Two nights ago, I was talking with some local artists about things that used to be cool and weren’t anymore—things we missed…. I told them that I missed “standing alone”—the whole idea that “standing alone” was an okay thing to do in a democracy. “Like High Noon,” I explained, and one of them said, “Oh, you could do that today…(pause for effect)…But first you’d have to form a Stand Alone Support Group!
—Dave Hickey, Air Guitar
THE CALCIFIED, DUSTY, cut-out figure we’ve come to know as “Clint Eastwood” is a product of the spaghetti western films of Sergio Leone: funhouse mirrors reflecting American culture back to itself. Leone rescued Eastwood, really, from the two-bit western TV show, Rawhide. The “man with no name,” as Eastwood’s character in the Dollars trilogy was called, was also a man of few phrases. He flipped his poncho up over his arm and killshot his way into our hearts. For half a century now, Eastwood has been America’s sniper.
Eastwood followed this iconic western role with an iconic urban one as Dirty Harry, from 1971–1988. A skinny Batman with bedhead, boiling over in a boiled wool blazer and preppy sweater vest, he flicked “thugs” into the gutters of San Francisco*. Better films were made about lone gunmen (e.g. Taxi Driver), but it was the low-brow, mass market Dirty Harry that precipitated the stingy, paranoid NRA-/DEA-fuelled, trickle-down spirit of the Reaganite ’80s. Everything from Bronson’s wiggy nihilist in Death Wish to Schwarzenegger’s slick, indestructible killing machine in Terminator can be spirographed back to Harry. If nothing else, his prototypical, applause-baiting, vengeful one-liner — “Go ahead, make my day” — ensured that future action heroes would arrive with a quotable calling card.
But race has always been the silent star of Eastwood’s work. In almost every film, one man’s value system is drilled into a series of non-compliant minority figures. His stoic characters always seem to stand alone. With his latest effort, American Sniper, the question is whether what Eastwood himself has immovably stood for has rendered him impotent, or whether his endurance has made him more relevant than ever. The answer could very well be both.
Being a director, like being a critic, is to sit in a position of authority, and directing made Eastwood more untouchable than his acting ever could have. And left him a tad out of touch. And then made him a target.
When Eastwood made the diptych Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, a red flag climbed its pole and a brief controversy fluttered: were these films too “balanced”? Did he demonize the Japanese enough? But he was redeemed by the Oscars, and non-voting critics went silent. The same thing goes for how he almost always mints box office gold.
In Gran Torino—named after the beloved car that co-stars—Eastwood’s character both resents and rescues his new Hmong neighbours from the worst element among themselves. The white man’s burden, redux.
When he spoke in 2012 at—where else—the Republican National Congress, he presented an empty chair as his metaphor for America’s first African-American president. He was resoundingly, and rightly, heckled by most of the planet. I worried for a while about disrespecting a possibly no-longer-with-it elder. But by then, I’d also already begun to mourn the fact that one of my cinematic icons—the man who showed it was safe, and maybe even cool, to stand alone—had likely always had some troubled views that could no longer be viewed as a joke. This brings us to his newest and most controversial work: the highest grossing war film of all time.
AMERICAN SNIPER IS the cinematic realization of the same-titled, self-aggrandizing autobiography written by sniper Chris Kyle, who proudly and from a safe distance put a bullet into 150+ “ragheads for Jesus” (in the words of Chris Hedges). Kyle also claimed to have voluntarily gone south to kill Hurricane Katrina looters. No one is certain that last bit of bragging is true—but chew for a moment on what kind of person you’d have to be to share that fantasy.
The film opens with a coded scene of a stern dinner-table Dad telling his son there are three kinds of people: “wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs.” It’s a line taken from a life, sure—but not his life. It comes from a decade-old book by Colonel David Grossman. But this is Eastwood’s masterful marketing: most of us recognize, and some of us get giddy on, the right-wing insinuations of liberal (read: anti-war) “sheeple.” The child is terrified of his father, but in his realm, terror is love. The echo of his father’s voice ultimately propels him into a rattling Mil Mi-26 on its way to Fallujah.
American Sniper is riddled with issues. The major glaring thing sure isn’t the plastic crying baby. It’s that Chris Kyle isn’t the self-effacing, “who’s counting?”, stoic sniper the movie portrays. He’s blood-thirsty. His book and the film are littered with the calibre of epithets we’ve ceased using against every other ethnicity on Earth.
If you haven’t seen the movie, or recent U.S. news, you’d be forgiven for assuming Kyle had been martyred by his job. But—spoiler alert—Kyle was killed by a friend and fellow second amendment enthusiast. On a Saturday at a Texas shooting range. For no reason.
In February, there were a few winded weeks, before the trial of Kyle’s assassin, when the film seemed to have enough critical mass to potentially capture the top Oscars. Texas christened a Chris Kyle day, and his legacy, and Eastwood’s vision, were starting to look inextricable. The outcome of the awards show was anti-climactic: the film won for best sound editing. People on Twitter said things like, “got to hand it to American Sniper—the sound on that film was SICK!”
WHEN CLINT EASTWOOD starred in and directed his masterpiece, Unforgiven (1992), Roger Ebert called it the western genre’s elegy. That wasn’t expressly true. The western isn’t so much about a specific time and place as it is about freedom’s enemies. Eastwood left America’s border in the able hands of locked-and-loaded militias, packed up the genre, and moved it offshore.
In a pivotal, biblical scene in Unforgiven, Eastwood stands in the scrub, his thinning quiff, like the plains around him, bowing in sync with the wind. And he says, flinching: “It’s a hell of a thing killin’ a man. You take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.” It kills me every time. But I still wonder, naively, how he could say those words and have played a killer for fifty years. But actors are paid to say shit for a living.
The part of me that wants happy endings wishes Eastwood hadn’t chosen this film to wrap his third act. No one wants stars to go out like Elvis, or Howard Hughes, or even D. W. Griffith. But I’ll take that over another young man being downed for walking while black, or Muslim sisters found dead because they wore headscarves.
Paul Virilio wrote, “film criticism no longer has any meaning. It is reality that we have to analyze in a cinematic way.” A man afraid is a man justified, Eastwood assured us for decades. But box office success is no longer enough to counter real-life myopia. No, art doesn’t need to be moral to be good. But it needs to be more than a mirror, it needs to create nuance, or depth—as Leoni once had. Otherwise it’s just accidental camp, fooling us that we’re strong, alone, and always right.
Note: this was originally published in April 2015 on Partisan, but I since retracted it.