Ninja Arab is leaping across the sunbaked rooftops of Falluja, or Baghdad, or anyplace that honest, tender Chris Kyle must rid of savages. Slim and Satanic in his black pajamas, narrow-eyed and inscrutable under his black scarf and do-rag, Ninja Arab could presumably walk like a normal person toward his next lookout for wreaking heartless, inexplicable murder, but as the nemesis of Chris Kyle he must show some flair. Chris Kyle is known as the Legend. Though the movie he’s in is based on a true story—of that we’ve been assured—decorum requires that he repeatedly confront an equally legendary Ninja Arab, so that the two may face off, and one die, in a climactic shoot-out on the dusty streets. Or over them, to be precise.
Chris Kyle takes a manly, Texas squint through his range finder. The shot is impossible, his buddies cry—but he will make it even so, because duty calls. Two duties. With the sniper rifle cradled in one hand, Chris Kyle picks up a satellite phone in the other and speaks with his beautiful wife back stateside. Does he tell her not to phone him at the office? Does he say he’s a little tied up, dear, with a meeting, and a firefight, and a final showdown with the embodiment of pure evil? No. Chris Kyle, knowing what a man must do, takes time out of his busy day so his wife will understand that he loves her and will protect her, because he is a sheepdog, and she is a ewe. (That’s what his daddy taught him, anyway, back at the beginning of the movie, without anticipating the overtones of cross-species husbandry.) “I’m comin’ home,” Chris Kyle drawls ecstatically into the phone. Then he squeezes the trigger, and a single bullet flies—far, far, far across the sky, as slowly as CGI can make it go, until Ninja Arab’s damned head splatters all over godforsaken Iraq.
I’m sorry I had to write that. When American Sniper went into limited release in December, I devoted two sentences to it in my holiday wrap-up, thinking that was as much attention as the film warranted. Last month, I gave the picture six more words—within a parenthetical clause—while making a modest case for not despising The Interview. That should have been it. The film wasn’t much good, I thought, and no one would be astonished to learn what The Nation thought of its politics. A journal of opinion, fine. A journal where opinions are barked on Pavlovian reflex, not so good.
Yet I see that something more has to be said, not because, as their patriotic duty, the usual suspects have lined up to praise the film, but because serious people—critics I admire, whose political sympathies are close to mine—keep insisting that Clint Eastwood worked profound moral ambivalence and heartfelt complexities of character into American Sniper.
I wish it were so. Eastwood’s westerns certainly fit that description. So do his cop movies (the ones that aren’t knockabout comedies) and his World War II diptych, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. The most I can say for American Sniper is that it moderates the full-throated Yahoo roar of the memoir of the same title (written by and for Kyle) while remaining true to its spirit.