Somewhere around the sixth or seventh hour of Clint Eastwood’s interminable American Sniper, I was struck. Dumb, naturally, but soon, as if awash in a sea of unearned wisdom, by the sheer genius of it all. The old man had done it, and not for the first time. His octogenarian originality – leathery, yes, but full of fuck it all fanaticism – first blessed our shores back in 2008 with what was, at the time, both the best and worst film of its given year. Perhaps ever. I speak, of course, of Gran Torino. You remember, surely. The film so tailored to a specific demographic – the very one, naturally, most likely to rhapsodize about a “good old days” ass-deep in lynchings and closeted Others – that it all but ensured a mad, blue-haired rush on the cineplexes for a good fortnight. It was the movie everyone’s father couldn’t help but love, if only to finally receive a living legend’s blessing to utter long-buried racial epithets with maximum crustiness. My how we longed to hear someone speak that way again, and since it’s Dirty Harry himself, well, so much the better. He demeaned and dehumanized with a twinkle, so there was no real reason to get upset. Racism was fun again.
And so to 2015, where our New Year could be greeted not by Clint’s grizzled visage, but rather his vision: a man so out of sorts, so seemingly out of time, that we revere him by instinct. Understood by few, matched in word and deed by even less, he is that portrait of masculinity so clean and precise, he could stand evermore as a final act of creation. We’ll move on, but the masterpiece must die. Called Chris Kyle by mere mortals, he’s but a letter (and miracle) removed from Christ himself. The living, breathing personification of a recent, but marbled maxim among the all-male Republican Right: while it might not be possible for a man to fuck another man and remain ramrod straight, he’s sure as hell going to try. Misogyny gets the blood pumping, sure, but it can’t beat an ass-first adventure with a Navy Seal. Tax cuts for millionaires might, in a pinch, substitute for Viagra, but oil up a killing machine in the desert and brows will be wiped. Trousers adjusted. Dreams, dare we say, fulfilled. Something about a sand-filled slaughterhouse that sets old clogged hearts aflutter.
And sure, while it might be simplistic and sad to say that American Sniper’s first and noblest achievement is to give heterosexual men the permission to stare longingly into the come-hither glares of trained assassins, it is no less an iron-fisted truth. Stereotype at your peril and assume the gayest of all gatherings are fashion shows or antique auctions, but for my money, all are but distant planets to the megawatt sun that is a military barracks. More to the point, it’s the last, most acceptable act of same-sex indulgence. Something about the guns and noise and push-ups that counter the expected softness of femininity. In a sense, it’s the greatest cover story ever written. To paraphrase Nathan Bedford Forrest, war means fighting, and fighting means killing, and with all that killing going on, who has time for weakness and passivity? In this topsy-turvy tumble of terror, slipping an ass sandwich between firefights is the ultimate distraction. It’s less a homosexual act than a reward for a job well done.
I know what you’re thinking: all of us damn well knew the military trafficked exclusively in gay back in the Reagan era, when an entire school of filmmaking devoted itself to the idea that the din of battle can only yield to the roar of homoerotic glee. War is sex, the battlefield a bath house, the gun an erection. Got it, over and done. We’ve been there. So what’s new about Chris Kyle? Has it simply been too long since we’ve had so obvious a target for our loin lust? Perhaps, but Eastwood’s too wise to leave it at sex alone. He wants us to experience our orgasms, yes, but not at the expense of a life lesson. We can learn whilst we fuck. Here, at long last, is our roadmap to manhood. More than to, then, but of. None of it is real or achievable, or even desirable, of course, but it will always be the carrot for the boy in youth’s full-flower. If a time capsule could send a message of who and what defined us as our nation careened into a self-imposed oblivion, let that be the sum total of this movie. A DVD may as well be issued at birth.
Fair enough to call Mr. Kyle “legend” (as most do), as he’s less a tangible human being than the sort discussed over a campfire in hushed tones. He’s the myth we all speak of as we cling to the darkness. The answer to every question, often before it’s asked. What every two-legged creature in possession of a penis hopes and prays to be, lest he be cast aside on the ash heap of irrelevance. As we begin our tale, we have the spark of creation. A father – stern, humorless, cold as a distant moon – conveys to young Chris the language of the gods: fight or be damned, kill or slink away in shame. Protecting one’s own as a cover for unchecked aggression. On the move, or weak, sissified stasis. Chris drinks it in like mother’s milk, only it’s the sweat of barrel-chested fatherhood. After all, mom herself so shrinks in dad’s presence, she’s all but invisible. Nothing to see there, and sure as shit even less to learn. Little of value transferred from female to male, and yet when it comes to vivid, essential memories (as Kyle reflects on a kill-to-be), all flows from daddy dear.
The memory in question? Shooting a living thing for sport, of course, for in this world – the ideal world – nothing could ever mean more than that. It’s more than a bonding experience, it’s all that’s left us as a species. For when we gather the rosebuds of youth as we say our farewells, we’d better have the paternal exchange of gunfire to justify the whole damn enterprise. In that better, simpler time, it was the expected rite of passage. The saltier your earth, the more likely you’ll cite exactly that as a moment of resolve. Leave the rest to the foolishly feminized. From there, riding atop said beasts of the field as a further extension of superiority, until such time that the bulls and broncs must yield to a more human flesh. For Kyle, a new Adam for a desperate age, cannot kill and walk away. He must kill and remain. There, present; an immovable slab of fanaticism. Yes, fanaticism. It’s not that we recoil at the term, or oppose its presence in the lives of the allegedly civilized. Rather, be that inflexible, unquestioning, mindless devotee of duty. With every fiber and cell that defines you. Just remember who and what you’re fighting for.
And so we have the hunter, the rodeo cowboy, the man. Before the rooftop sniper, then, the lover. Not really his bag, you understand, but all part of the scenery. A woman, but only for appearances. Hence the simplicity. First a bar, then a word, then a removal of clothes. It’s banter, but only in theory. They haven’t a thing to exchange, until they substitute carnality for connection. Again, the Eastwood vision laid bare: if I wanted to feel something, baby, I’d be out with the boys. You’ll do, but only as means to an end. The end being an heir. A boy, of course, lest the wisdom of the ancients fade from view. After all, if a man thinks of marriage and family at all, it is as a repository for the gifts bestowed by his own greatest teacher. To this point, the arc of American Sniper, is, by all appearances, bereft of nuance, but only if you believe Kyle himself demands more. The characterization is slight, obvious, and pitifully banal, but so unfailing in its pinpoint accuracy that it all but overplays the man’s depth of feeling. I’m not entirely sure Kyle was even this engaging. No matter, as he consciously aspired to the symbolic value set before him like a prayer rug. His die was cast.
As such, Kyle has “the moment.” Few do who can’t bother with poetry, but Kyle was born to play out his string. There, on the television, cued up by Jesus, the embassy bombings in Africa. Some might weep, others might turn the channel, but Kyle – always Kyle – is all about doing. Or whatever synonym best suits strapping on a weapon and securing justice. It’s the bitter little pill hidden beneath the rah-rah romp of combat: all men go to war to right a wrong. Damn right it’s personal. Get hit, hit back. A slap on my cheek, a bullet in yours. Call it patriotism if you choose, but Kyle’s needle is simply stuck in that surefire groove. It’s a handy enough explanation, at any rate. But it’s the golden rule as explained by dad: defend your own. Brother, comrade, country. Meaningless pap, sure as shit, but it’ll do when you’re but a step removed from the barnyard. Kyle, like his brothers, is content to stand idly by until – with a shoe drop that always equates to a mission of murder. Context is for pussies. Details, but a bump in the road. If you ask a question, you might have to slow down. An image – a mere picture of unmistakable import – is all a man like Kyle needs.
One enlists, one trains, one is reborn. Funny how many a life is recast with new meaning at the prospect of violence. Soon, the towers fall. Game on, with the world hanging in the balance. For Chris Kyle, it’s as if God himself willed the whole thing just to give him that moment in the sun. Flaccid to engorged, all in the time it took for jet fuel to meet steel. But Eastwood gets it. Absent such dramatic turns in a nation’s course, where would we stand? How could we ever be counted? American manhood, for all of its charms, is inconceivable without a gun to the head. Otherwise, we’d all be women. The Chris Kyles of the world rush forth to fill the vacuum left behind by the faithless. We take a stand, or we take a walk. The “regeneration by violence” of lore. It’s why so many smelled conspiracy amidst the rubble. As a new century dawned, few seemed ready and willing and able to take us by the hand. A morning, a wall of flame, and all is set anew. A purpose for those without it. Movement, in place of an armchair. A hero will rise, as certain as the dawn. Our fables are not allowed to let us down.
So what if the execution is a flawed stew of reactionary repetition? An endless parade of set-up, telescopic glances, and holy fire? We came for the turkey shoot and got the whole damn carnival. It was at this time – the second or third tour of tiresome death – that my thoughts inevitably turned to Death Wish 3. Bronson’s epic masterpiece is never far from my mind, of course, but here, in a film of equal caloric emptiness, I couldn’t help but see Kyle’s ridiculous bete noire, the Syrian sniper Mustafa, as an extension of DW3’s Giggler. Maybe it was all the rooftop hullaballoo, or that their physical similarities are too eerie to ignore, but wasn’t Iraq itself held together by Mustafa’s legendary moves in a similar fashion to the Giggler’s graffiti-laden neighborhood? Each seemed to vanish and appear with ghost-like resolve, and when they died, was each expiration not the necessary turning point in the life of the community? Kyle and Kersey certainly thought so. Each knew that the elimination of this symbolic target was enough, if not to end the war itself, then that all-important struggle with one’s very soul. Friends, buddies, and old ladies’ purses cried out for a revenge few could mete out with such line-in-the-sand definitiveness.
There were other musings. Of all the reasons to hate the military ethic, war’s waste, and self-righteous soldiering, few seem so mind-boggling as the combat vet’s genuine apoplexy at being fired upon. A sovereign country invaded, billions in hardware inserted, heartless men with guns roaming about, and a reaction, well, that’s too much to bear. American Sniper is rife with such scenes of incomprehensible outrage, most often after a beloved fellow soldier is sliced to ribbons. “For Jerry!” they cry in unison, as if Jerry himself wouldn’t be alive this very moment had you lunkheads not obliterated the last trace of a recognizable cityscape. It’s like being the last man to participate in a gang rape and getting upset at the chick for not bothering to fake an orgasm. You hear it all the time: soldiers fight for each other, and when they return, they regret that they can’t be back in the shit saving more lives. That saving lives might occur at a greater rate if said men, I don’t know, came the fuck home, is a concept apparently too riddled with logic to make sense to these paragons of virtue. As always, they look up, they look down, but never around. They may as well be fighting on the moon.
One might also call into question the perfect clarity of a cell phone call during an especially nasty firefight, but I won’t stoop to nitpicking. Or that Kyle came home to a Cabbage Patch Doll as opposed to an actual human baby that might squirm a bit when held by a dead-eyed, heretofore absent father. All Eastwood’s calls, and he made them in typically sharp, one-take fashion. Damn right it shows, but when making a cartoon, why strive for pretense? American Sniper is deliberate, calculated red meat made for a people whose digestive tracks long ago stopped processing any direct challenge to their mad ravings. We like our men, our heroes, like Gary Cooper himself: tall, thin, quiet, and god help me, a little dumb. A lot dumb, just in case they come back with any regrets. For if they kill, take a second glance, and wish they hadn’t, they’ll be tossed into similar waters as the openly cowardly, or patently treasonous. The sum total of all war dead are as they should be, no more no less. The toss of a grenade at a tank of fighting men, though tossed by a mere child, is no less than the complete annihilation of an entire nation of 300 million, give or take a few savages slinking about without detection.
So as you exit American Sniper, you might wonder, as I did, why the hell it took so long to say that we’re not allowed to lionize, immortalize, or sentimentalize anyone not hardened by war, but let your frustration yield to gratitude. Chris Kyle is gone now, killed by the same insane logic that led him to extrapolate a regional matter into the clash of the titans. Like dropping off a retarded youngster at a hugging convention without an escort, Kyle decided, on that final, fateful day, to take a severely ill soldier with PTSD to a gun range. To call it maniacal is understating the obvious. It may well have been his method of suicide. I’m truly sorry Kyle was manipulated, used, and lied to repeatedly by scumbags of an even higher order, but at some point a sentient being must take responsibility for poor life choices. He died as he lived, not in service of a higher good, but to exorcise his own demons at not having lived up to the creed set down by his poisonous ancestors. Our ancestors.
These men do not speak for me, kill for me, or defend a damn thing I hold dear. Physically, I’m a coward. Proudly so. But I’m equally proud of my ability to make distinctions. Separate the thinking wheat from the mindless chaff. For if distant, privileged men claim that civilization is at stake, I’ve no greater hint the exact opposite is true. Men like Kyle claim to have a special insight, of course, but they’re simply swallowing the assertions of war by the very sort they hold up to ridicule during times of peace. Idiots and buffoons on the stump suddenly transformed by the rattling of sabers. But that’s neither here nor there. That’s politics. And Clint Eastwood is never so crass as to traffic in partisan snipes. Perhaps, against all odds, neither was Kyle. He was just a simple man, deluded by a simple quest, all in service of a simple notion. And if he did in fact claim to knock Jesse Ventura to the ground, or lie about killing carjackers in Dallas, or, worst of all, claim to shoot looters in New Orleans from the roof of the Superdome, it’s not necessarily as a right-wing loon, or Republican dupe, but rather as an American Man. An unthinking warrior without the imagination or self-awareness to believe he should strive to be anything but. In the end, a fool. A fool with a book deal and great press, but a fool all the same.