American Sniper (2014): Shame on you Clint Eastwood

Posted: February 22, 2015 in The Rest of It
Tags: , ,

American Sniper is a film I had high hopes for. I’ve been a fan of Clint Eastwood’s since before I was even old enough to understand that the sniper and the gang of bank robbers from Dirty Harry were not connected in any way…other than Clint’s .44. It’s safe to say I grew up with his work, from the Harry Calahan films to the Man With No Name, so when I initially saw the teaser with his name attached to it, it made me as giddy as a school girl.

This feeling was, however, short lived.

I found the pic to be, as many have claimed, a well veiled piece of war propaganda with a release which seems to coincide with the rise and engagement of ISIS forces in Iraq and Syria. A quick tour of WordPress will reveal plenty of reviews saying just that, so let’s not waste anymore time repeating the obvious. Besides, I’m not a damned movie reviewer.

And technically, this isn’t really a movie review, anyway.

Kyle was presented in the film as a hero, a highly trained Navy sniper with a very respectable body count somewhere around 160. The advertising even billed Kyle as “the most lethal sniper in American history.” I’m going to go ahead and call bullshit on that one.

Carlos Hathcock’s official body count clocked in at only 93.

Carlos Hathcock, USMC

Carlos Hathcock, USMC

During Vietnam, an official kill had to be witnessed by both the shooter and spotter, as well as a third observer. Most of the Marine’s shots were taken deep in the bush, and the third party simply wasn’t available. Hathcock’s actual magic number is estimated to be in the low 300’s. And remember, Vietnam happened nearly 50 years ago, when 2000 yard shots were taken with little more than militarized hunting rifles. Those were the days before laser rangefinders, air conditioned body armor or the top notch optics available today. Hathcock had to belly crawl his ass through the mush that was Vietnam to get his shots. And then belly crawl home.

On the topic of high scorers, Finnish sniper Simo Hayha wrangled somewhere between 505 and 550 kills during the Winter War against the Soviets, sometimes ringing in as many as five in a day, at least until someone shot the bottom of his face off.

Simo Hayha

Simo Hayha

Hayha declined even the rudimentary optics that were available in the early 20th century, opting to shoot using iron sights alone. This was a man wearing a white bed sheet for camouflage and shooting a poorly made Mosin Nagant rifle equipped only with open sights. Did I mention he was shooting in temperatures ranging from -40F to a balmy -5F?

Lethal sniper my ass. I only make mention of Hayha, by the way, to put the numerical data into perspective.

While on the subject of the Soviets and other heavy hitting marksman, the name Vasily Zaytsev comes to mind, a simple mountain boy later credited with 225 kills during the Battle of Stalingrad. If you’ve seen the movie Enemy at the Gates, that’s the guy I’m referring to. If you haven’t, then you probably aren’t familiar with sniper duel shown between the Nazi sharpshooter played by Ed Harris and Zaytsev, played by Jude Law. American Sniper viewers must also be familiar with this incident since, as it appears to me, Eastwood ripped that part off.

Vasily Zaytsev

Vasily Zaytsev

At least the portrayal of the Zaytsev duel was based upon Zaytsev’s own unsubstantiated account of what happened. The version of what happened in American Sniper seemed to be based solely, though loosely…on what happened to Zaytsev.

The reason for sharing all this gibberish is to point out that 160 killings just seems like a lot, especially if you rake them all into a pile together. When placed in comparison with his predecessors in the field, Kyle comes in as the low man on the totem pole. Even if killing that many men were something a man should boast of, when you place it all into perspective, he just wasn’t that special.

I’d much rather see a film about Hayha anyway. He survived, by the way, although with a crooked face.

The thing about Hayha, Zaytsev and even Hathcock, for that matter, was that in addition to being not as well armed as Kyle, they also lacked the highly specialized training the movie showed. Sniper schools simply did not exist. Hayha and Zaytsev, it was guys like that who wrote the real books. Literally.

The thing about that specialized training, like the BUDs sequences shown in the movie, is that it’s less about training and more about selection than most folks think. Television shows men frozen in the surf, exhausted and mud caked, and we think it’s about teaching soldiers to perform under pressure and extreme duress. That’s not quite so. What amounts to little more than consensual torture functions instead as a weeding out process, selecting soldiers who come psychologically equipped to handle that sort of awful shit, among other things.

These programs tend to select personalities which can be clinically labeled as psychopathic. If you’re unfamiliar with psychopathy, you may be unaware that, in fact, not all psychopaths are malignant cancers. Many are drawn to and function well in jobs in the medical field, as well as in politics, law enforcement and the military. Kyle fits squarely into this category and even Clint Eastwood has a hard time not making it obvious.

Prior to joining the SEALs, Kyle was a bronco rider, a for real rodeo cowboy.

Kyle and friend

Kyle and friend

When an injury adjusted his career path, he sought out a role in special operations. This is a telling personality trait. High risk careers suit some psychopaths well, especially those that provide the intense sort of stimulation needed to mitigate the lack of feeling (this is hard core simplification, by the way) experienced. Kyle consistently placed this need ahead of the needs of his wife and even his own children, returning for a total of four very active tours in Iraq.

When he returns home, it’s easy to interpret the film’s depiction of his odd behavior as the effects of PTSD, but the symptoms Cooper portrayed seemed a little bit more like withdrawal to me. The film also chose to focus on Kyle’s troubles adjusting to civilian life, hinting that he suffered from PTSD, and completely ignored the fact that Kyle and a couple of his buddies started a private Blackwater-esque company called Craft International. PTSD? Really Clint?

I know, I know, none of that makes him a psychopath. You’re right. You’re absolutely right, although graduating BUDs is a better than good sign. My mind wasn’t made up for sure until I read about the Jesse Ventura Lawsuit Scandal.

An anti Ventura meme

An inaccurate anti Ventura funny

According to Kyle’s book, he was involved in a bar altercation with a former SEAL he called Scruff Face. Scruff Face made some really bizarre anti-SEAL remark and Kyle punched him out. In an interview while promoting the book, Kyle identified Scruff Face as former SEAL/governor/wrestler Jesse Ventura. Ventura claimed it never happened, sued for defamation and won based on the grounds that Kyle had been unable to provide a consistent narrative of the event between his book and the interviews.

Telling a big fat lie like that doesn’t make a person a psychopath either. But, the behavior provides evidence which increases the likelihood of it actually being the case. The truth is, obviously, that I didn’t know the guy and it takes a hell of a lot more than that to correctly diagnose psychopathy. All I’m saying, is that there is smoke. And smoke usually means fire.

Or at least hippies.

Now, believe it or not, this piece has a point, and that point is certainly not to bash Chris Kyle, nor to slander him as a blood lusting and yet underperforming psychopath, even if that be the case. Indeed…it’s about bashing Clint Eastwood for making a pro-war film disguised as an anti-war film and using Chris Kyle’s story for that purpose.

In doing such, Eastwood created a two dimensional character and reduced Kyle to little more than a trigger finger, poorly romanticized, much in the way Sean Penn presented the fictionalized Chris McCandles in his film Into the Wild. Penn seems to have captured the boyish, Emerson essence of McCandles, but entirely neglected to engage the fact that the stupid bastard traipsed off into the Alaskan outback with some rice and a .22 rifle and very quickly starved to death.

And that’s the trouble with hero worship: it’s one sided…at best. I know I downplayed Kyle’s accomplishments as a sniper, but what he achieved is still significant, historically and culturally, just as the Great McCandles Freedom Trek was. Unfortunately, when we focus only upon those qualities and stories we choose to identify as admirable, we forget the other 75% of a person’s identity in the process.

If you know who Audie Murphy was, then you probably remember him as the teenager who became the most decorated soldier in WWII before returning home to play himself in a blockbuster film.

Audie Murphy

Audie Murphy

You probably don’t know about the broken home and violent temper, the loaded gun under his pillow, how many times he pulled it on his wife or about the addiction to sleeping pills. Popular media tends to ignore these sorts of details, particularly when they are placing an individual on a pedestal and selling tickets.

It’s important to remember that these were real people, people with wants and needs and cares, people who put their pants on, one leg at a time, just like the rest of us. These guys fucked up a lot, too, just like the rest of us. These guys, also, were fucked up to begin with in a lot of ways, and it can be argued that what one might consider to be negative character traits have contributed significantly to the chains of events for which they are socially elevated in the first place.

Failing to tell the whole story robs the audience of the opportunity to assess the information objectively. It also robs its subject of part of their identity. So shame on you Clint Eastwood. You were right to make a really sweet war movie about snipers. It was truly badass. It really was. But America really doesn’t need any more one sided role models. A double order of fictitious bullshit is way better than a half truth sold for more than it’s worth.

  1. benbrigade says:

    Hi, Jason.

    You might find this interesting – it’s an Australian politics site:


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