The University’s flip-flop decision last week to screen the Clint Eastwood film “American Sniper,” a biopic about Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history, at a UMix event as originally planned received scores of backlash from the University’s Muslim and/or Middle Eastern and North African populations. These communities believed the film was ill-suited for an event meant to entertain, claiming that their safety on campus has become jeopardized by the University’s return to the decision to screen the film as entertainment instead of using said screening as an opportunity to discuss the film’s overarching themes and depictions.

Since the release of this film, myriad writers have taken myriad stances both for and against Eastwood’s editorial decisions in the telling of Kyle’s story. Some have come to view Kyle via his depictions as the typos of patriotic American bravery, a crusader of freedom and liberty, a defender of the defenseless from cruel, ill-intentioned purveyors of violence. Others view Kyle as a glorified murderer, a racist who dehumanized Iraqis and set them on equal footing with extremists. These two considerations of Kyle as both an individual and as a soldier underlie opinions about the film from two respective camps: the film is either a compelling dramatization of Kyle’s life or pro-war propaganda that misrepresents facts.

As a gay man, I fully understand the frustrations of Muslim and/or MENA communities in feeling misrepresented and stereotyped by media portrayals of their communities; as a student of communications and media, however, I consider myself able to recognize the editorial decisions of a text as propagandistic and misleading. As such, I decided to do a close reading of the text in hope of understanding the heated controversy surrounding the film.

“American Sniper” undoubtedly provides a narrative of the Iraq War with only nominal stance in fact. Never are the political considerations of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 given due weight in the film, and the plot’s overly simplistic “Good vs. Evil” conflicts leave much to be desired if the text were to be read as historical. The ostensible weapons of mass destruction hoarded by the Iraqi regime are never discussed. Indeed, it could even be argued that editorial decisions attribute the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks as an overture to the American invasion of Iraq. And the film’s aggressors — “The Butcher,” a sociopathic child torturer, and “Mustafa,” an enemy sniper and foil of sorts to Kyle — are depicted in stark, monochromatic contrast to the Kyle’s values, falsely depicting a war that was in actuality much more hued. These hyper-dramatized caricatures of insurgent violence are really the only Iraqis shown in the film. As such, it could be argued that this editorial decision leads to the categorization of Iraqis either as war-mongering, inhuman perpetrators of very gruesome violence (e.g. drilling in a child’s head, or keeping a collection of dismembered Americans in the walk-in cooler of a restaurant), or as sympathizers to such people.

Were these aforementioned traits to stand alone in the film, I would wholeheartedly categorize it as propagandistic. The extremely narrow scope of the film’s narrative perspective, however, leads me to believe that these misrepresentations are used with artistic license for the purpose of conveying a message about the shortcomings of both a war-centered culture and Kyle as its product.

From childhood throughout his military training, Kyle is indoctrinated to the mantra of human classification into three categories: the sheep, those who need protecting; the wolf, those perpetrators whose goal is to harm the sheep; and the sheep dog, those who serve to protect the flock. Kyle is told by his father from a young age that every man should strive for the latter classification. As told from Kyle’s narrow view, every depiction in the film is seen through the lens of this simplistic metaphor: the American people equal sheep; Kyle and the military equal sheep dog; Iraqi insurgents equal wolves. The Iraqi people don’t fit into Kyle’s metaphor, so they’re left unconsidered, explaining the mechanical nature with which Kyle can kill and dehumanize.

The film, by use of outside perspectives which stand in contrast to Kyle’s, display the flaws of such a narrow way of thinking, however. Kyle becomes obsessed with defending the principles to which he’s been indoctrinated, serving four tours in Iraq, effectively abandoning his family in the process, so that he can hunt his direct adversaries. He becomes drunk off glory, especially after he’s been given the nickname “Legend.” When a comrade dies, a letter surfaces which poses the question “When does glory fade away, consume one completely?” Kyle views this as anti-war rhetoric, although in all actuality he is becoming consumed by glory himself, even to the point where he jeopardizes the lives of those in his unit by taking an unbelievable shot at one of his white rabbits without acknowledging the dissent of the group. Many die in the process, and Kyle is almost left behind.

Once Kyle returns from war, he struggles with severe PTSD, but effectively finds refuge in helping veterans and being with his family. This could be considered a happy ending sans Kyle’s death, yet the film’s conclusion mirrors depictions of Kyle’s own upbringing with that of his son’s, showing the cyclical process of indoctrination. Eastwood’s choices in doing so show that Kyle’s narrow perspective is not necessarily an exception of American culture, but rather a norm; he is a product of a culture that glorifies the idea of protectionism and interventionism without understanding the culture’s naiveté. Kyle accepts this almost subconsciously, perpetrating these ideals and being affirmed by those around him along the way.

Thus, the familiarity of Kyle’s views is probably why so many from the ultra-patriotic camp absolutely love Kyle and the film. Furthermore, the narrow, one-sided depiction of the war via Kyle’s perspective is why so many hate the film, condemn it even as pro-war propaganda. But these conclusions are made without deeply analyzing the film’s depictions for what they are: a critique of the system from which Kyle came, and a use of his story and patriotic perspective as a vehicle of sorts through which to display the absurdity of an American system defined by protectionism.

Austin Davis can be reached at austchan@umich.edu.

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