Dirty Harry Goes To Iraq
People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.
Back in 1979, reviewers liked to point out that Francis Ford Coppola’s Vietnam epic Apocalypse Now was so plagued with difficulty and confusion (the star suffered a heart attack during shooting and a devastating typhoon destroyed all the sets) that the making of the film paralleled the reality of the Vietnam War itself.
A similar observation might be made of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper about Iraq. Like the Iraq War itself, Eastwood’s movie begins by exploiting a historically inaccurate delusion and, then, sustains itself for two hours on the mission to protect US soldiers against the insurgency that arose in opposition to the US invasion and occupation based on the initial delusion.
The film opens with a black screen and a muezzin chanting the Islamic adham, or call to prayer, from a minaret. The words “Allahu Akbar” are very distinguishable in the chant. Islam is very much in the news, especially after the Charlie Hebdo killings, and the phrase “Allahu Akbar” is by now familiar with popular US audiences. Such a subliminal opening felt ideologically heavy-handed to me, intimating an unseen evil lurking in the dark. The narrative quickly sketches in Chris Kyle’s introduction to hunting animals, his recruitment and training as a Navy SEAL and how he met his future wife, Taya, at a bar. This leads to an emotional scene of the two lovers watching on TV as the twin towers are knocked down. Then -- wham! -- we’re in Iraq and sniper Kyle is confronted with the dilemma of having to shoot a mother and son to protect an advancing Marine platoon.
Any honest skeptic equipped with even a cursory understanding of the antecedents to the Iraq War will see what’s going on here. It’s not a debatable issue: We know now for sure that Iraq had absolutely nothing -- nada, zilch -- to do with the downing of the twin towers in New York. Dick Cheney’s persistent claims to the contrary, the secular Muslim Saddam Hussein, once our ally, was a bitter enemy of al Qaeda. But in 2014, the film’s producer, writer and director decided on a clean and efficient plot line that hinges on the highly emotional image of the towers falling. The real Chris Kyle may have absolutely believed in this fictional connection, but a protagonist's delusion is not a defense for emotionally perpetuating such a costly fiction (many call it a "lie") in a narrative film about the war. But, then, that’s what “popular” filmmaking is all about, and Eastwood is, if nothing else, a maestro of popular American storytelling. Whether or not one respects such a corrupt decision, the fact is American Sniper is an extremely well-made movie.