The last of the cowboys
by Sam Kriss
Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in American military history, died on the 2nd of February, 2013. He’d served four tours in Iraq, been injured twice, involved in six roadside bomb attacks, and killed up to two hundred and fifty-five people; Islamist insurgents had offered a reward of $80,000 for his head, but when he died it was at the Rough Creek Lodge and Resort, an elegant ranch-style resort offering fine dining and a spa, plus a pool and tennis courts, an unremarkable flash of blue and white off Route 67 near Fort Worth, Texas. The man who killed an American icon, Eddie Ray Routh, was another Iraq War veteran; since his discharge he’d been in and out of psychiatric wards, bouncing between a bureaucratic state apparatus that tried to keep him sedated and a bureaucratic family apparatus that just couldn’t understand the horrors he’d lived through. But neither could Chris Kyle. The most lethal sniper in American military history never worried about what he’d done. Every Iraqi he’d killed was an American life saved; his only regret was that he hadn’t killed more people, saved more lives. It was a job, and he was extremely good at it. Afterwards, when he came home, he set about making regular TV appearances and publishing a folksy ghostwritten memoir in which the reader is consistently addressed as y’all, a book that ended up staying on the New York Times best-seller list for 37 weeks. He loved his wife and kids. He made it his mission to keep on saving American soldiers, and he went about it in the only way he knew: he’d take injured veterans out shooting. And then one of them killed him. He never thought that for someone still shaking from the slaughter in Iraq, the best therapeutic option might not be to put a gun back in his hands and let off rifle fire all around him. He never thought that the cure for war could be anything other than war. All this was something America’s greatest killer simply wasn’t capable of understanding.
If Chris Kyle had been killed in Iraq by someone who’d got lucky, or was simply better than him, it would’ve just been part of the general idiocy of war. Instead, he died because of that bullish indifference, the precise same buried trait that made him so successful in combat. Kyle was something somehow more or less than human, a man capable of not just killing without remorse but of laughing about it on Conan O’Brien afterwards. Someone who just couldn’t understand. His death in the flat fields of Erath County, Texas isn’t a strange coda or an anticlimactic end to a life of action; it’s a perfect catharsis, something out of Sophocles, a moment of pure Greek tragedy in the modern age. It’s an incredible story.
So how on Earth was it fucked up so badly?
American Sniper, the Clint Eastwood biopic of Chris Kyle, isn’t just a piece of gratuitous military propaganda; it’s a godawful, artless, bloated, cowardly failure of a film. Defending the abomination he’d created against accusations of propaganda, Eastwood insisted that it isn’t political, but a character study. Except the encounter between Kyle and Routh, the essential character-defining moment of the story, is entirely absent. All we see is Kyle’s wife watch him driving off with a stranger who, as we’re meant to infer from the slow zooming of the camera and the shot’s framing through a crack in the doorway, is somehow evil. Then fade to black, the words Chris Kyle was killed that day by a veteran he was trying to help, and stirring music over real footage of Kyle’s funeral procession. Roll credits. That’s it.
In fact, none of Kyle’s actual character seems to have made it into this character study. The real-life Chris Kyle was a strange and unpleasant man: not just a killer but a liar, a braggart, and a thief. There’s something weirdly childish about him. He said he’d shot thirty armed looters from the top of the New Orleans Superdome in the aftermath of Katrina (despite also boasting of having himself looted from apartments in Iraq), was successfully sued for claiming have knocked out the former politician and wrestler Jesse Ventura in a bar fight, and insisted he’d once effortlessly killed two Mexican carjackers in Texas. His uncle works for Nintendo, and he knows a secret karate move called the Touch of Death, and he totally had sex with all the girls at school, but don’t ask any of them about it, because they’ll only lie. It’s hard to take anything he says seriously. Chris Kyle served in Ramadi and Fallujah: in both cities American forces set up arbitrary no-go zones without any signposts, and shot anyone who stepped outside their homes or took a wrong turn while driving. Residents were afraid to even go near their windows. In Fallujah a sniper was positioned outside a hospital and fired on ambulance crews as they tried to leave. Was it Kyle? Who can say? In his book Kyle never really approaches Iraqis as being fully human, never takes a moment to try to comprehend why the people he kills might resent being occupied by the same empire that starved five hundred thousand of their children to death. It’s because they’re evil, he decides: playground morality. He never wonders what he’d do if a foreign power took over Texas. Your character study’s all here, ready and waiting, but this isn’t the film Clint Eastwood makes.
And then there’s his name: Chris Kyle. There’s always something slightly unsettling about people with two first names (and I say that as someone who is, sonically if not orthographically, among their number). There’s always the potential for a dangerous kind of play, like Yossarian with Irving Washington and Washington Irving. People with two first names can be mirrored, inverted; they always have Gothic doubles or ghostly opposites hanging around them somewhere. Who is Kyle Chris? Obviously someone like Eddie Ray Routh. But Eastwood takes a different approach.
The problem with a character study that refuses to study its subject’s character is that it doesn’t really leave anywhere else to go. Chris Kyle’s real military career was a monotonously brutal series of unconnected killings; day after day of waiting, watching, shooting, without any narrative beyond the scattering of the Iraq War into entropic meaninglessness. One scene illustrates the problem nicely: a car full of insurgents attempt to fire a rocket at an American convoy; the machine-gunners instantly reduce it to bloodied scrap metal. When the forces are so mismatched there’s little scope for narrative tension, but a film needs a plot, so Clint Eastwood invents one. It’s a Western; a cowboy film. Bradley Cooper stars as the grizzled bearded stranger who rides into town with an uncanny knack for straight-shootin’, an inexplicable nonchalance towards murder, and a keen, Godly sense of right and wrong. As the armoured vehicles crawl towards Fallujah, someone says: welcome to the new Wild West of the old Middle East. One of the only aspects of Kyle’s book that Eastwood actually leaves in is his habit of referring to Iraqis – who, let’s not forget, invented irrigation, writing, and the State – as savages: these are Injuns here, warlike and whooping. And any Western needs a shootout: enter Kyle Chris, in the form of Mustafa, an invented Syrian sniper that Kyle faces off against throughout the film, culminating in a gunfight that across the dusty Main Street that is Baghdad’s Sadr City. Our hero draws first. He wins.
It doesn’t work. Nothing works. For a start, American Sniper seems to have been plotted by a wandering amnesiac or a slightly dim child. At first the main villain is ‘the Butcher’, a sadistic and fictional al-Qa’eda enforcer who vanishes from the story midway through and is never captured or heard from again. Kyle’s grisly tours of duty are interspersed with scenes in which he returns to an America of rolling wheatfields and sun-speckled copses, as if he’d briefly ascended to a patriotic Thomas Kinkade version of Heaven. The point might be to introduce pacing, but it ends up turning the story into half-chewed vomit. The action scenes are basically tedious, and in the end the constant gunfire just sounds like someone stepping on bubble wrap. But it fails on more fundamental levels as well. It’s interesting to compare American Sniper with Eastwood’s earlier cowboy adventures, many of which were masterpieces of the anti-Western genre. In Sergio Leone’s films the heroic trick-shooting cowboy of American mythology is transformed into the Man With No Name, someone skidding on the edges between avenging angel and brutally intrusive psychopath. A figure without past or future, only impish wit, venal greed, and silence.
This is a contradiction heightened in High Plains Drifter, one of Eastwood’s first films as a director. A mysterious Stranger rides into town from the mountainous wilds; all he claims to want is a drink and a haircut, but there’s an incredible violence to him, a seething, bodily violence, barely buried. Some local toughs start on him, and he kills them almost effortlessly. But there are also bandits coming for the townspeople, and with their protectors now dead, the Stranger agrees to organise their defence. But the Stranger is a rapist and a glutton, and his brief rule is very strange. He makes a grotesque dwarf called Mordecai the town’s mayor and sheriff; when the enemy approaches he paints all the buildings red and suddenly retreats, allowing the bandits to murder half the townspeople before returning to finish them off. The whole town is guilty, and he’s punished them. As the Stranger rides off again Mordecai comments that he never did know his name. Yes, you do, he says. If you know your masques, your lords of misrule, and your Bulgakov, you do too. It’s the Devil: justice in excess of itself and law as the right of the stronger is the Devil.
American Sniper feels wrong. It’s all hollow; there’s a constant sense of dislocation, like we’re looking at everything from the wrong angle. It wants the blood and brutality of the Stranger or the Man With No Name, only without his strangeness or his namelessness. It wants the Devil of Ramadi, but can’t accept that he might have been a devil. In fact, the opposite: Eastwood relentlessly humanises his hero, showing us all the pain and stress that the real Chris Kyle never suffered. He wants us to like this guy, this mass murderer, to like him unproblematically – because he’s a good guy, a sheepdog. It’s strange: he’s trying to resurrect all the stupid cowboy clichés he and Leone so thoroughly dismantled decades ago. But for all he rides in rodeos and prances around in a big hat, his Kyle isn’t a friendly cowboy. He kills too easily. He kills children. (At the start of the film, our hero kills a child holding a grenade. His mother rushes towards the body – and then picks up the weapon, forcing Kyle to kill her too. She can’t have loved her child, and so the infanticide is justified. In Kyle’s book, it’s just the woman, who he describes as being evil and having a twisted soul for trying the resist a foreign invasion of her home.) So with both poles of the cowboy continuum barred, the role can only escape into the dangerous wilds of the third term. Kyle is the bandit, the invader: Angel Eyes.
It’s still a cowboy film, but there are no great American cowboys any more. Cowboys don’t have helicopter support; they don’t provide covering fire for armoured columns, and no matter how morally ambiguous, they don’t kill kids. But the Man With No Name still rides. Mustasfa, the Syrian in the film, is a clumsy fiction, but he’s based on a real person: Juba, the Baghdad sniper, the terror of the occupiers, the hope of a nation. Unlike Chris Kyle, his TV appearances are grainy and functional. Somewhere in the haze of pixels there’s a soldier on patrol; a thunk, and he drops to the ground. Only occupiers: never Iraqi troops, never civilians. Perhaps Eastwood’s made his most daring deconstruction of the cowboy genre yet – something outwardly terrible, but which encodes another, very different film; one visible only by its negation, by the tiny cracks in the filmic facade. See how Mustafa runs across rooftops and jumps over alleyways, see his split-second moment of domesticity, his wife and infant child, his framed Olympic photo. Mustafa is killed in the film, but Juba never was. Nobody knows his name, nobody knows his face. He is everyone and no-one. He doesn’t talk, he acts. When armed cavalrymen from the West storm the city, when they burst into people’s homes at night and shoot children on the streets, one man makes a stand. The strange and savage invaders have cruise missiles and helicopter gunships; this hero is armed only with a rusting old Russian rifle, a gift for marksmanship, a moral code that’s firm but obscure, and his enduring faith in God. One man against a whole army! Can he survive? But a horse races across the deserts of Anbar province, and a low nasheed mingles with the billowing clouds of dust. Out from the freedom of the open range rides something cruel and strange. Our last best hope. He is the last of the cowboys. He is the American sniper.