CW: discussion of murder & war crimes
“Why did we watch this?” Dania asked, falling onto the armrest of the couch. Her eyes glazed over, numb to the respectful patriotism in the credits music playing from Gwen’s computer.
“I wanted to know what the fuss was about,” Gwen said, calmly. “Do you remember when it came out? How it was the only thing people could talk about?”
“Yeah, that happens all the time,” Eleanor groaned. “It’s still happening with Joker, and it’s been out for a month. People move on.”
“Exactly,” Gwen continued. “I figured five years was enough distance to watch the film with a neutral eye.”
“I mean, as neutral as you can handle,” shrugged Eleanor. “I know you. I know us. We’re never going to look at the movie from a ‘neutral’ perspective. We’re liberal and the film is so conservative it makes me want to retch.”
“How can a film be conservative?” Gwen asked. “It’s a film.”
Eleanor didn’t respond immediately. She merely stared into space, replaying the many, many traumatic images in Eastwood’s film –– a celebration of one man, former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who died in 2013 after racking up 160 confirmed kills during the Iraq War.
“If any film can be ‘conservative,’ it’s this one,” Dania countered. “A movie about a lone wolf who doesn’t play by the rules, and just keeps repeating how the most important thing to do is kill every ‘bad guy’ he comes across?”
“He’s not a hero, obviously,” Gwen said. “I’m not going to praise him any more than the film does –– honestly, it’s hard to praise him more than the film does. But I don’t think the film is without consideration about who Chris Kyle was, and why he turned out the way he did.”
“Are you sure?”
Eleanor leaned forward, not looking at Gwen directly. Neither of them wanted to have this argument, but Eleanor knew it was coming. Gwen tried to find the artistry in everything –– and in a film as self-aggrandizing as Eastwood’s, it wouldn’t be difficult.
“The key to the film for me are the two scenes where Chris considers killing a child,” Gwen began, before Eleanor put a hand up to stop her.
“That should be the end of the conversation right there,” said Eleanor. “I can’t get behind a movie that’s going to justify that act, regardless of context.”
“I’m not saying the film endorses it,” Gwen said. “But it happens. If the framing was explicitly anti-war, it would still represent the things that happened in Iraq.”
“I can’t tell what the framing is, but I don’t think it’s anti-war,” Dania said. “I mean, it’s not clearly pro or anti anything. It just feels like such a dry rehashing of Chris Kyle’s life, with drama to give it flavor. But beyond that, it just feels empty.”
“That’s just it, isn’t it?” Gwen agreed. “The major issue with the film is that it focuses on Chris Kyle’s reservations about doing what he’s really good at: sniping. But it never gets into the reasoning behind his views. The film shows us that he’s conflicted about killing a child in Iraq. It never explores why that is.”
“Because there’s nothing to explore!” Eleanor shouted. “He says as much during every scene. ‘I’m here to kill the bad guys.’ Like he can’t see a single piece of humanity behind anyone brown, they’re all just versions of the ‘bad guys.'”
Gwen considered this. “He definitely sees them as more than targets,” she considered. “He talks with the man who has information on the location of The Butcher…and after he gets punished for talking with the soldiers, Chris does seem to feel personally responsible.”
“Yeah, maybe a little,” Eleanor said. “But then it’s back to murdering anyone who isn’t white––”
Eleanor stood up from the couch, mid-sentence. “I’m sorry, but I can’t believe you’re defending a film that ends with a group of Navy SEALS mowing down row after row of storming Iraqi soldiers.”
“Again, I don’t think it’s an explicitly pro-war film.”
“Well, it’s not anti-war,” Dania repeated. “Like, you’re right, Gwen, in one respect. The film doesn’t ask any questions about why Chris Kyle has this obsession with the ‘bad guy,’ or whether that’s a poison mindset. The dad’s ‘sheep, wolves, and shepherds’ speech is treated as fact and never questioned.”
“Ugh, I hate that mentality,” Eleanor groaned. “I’ve had friends whose parents were like that, it’s the most toxic view of the world, positioning yourself as the protector of…”
But she grumbled away the rest of the sentence in anger.
“If there’s no exploration of Chris Kyle’s worldview, there’s also no questioning of anything relating to the war. The whole movie feels like everything exists only to serve Chris Kyle’s weird inner conflict. Nothing else is allowed to have an arc. Not the war, not the enemy, certainly not his wife.”
“Oh, my least favorite trope,” Eleanor snarled. “Sienna Miller is fine, it’s not her fault. But she only exists in this movie to marry Chris, carry Chris’ son, and nag Chris about coming home. Her only character traits are that she cares about Chris.”
“I’m not defending that, you’re right,” Gwen said. “The gender politics of Chris’ mission, his entire mentality of honor and revenge, is a hyper-masculine ideal. That’s never addressed by the text.”
“Does Chris even want to be a father?” Dania asked. “Did he even want to get married? Watching his passionless seduction scene with Taya, it really felt like a formality. Why bother showing it?”
“There’s a moment in…one of the four tours of Iraq, where she calls him and accuses him of caring more about the war than he does about his family,” Eleanor remembered. “And I was legitimately sure he was about to tell her she was right.”
“That’s part of the tragedy, as I see it,” Gwen said. “Say what you will about Chris Kyle, his warped sense of justice, his need to take out the ‘bad guys.’ The film shows that those things only get worse when he’s in Iraq. He feels more comfortable in a war zone because it offers him situations where that mentality –– an American, red-meat, masculine mentality –– is never questioned, and often helps him.”
“Which, if the movie had any guts at all, it would outright condemn,” added Eleanor.
“I think it does, to some degree,” Gwen argued. “Perhaps not enough. The scenes with the kids are the key. Chris is torn up about killing the first kid, but knows he needed to protect his fellow solders. But by the second one, when Chris has a hundred times as much experience, he still hesitates until the very last second.”
“Kids are such an easy prop, though,” Dania commented. “He never hesitates with all of the adults he kills. You’re right, Gwen, that the pair of child-killing scenes tell you everything you need to know about the movie. Chris hesitates when he doubts that individual people are bad, but never stops to consider whether the cause he’s fighting for is bad.”
“Exactly,” Eleanor said. “If that second kid had fired the grenade launcher, you know Chris would have shot him. Because then he would have been ‘the enemy.'”
Gwen slumped down. She knew as the film entered its third act –– to a degree, she knew when she proposed the film to a disturbed Eleanor and Dania –– that she would lose the argument to consider the film’s merits. Even within her own mind, she had trouble stomaching parts of it. Multiple events relied on Kyle defying orders and following his own sense of righteous justice, which always worked out –– one imagined that if they hadn’t, there would be no film to make. The deaths of American Navy SEALS were treated as tragedies to be avenged, while the deaths of Iraqi civilians were filmed in passing, mere collateral in the expansion of Kyle’s kill count.
The film had context, but not the kind that mattered. It showed Kyle incensed at the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombings, but presented nothing about Kyle’s previous opinions on military intervention. It showed Kyle clutching his childhood Bible, but asked nothing about how his faith intersected with his penchant for murder. It showed him walking to his death at a shooting range, but connected nothing between that conclusion and the internal conflict that it should have resolved.
“It’s not, strictly speaking, a good film,” Gwen admitted. “My point is, the discourse around the film when it came out centered almost exclusively on Chris Kyle as subject. Whether he was even worthy of receiving his own film in the first place.”
“I would argue, for the record,” Eleanor stated, “that he does not.”
“Unsurprisingly,” Gwen said. “Still, having seen the film, its greatest sin is not that it’s pro-American or justifies military aggression –– there are plenty of films that do that. What’s most galling about the film is that it does so in such an utterly lazy way. It focuses entirely on Chris Kyle’s personal reservations about his job, without sparing a thought for the war he’s fighting in –– but without the latter, the former barely matters.”
“That’s my take on it,” Dania said. “I agree with Eleanor, too, that Chris just comes across as a gun-loving idiot in the film. But if the movie was trying to say anything bigger, about how idiots like Chris Kyle get swept up into the military and praised for their single-mindedness, it falls flat without context.”
“There’s a tragedy in the story,” Eleanor agreed. “Something about how Chris’ simplistic view of the world does make him, ironically, the perfect soldier. That should be seen as tragic. But with Eastwood directing, it’s all subtext.”
“Yeah, the imagery and the plot are so easy to interpret as pro-war, you wonder whether any subtext matters when the target demographic is just going to see what they want to see,” Dania added.
“Fair,” Gwen said. She wondered, silently, what Chris Kyle would have thought of the film, if he’d seen it before he died. She wondered what the many Chris Kyles out there thought of the film, who would see it before they die.
Image Source: CBS News