduced as a strong woman that could, with her fierce tongue, push would-be predators away at will, and who has now finally regressed into the sheep of the Kyle family credo), Kyle explains his actions by claiming that he is fighting to protect them, an echo of what he had told a fellow soldier, that their job is to prevent the insurgents from coming to San Diego or Seattle. Yet, with as much conviction as Kyle seems to declare his reasons, Taya is not convinced.
One aspect of war that only recent war films have exposed is the addiction that comes with battle, that soon after the first shot is fired, the motives of some men change, even those who firmly convinced of their duty. It’s an addiction, as David Ayer’s Fury conveys; and for Kyle, war is more like an adulterous affair. His reasoning to go back to Iraq sounds more like a man’s excuses to leave the house at night so as to meet another lover. Gradually, the film also shows Kyle’s increasing companionless on the battlefield; no one else gives credence to the war, it seems to suggest – those who had are either shell-shocked or lost in a reality that has become even more violent after the war. It is between him and his mistress now, her surrogate being the man who is more his rival than his enemy, an insurgent sniper named Mustafa.
Despite the hackneyed leitmotif that trails Mustafa to assure audiences that he is an enemy, Eastwood is very artful in his nuanced portrayal of the insurgent sniper, somewhat blurring the lines between what he does and what Chris Kyle does, and bringing them together. Both are seen inside their homes and beside their families, both regarded as men serving their country outside those walls. And yet, a meticulous scene catches sight of Mustafa at his home, with his wife holding an infant in her arms; a moment later, his phone vibrates and he rises from his seat, instructed by commanders to make another killing. Juxtaposed with Kyle, it is an absolutely thought-provoking scene. Mustafa is beckoned by a higher command to do his duty, to kill his prey, his face nevertheless dreary and almost haunted. Kyle goes to war at will.
It would be unjust to say that American Sniper is not suffused with the tinge of Americana instilled in the majority of American war films. Behind the overdone themes that Eastwood seems to echo from the history of that industry, however, the film is all but staggering for its indecision. No war is ever truly just, but the War on Terror, as with Vietnam, arguably verges on criminal. In American Sniper, the worn-out question of whether it is illicit or not is never approached. The war is seen only through the eyes of one soldier who believes that it is not, who clashes against a climate of cynicism, wholly convinced that he is on the honest side of history, and the film neither judges him nor his actions, but instead gawks at him thoroughly enough for the murky shadings to steadily come to light. It is important that Kyle is portrayed as likeable in the film; it complicates matters even more, for how could the soft-spoken sheepdog suddenly shed his skin and turn out to be the wolf?
All sheepdogs are wolves as well, Eastwood might answer back. Like the war, the film finds no answer for the war, going so far as to even mislay its unthinking faith in patriotism along the way. Rather it traps itself in the dubious undertones of war, toward a deep despair, a condition that vehemently wants to deny the truth and yet inherently seems to recognize cold reality for what it is. Sirens ring and chimes of patriotism reverberate in the film’s finale, but the settings that precede that moment still convey uncertainty. Kyle’s fate was not wrought by enemies, but the circumstances of a war one might say he loved. How then could it be just?
Though the specter of violence stretching out toward America’s door never sounds quite cogent when poured from Chris Kyle’s maw, J.C. Chandor’s A Most Violent Year patiently anticipates it. The threat that the film’s small-time oil-peddler, Abel (Oscar Isaac), is faced with gives the impression of being far more barbarous than the much grander fight for oil that is to happen twenty-two years after the movie’s timeline within Iraq. A former truck driver for a heating-oil company, Abel is now at the brink of creating an empire with the prospective acquisition of a storage dock on the East River in New York City. As he continually proclaims throughout the film, he has tried to build this empire in the cleanest way possible, but the film’s mood captures a different side of Abel’s intricate exterior. His stoic and often-stiff demeanor are learnt, impelled by years of ambition, and much self-discipline in his mastery of a commanding, stalwart persona. (When an employee attempts amity by speaking to him in Spanish, for instance, he quickly commands him to switch to English, having also shed his past in order to close in on the American Dream.) His plans, however, are foiled when competing businesses in the area begin to attack his truck-drivers and steal his trucks, and even more menacing is the charges brought upon him by a district attorney who wishes to clean the city of its corruption. For Chandor, it is soon revealed, America’s only enemy is its dream, breeding violence and, with open arms, promising opulence in return.
If Eastwood’s film is remarkable for its indecision, A Most Violent Year is most enthralling for its command of its themes and characters; none of them good, none of them virtuous, and neither claiming to be either/or. It is the life of bad men he has closed in on, men who strive for wealth and security while offering none to those they stealthily swindle. And yet, Abel, the aspirant American criminal, is a figure ostensibly deserving of an audience’s compassion, even though the means for which he is fighting for is far more self-serving than Kyle’s naïve, though murderous, cause. It is thus very fitting for Abel’s name to allude to the first victim of the Genesis lore; he too is shown in the light of a victim throughout the film, and even his name commands his audience to feel that way. Fittingly, he refuses to be considered a gangster, though his lawyer (an excellent Albert Brooks) assures him that he is.
1981 was the year that saw New York at its most violent, with 2,228 murders and 180,235 violent crimes under its belt. It also seems to be, as the film implies, the year that saw the birth of shady capitalism, the bedrock of that very dream Able hankers for. Soon, when Abel’s empire is built, he will have to be the gangster that he denies to be at present, to take the reigns as Micheal Corleone willingly did just a few decades before him. It is the price that he has to pay, and a price he willingly will. It is not morality that he strives for, even though he claims himself to be the most moral of those in his business. He, like 2014’s other cinematic American hero, is, inherently, only looking after himself.
Side by side, American Sniper and A Most Violent Year function as sneering glances at male archetypes hankering for the American Dream, both films journeying through past and present to capture much of what the great American films of the last year have consistently evoked, a skepticism which boldly betrays the true legacies of modern heroes – the ambitious businessman as an eventual crook, his voice restrained like Michael Corleone, and the tune of David “Noodles” Aaronson carrying the melody of his path to prominence; the patriotic hero of the present, unwittingly mistaking murder for gallantry, not taking notice of the true honor that so simply rests on the act of taking care of one’s own family rather than killing blindly for one’s country – however great it just might be; Kyle, after all, was murdered by a man that just as easily could have been himself.
This mistrust of heroes seeps further into the other great pictures of the past year: In Foxcatcher, a man closest to what America can count on as royalty arrives at derangement, paranoia, and once again, murder, utterly unaware of himself and his shortages. To fill that void, he picks at a domain he does not belong in, and though Steve Carell’s John DuPoint is intent on salvaging the sport of wrestling, he manages to make it reel over what he’s done. The same can be said for Whiplash’s Fletcher, the great American instructor to the coming maestros of the country, oscillating perpetually between ambivalent gradations, his brilliance rooted in sadism, his perfervid relish for his students coming from a place unknown, never so simply virtuous or heroic, but most evidently unkind. A similar claim can be made for Dr. Mann in Interstellar, who shames his namesake without much subtlety, the should-be savior of the human race degenerating before our eyes in frenzied fits of fear. We even see this theme carry over in the small great films of last year, as with the fine-minded writers in Listen Up Philip, each wholly able to convey empathy, authenticity, and generosity in their work, and yet both cruel, lacking in humanity, self-absorbed, and unrelenting in real life.
The truly excellent films of 2014 all seem to be heralding an era that gazes ruthlessly (and in Eastwood’s doleful case, timidly) into the dark side of the American Dream, as well as the pathos – and often the pathology – behind its promises of esteem and affluence. The one outlier is Boyhood, perhaps the happiest of these films, lacquered with superficial stress but absent of any real dimension; and there is no doubt as to why the film is cherished and protected so caringly: It stands for the last vestiges of the American Dream on screen, of a hard-earned and healthy life, of secondary school awards, scholarships, and the most vapid of philosophic ruminations; model-like and precisely the kind of life that might sound true only on a movie screen.