The defining moment of Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” plays out twice onscreen and countless more times in the mind of the movie’s central character, the late Navy SEAL marksman Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper). We are on a rooftop in Nasiriya, Iraq, a couple of weeks into the second American invasion, and Kyle — trained for battle but not yet tested by it — scans the surroundings for any seeming anomaly. A suspicious-looking man appears on a nearby balcony talking on a cell phone, only to disappear again back inside the building. Then, down below, a woman in a full burqa emerges with a young boy in tow. There is something odd about the way she holds her hands beneath the long black robe — she seems to be concealing something. Then she removes the object, a live grenade, and hands it to the boy, who begins running toward a line of advancing U.S. soldiers. Kyle sets the boy in his rifle sight and hopes against hope for fate to somehow intervene. But this is do or die, and so he pulls the trigger, earning the first of his 160 confirmed kills.
With that fateful pull of the trigger, you can all but hear the voice of another Eastwood character, the 19th-century Kansas pig farmer William Munny, consoling a green would-be gunslinger in one of the most quoted scenes from “Unforgiven”: “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” And indeed, though Eastwood doesn’t appear onscreen in “American Sniper,” his aura is everywhere. That’s partly because Kyle — a terse, tightly coiled man of action — is a role that’s easy to imagine Eastwood himself playing earlier in his career. But it’s also because, whether on camera or behind it, Eastwood has time and again given us such solitary figures made weary by what they have witnessed, be it in the war zone or merely on the battlefield of everyday life.
Chris Kyle is a veteran of both campaigns, and “American Sniper” dwells in that fraught space between the home front and the front lines. Like Kyle in his memoir, Eastwood never puts a convenient label on things — the term “post-traumatic stress” is never spoken — but Kyle is an unmistakably wounded warrior, physically in one piece but psychologically shattered, haunted by nightmares that stay with him upon waking. Much the same can be said of the Iwo Jima survivor whose life unfolds in flashback in “Flags of Our Fathers,” or of the Korean War vet Walt Kowalski, who remarks in Eastwood’s “Gran Torino” that “the thing that haunts a man most is what he isn’t ordered to do.”
This is the thorny moral question — the true weight of another human life — that rests at the center of many an Eastwood film, whether we are in the muddy frontier towns of the Old West, the equally cloistered Irish-Catholic communities of modern-day Boston, or a South Africa chafing at decades of apartheid rule. Which makes it all the more puzzling that Eastwood has repeatedly been pigeonholed by some critics as an icon of macho bluster and shoot-first-ask-questions-later vigilantism. Those seeds were planted as far back as 1971, when Pauline Kael wrote off Don Siegel’s “Dirty Harry” as a “right-wing fantasy” and “a remarkably single-minded attack on liberal values” that realized the “fascist potential” of the action genre. As usual, Kael had her finger on something: She sensed how the hard-driving Inspector Harry Callahan might be transformed by the mass audience into a kind of establishment folk hero, restoring law and order to America’s streets after the Manson-era flameout of the flower-power ’60s. But taken on its own terms, Siegel’s movie was far from a fascist tome, and far more ambiguous about its antihero’s actions than the era’s overtly valedictory vigilante picture, “Death Wish.”
“There was something there I felt some people missed,” Eastwood told Rolling Stone writer Tim Cahill in 1985. “One critic said Dirty Harry shot the guy at the end with such glee that he enjoyed it. There was no glee in it at all, there was a sadness about it. Watch the film again and you’ll see that.” Eastwood could offer the same proviso about the climax of “Sniper,” in which a single bullet from Kyle’s rifle travels more than 2,000 yards to kill a Syrian-born ISIS sniper named Moustafa. Last month, at the movie’s New York premiere, some members of the audience applauded Moustafa’s demise, while others visibly shuddered, and it is to the film’s credit that it allows for both reactions. Chris Kyle saw the world in clearly demarcated terms of good and evil, and “American Sniper” suggests that such dichromatism may have been key to both his success and survival; on the battlefield, doubt is akin to death. But Eastwood (and his screenwriter, Jason Hall) sees only shades of gray. Repeatedly, he shows us ordinary Iraqis caught in the crossfire of the war, while Moustafa himself, the movie’s nominal bogeyman, is shown to be Kyle’s doppelganger, with his own wife and infant child at home and a similarly resolute sense of purpose.
Still, more than 40 years on from “Dirty Harry,” the idea of Eastwood as a violent fantasist and right-wing ideologue have not entirely subsided. You can catch echoes of it in New York Times critic A.O. Scott’s recent “Sniper” review, where he writes that “in the universe of (Eastwood’s) films — a universe where the existence of evil is a given — violence is a moral necessity” before calling the film “an expression of nostalgia for (George W. Bush’s) Manichaean approach to foreign policy.” That’s one way of looking at things, I suppose, albeit one that risks confusing the politics of Chris Kyle with those of “American Sniper” itself, which paints a rather grueling, no-win portrait of Operation Iraqi Freedom (a war, it’s worth noting, Eastwood has repeatedly said he opposed). And like Eastwood’s two Iwo Jima films, “Sniper” takes pains to show us extremes of bravery and savagery on both sides of the conflict. In one of the film’s most unsettling scenes, an Iraqi father watches helplessly as his son pays a brutal price for the family’s cooperation with the American forces. In another, Kyle turns nauseous at the prospect of having to kill another child — a young boy who haphazardly picks up the rocket launcher of a fallen insurgent.
Yet “American Sniper” doesn’t announce itself as an “anti-war” movie, or an issue movie of any sort. Rather, the theme, as it has often been for Eastwood, is a subtle but profound demythologizing of the American experience, from the presumed manifest destiny of the frontier times to the phantom WMDs of the present. Violence may be an inevitability in Eastwood’s world, but it’s hardly a necessity, and rarely if ever a means to a glorious end. So it seems only fitting that “American Sniper” culminates in a firefight set during an epic, blinding sandstorm — as succinct a visual metaphor as movies have given us for the pervasive fog of war.