As the tank tracks crawl across screen in the opening shot, you could be excused for a cheeky check of the ticket. No, this is not Brad Pitt’s WW2 tank-toting titan, Fury, but Clint Eastwood’s plastic patriotic paradigm, American Sniper. Yes, you are in the correct screen.
It is not Fury that feels like the immediate reference point, but all is a bit Fall 2013. We are taken on a nostalgia trip. American Sniper. American Hustle. Stick the word American in front of a noun and you immediately manufacture box office appeal. This film takes itself very seriously, like Eastwood’s snarling jaw-line and certainly has little overlap with another America. Team America.
World Police. Bradley Cooper’s muscle-bound SEAL, Chris Kyle, a pissed off Texan patriot, growls the insightful insignia: “Do you want these fuckers comin’ over to San Diego or New York?” As counselling sessions go with a fellow marine, troubled by a post-religion moral conscience, this is remarkably profound. Rewind the clock and Cooper’s Kyle would have made the perfect pin-up for Bush and Blair’s War on Terror.
Four tours and one existential battle with a Taliban target, American Sniper offers an overview of a thousand days spent in the Iraqi hell-holes: from the now infamous Fallujah to the fight for Baghdad. However, it is at home that Kyle’s words would have had the most impact. In one phrase he provides an apologia for the, in theory, divergent political ideologies, yet, in practice, identical policies, of Bush’s neoconservatism and Blair’s liberal interventionism. Kyle appeals to both the isolationism and paranoia of the Bush administration and the precocious god complex of a New Labour happy to meddle in the Middle East. Remarkably, this is a sound bite that Dick Cheney and Jack Straw could enjoy.
At opposite ends of the political spectrum, both would lap up Eastwood’s depiction of the threat from the East, post 9/11. The problem is that American Sniper’s depiction is so unilateral and offers no attempt at analysis that it becomes a form of time machine propaganda. In the desire to distill a kind of typical Americana patriotism, Eastwood instead reworks the age old theme of orientalism that has masked our relationship with the near east.
Though, in aesthetic at least, perhaps the white-western supremacist perspective is avoided, this film has no positive input towards a west already ensnared by a pervading mushroom cloud of islamaphobia. It is as though 9/11 was the atom bomb. Subsequent events, most notably the War on Terror, but also the rise of ISIS and Boko Haram, have had led to this new phase of suspicion and distrust that now dominates America and Europe’s relationship with the Islamic world. The events of the external, the international battle with extremism, from the Taliban of Afghanistan, to the Al-Qaeda affiliates of Nigeria, have incubated the friction and distrust internally. The without is now truly within. People who have absolutely zero contact with diversity, let alone Muslims, from the East coast of Britain, the dustbowls of Oklahoma to the boulevards of Brussels, now share a common antipathy towards a completely self-imposed fiction of a threat. Immigrants and more specifically, the often non-existent local Muslim community, are here to distil the doctrines of Jihad and blow up the local bookies. Our culture of acceptance has been smothered beneath the empty rhetoric of the ‘Big Society’.
Thus, in terms of political capital, Eastwood’s Oscar nominated biopic is horribly on trend, though completely contrary to the rebuilding of inter-faith relations and the reduction of the growing gap between East and West. Attending the cinema and seeing four year old kids picking up mortars on the streets of Baghdad, even from your warm, cuddly seat in the pews of a Grimsby screen, only seeks to ingrain this already entrenched phobia of the unknown. Though alien, the uninitiated now believe they have a firm grasp of the complex malaise of middle eastern affairs: we, the good guys, snipe them, the bad Muslims. They then recycle this indoctrinated instinct and it becomes political capital for the fantasists of Farage, Belgium’s Bart De Wever and France’s Le Pen. And so, a combined ignorance becomes a continental political earthquake that continues to tremor with the neo-Nazi anti-islam protests of Pegida that now seize Dresden, despite its 2% muslim population.
We are lucky that Iraq still has any Muslim population at all judging by Chris Kyle’s superhuman exploits. Eastwood charts his killing (it is a lot, I lost count and interest after six), without any real engagement with its impact on the local, indigenous communities. Instead, all are drill-using, deceitful maniacs who cannot be trusted for a single second as the Marines seek to single-handedly restore civilisation from the gross clutches of the Taliban.
The emotional pathos, of course, is all united in the States as Sienna Miller plays a surprisingly effective turn as Chris’ wife, Taya. The gun scene (pardon the pun) is as she departs from hospital having had an ultrasound identifying the gender of her and Chris’ first child. She then calls Chris, who happens to be on a transport through the fatal streets of Fallujah, circa 2003. One ambush later and an awful lot of bullets, Taya is left a shivering wreck, horrified, but unable to put the phone down on possibly her husband’s final moments. It is a glorious scene and, though horribly engineered, brings home the isolation and independence of a loved one left all alone at home.
It is pure Hollywood and what one expects: emotional gravity and tear-jerking. Perhaps we just should not expect anything else from a gun-slinging, raging Republican. Nonetheless, going down the cinema to watch a white American shoot Muslim women and children from the rooftops of Sadr City cannot be healthy for society.