Photographer: Theo Wargo

The Minimalist Patriotism of American Sniper

In Clint Eastwood's new movie, a soldier's ethic is more important, and more American, than the political aim or winnability of the war he's fighting.

Clint Eastwood is considered throughout Hollywood and Washington as a conservative, but over his distinguished filmmaking career, it’s tough to find a lot of evidence for it in his movies. His films are stoic, sure, but mostly they’re humanist, apolitical, even a little lefty. The profound anguish of a life lived in pursuit of violence in Unforgiven; the inability to escape the past in Mystic River; the power of redemption in Million Dollar Baby. The old crank in Gran Torino turns out to be a softie in the end; he even went after J. Edgar.

In fact, even though Eastwood has always called himself a Republican (or at least a libertarian), and famously gave that bizarre speech for Mitt Romney at the 2012 Republican convention, if he’d have never explicitly said so, you would have never thought of him as a Republican. He’s pro-choice, pro-gay marriage and pro-gun control; he’s an avid environmentalist; he was even against both wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And his two 2006 World War II films, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, are steadfastly suspicious of American exceptionalism; the former is about how propaganda and media relations can turn actual heroism into empty platitudes, and the latter looks at the war from the Japanese point of view, reminding us that we weren’t the only people trying to protect our way of life. If you had no idea that Eastwood was friends with Ronald Reagan and spoke out against welfare, you might even think of him as just another Hollywood liberal.

That is, until you see American Sniper, his new film starring Bradley Cooper as U.S. Navy Seal Chris Kyle, which opens on Christmas. It’s easily Eastwood’s best film in years—the best since that 2006 double feature—but it’s also the first one that feels pitched specifically to Red State America. That’s going to earn him some barbs from movie critics—who, I’d argue, swing more East Coast liberal than any other wing of professional media—but I bet crowds eat it up. But, true to Eastwood, the movie is not necessarily Republican as much as it is a road map for a new sort of ethos of patriotism, a guide for the American jaded by misguided wars and a lack of faith in American government. It’s a film about a soldier—and a warrior culture—who never loses his way, his focus and his humanity,  even as everyone around him seems to lose theirs. And it seems to capture today’s military service culture—primarily in Texas, the South, and the rural Midwest–in a way that’s almost primal. It wouldn’t surprise me in the least if, among veterans and their families, this becomes the movie that they’ll show to people to say, “This. This is what it’s like.”

As he has gotten older, Eastwood’s direction has become more and more slack; he’s famous for doing films in the minimal number of takes it requires for everyone to be home for dinner, and often it shows. But he brings his A-game here to tell the story of Chris Kyle, an aimless Texan rodeo cowboy who decides to enlist after September 11. (It is noteworthy that this “enlisted after 9/11” is an Eastwood invention; the real Kyle had been in the Navy for two years already on that date.) Even though he’s older than most recruits, he becomes a NAVY Seal, employed mostly as a marksman. He turns out to be the best marksman in Iraq, serving four tours and becoming known as the most lethal sniper in American history, with 166 confirmed kills. He is so unstoppable a killer that opposing Iraqi forces call him “The Devil of Ramadi” and offer a massive reward for his death.

As he finishes up one tour and ends another, Kyle has an increasingly difficult time dealing with normal life with his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and their children; regular everyday sights and sounds fill him with fear and dread, inspiring him to head back to Iraq. The film makes a point of contrasting the America and Iraq scenes; as played by Cooper, Kyle is lost and vacant in the U.S. but comes alertly to life the minute he’s in fatigues. He’s stable only on the battlefield, and Eastwood expertly makes us feel it in some pretty fantastic battle sequences, particularly a climactic one in which Kyle and his team are stuck on a Sadr City roof being attacked during a sandstorm. Eastwood makes you feel the danger, clearly mapping out each battle sequence for clarity and maximum impact. As terrifying as they are, Eastwood’s not afraid to make the battlefield look exciting too, which is part of the point: This is no anti-war polemic. This is war the way the troops in the middle of it see it, adrenaline drowning out the fear.

Kyle himself is not a particularly complicated character, which is by design: This is not the sort of movie where anyone stops and questions the strategy of this war. These are tough, hard men following orders and sticking together, and Kyle does not question the orders or the men. This is about Real American Men fighting a war that is unwinnable … not that they know that, or it would particularly matter if they did. They’re fighting for America, and that’s enough. The brotherhood on display in American Sniper, I bet, will be its main selling point, and it’s convincing top to bottom. You may think Chris Kyle is fighting a futile war in an unquestioning matter … but you will not yourself question him. He’s a loyal, rugged badass, and, as played by Cooper, it’s impossible not to root for him.

It’s also of note that Eastwood, this time, doesn’t worry about showing how the other side feels. Whereas the Japanese soldiers got their own movie eight years ago, here, the Iraqi insurgents are faceless, savage beasts, out only to sabotage and destroy all that we hold dear. This is how Kyle sees it, of course, and the movie is told from his perspective, but still: Eastwood’s not against stacking the deck at every opportunity. There is a nuance lacking in American Sniper that has been there in past Eastwood films, but that’s by design too: This is a film that cares less about nuance and more about theoretically bedrock American values of loyalty, patriotism, and the courage to fight to the death for what you believe in. You see this often in movies about World War II—the politics of  American Sniper are basically identical to Brad Pitt’s Fury, earlier this year—but it feels different in a more current context. Putting stock in those values feels more like a strong mission statement in today’s wars than it did for The Greatest Generation. This is a movie about a tough sumbitch, and makes no apologies for it.

This would all be a little too testosterone for one movie’s good if it weren’t for Cooper’s committed, terrific performance. Cooper’s an actor who didn’t break through until later in his career, and it benefits him: There’s a care he takes in his choices of roles now that he’s a star, an inherent, soulful humanity he invests even in the most stubborn, meatheaded of characters. Cooper’s terror when he returns to the States, and the growing sense that if he’s going to be the father and husband he wants to be, he’s going to have to make a change, it’s all palpable but muted: It’s all in Cooper’s eyes. His Kyle is strong and an incredible soldier, but he’s also lost away from the battlefield–and horrified by it. It sets the stage for the last 20 minutes of the movie, which will surprise you with their power. It’s Cooper’s best performance; he’s the primary reason the movie works as well as it does.

The movie isn’t perfect: Kyle has a brother character who keeps slipping in and out of the narrative for no reason, and Miller’s Taya has one compelling scene before falling back into the Concerned Wife valley that always plagues movies like this. (She’s established as a fascinating woman just in time to spend the rest of the movie crying.) But it is a truly felt, deeply uncynical look at the American military, and its soldiers, and what it means to fight, and sacrifice, for this country.

This is particularly fascinating coming from a man, and a filmmaker, who for all his iconic gunslinging, generally approaches the world from an anti-war perspective. In many ways, the argument "American Sniper"makes is one that this sacrifice, this ethic, is in fact more important, and more American, than the political aim of these wars (or the political views of those waging them) in the first place. In a way, it’s true to a lot of the dark cowboy code of Eastwood’s westerns: Even the most violent men must remain  committed to their cause even if the men who set their actions into motion are flawed and wrong. Eastwood has crystallized a patriotic mindset of righteousness, even in a meaningless war or series of wars—something that, in the case of Kyle and his men, somehow feels more necessary, and more eternal, than ever. This isn’t the Civil War, or the Revolution, where the cause baths everyone in glory. It’s a simplified, elemental, even nihilistic patriotism. Good wars, bad wars, these men fight, no matter what it does to them and the ones they love. There is an unfathomable honor to that. Eastwood clearly believes it to be central to the American character.

It’s not a Republican position or a Democratic one, but it’s an Eastwoodian one, perhaps the truest distillation of his political philosophy: Patriotism over protest, John Wayne but with a Boomerish self-questioning soul. This is a movie that, more than any platitudes, honors our troops. If Clint Eastwood really wants to make a splash at the next Republican convention, he’ll leave the chair at home and just show this film.