Home > Culture, Current Affairs, Film, Politics > The View Through the Scope: American Sniper and the Male Gaze

The View Through the Scope: American Sniper and the Male Gaze

One of the most surprising and ideologically unsettling movie hits of this still-young year was Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. Raking in nearly half a billion dollars in worldwide box office and six Academy Award nominations, Eastwood’s screen adaptation of the bestselling memoir of Iraq War veteran Chris Kyle, the self-proclaimed (and rather disturbingly documented) “most lethal sniper is U.S. military history”, was also a culture war talisman. The West Texan Kyle was unapologetic about his 160(!) confirmed combat kills, and supremely confident of his position of total righteousness vis-à-vis the unquestionable evil of his Iraqi victims. There was no room for anything but white hats and black hats in his worldview, and you’d best believe that Kyle himself had no doubt that he wore a white hat.

Embraced as a morally unambiguous hero by many conservatives and villified as a xenophobic mass killer by many liberals, the reception of Kyle extended to the reception of American Sniper by moviegoers. Liberal commentators called it a clumsy, hagiographic, irresponsible piece of war propaganda. Heartland conservatives, alarmed by faraway militants ISIS, wary of Applebee’s closing down due to sharia law, and convinced that their progressive, biracial president is a passive Neville Chamberlain if not a clandestine terrorist sympathizer, saw it as reflective of their worldview and voted with their dollars, making the movie a hit and a Fox News cause celebre.

I should note before any confusion creeps in that I have not seen American Sniper and yet have felt compelled to write about it or at least about its evident meanings despite that. In my own defense, I can only say that Slavoj Zizek does that sort of thing all the time, and after all one of my most popular pieces on this blog was written about a movie I had not then seen. At any rate, Andrew O’Hehir does a good job of summarizing and analyzing both the controversy around the film and what the cinematic text itself seems to be saying in his review, and I’ll let his measured take stand as my vicarious opinion until it shifts with my own viewing (which may or may not happen; Eastwood’s films do not exactly set my critical imagination aflame, I must say).

The angle I’m approaching American Sniper from is more related to a quick-take sociocultural reading of what it is about the story of Chris Kyle that appeals to so many in a post-modern nation that really ought to know better than to rush to lionize an inveterate racist who has personally ended the lives of more people than even tend to die in most plane crashes. It’s fair to assume (without much evidence to back up the assumption) that the received tone of militaristic celebration that surrounds American Sniper speaks particularly to American males, demographically the most conservatively-inclined and aggressively-natured. A quick knee-jerk interpretation would be that not only Kyle’s prowess in battle but also his non-politically-correct views on America’s perceived foreign enemies might strike this particular broad tribe as representative of a besieged perspective in the cultural discourse. Chris Kyle defends not only American social values with his sniper rifle, but also the perceived erosion of the fortress of white male power and patriarchal privilege (to the ideological opposition, that erosion is not advancing quickly enough).

This besieged position is beautifully embodied in the sniper himself. What seems to be most attractive in the figure of the sniper is his position of power. The sniper combines the martial masculinity of the soldier with a detached, zen-like voyeurism that would almost seem contemplative or philosophical if not for his deadly intent. Sniper characters in war films are often thoughtful, quiet, bookish; the professors of the battlefield. Chris Kyle, as played by Bradley Cooper in American Sniper, reclaims the sniper’s role for robust all-American masculinity.

The pathology of the modern American warfare experience is not the shell-shocked psychological trauma of the classic soldier’s narrative, the naive romanticism and sense of promised adventure swept away by the hardship of slaughter in the trenches set down in the defining anti-war text of page and screen, All Quiet on the Western Front. No, the apparent plight of the contemporary American soldier is laid out in Sam Mendes’s Jarhead: the most difficult element to deal with is not the death and inhumanity of killing but the denial of the fulfilment of the promised first-hand excitement of war by its monolithic, post-human bureaucracy and mechanization. There is no dearth of post-Iraq and Afghanistan PTSD cases, of course (one such traumatized soldier took Chris Kyle’s life a year before the film about his life was released), but the fantasy of glorious patriotic activity against a malevolent enemy is not so much subject to disillusionment as to endless deferral. Men are not being broken down by the horrors of war, they are frustrated at being shielded from those horrors by technological filters and the vagaries of command.

The sniper in general and Chris Kyle, American Sniper, in particular is an antidote to this perceived remove from from the adrenalized exhiliration and attendant psychological and moral drain of what Vietnam GIs called “the shit”. On the one hand, the sniper is a god-like figure, perched above the fray with power over life and death, theoretically untouchable except by another equivalent rifle-equipped quasi-deity (American Sniper provides one such Arabic equal, played by Sammy Sheik, which Kyle seems not to have had in real life). But on the other hand, the sniper’s position is one of uncomfortable intimacy with his targets, sharing the last moments of their lives in full magnified view before he ends them, with no disavowal of responsibility possible. In a narrowed perspective, the sniper’s power over his targets is absolute but that perspective does not spare him from the stark exposure of their inescapable humanity and mortality as a mirror of his own.

The instrument of this adapted male gaze is the scope of the sniper’s rifle. Like the camera in the classic film theory formulation, it is the conduit of the male gaze, but unlike the camera, which confers control over only representation, the scope confers control over mortality, over reality itself and not merely over a reproduction of it. It is connected to and enables that most classic of phallic extensions, the weapon of death. The gun is the source of power (or the amplifier of the power felt by its wielder), but the scope is its peephole, its interface with the human eye and the perspective of perception and intelligence. The violative voyeurism inherent to the male gaze takes on a terrible dimension of cold fatalism through the scope. But the scope is also a mechanism of literal tunnel vision; it necessarily limits the field of the sniper’s vision to his immediate target at the exclusion of the larger setting, the wider context. For Chris Kyle, that tunnel vision becomes figurative, extending to his Manichean, cut-and-dry ideology and lack of remorse for the deaths of so many fellow human beings.

O’Hehir suggests that Cooper’s performance as Kyle embeds hints of internal turmoil and guilt that Kyle himself felt no compulsion to express publically. This is the established discourse of the anti-war narrative making its presence felt, manifesting even in a demonstrably non-anti-war film as deeply repressed micro-hints of regret and moral doubt. There is a terrible irony that Kyle met his own end at the hands of a PTSD-afflicted fellow war veteran (on a shooting range, with one of Kyle’s own guns, no less). Per O’Hehir’s reading and per the dominant criticism of his memoir, Kyle’s unreflective nature and unwillingness to admit to the vulnerability of sympathy with his victims or remorse for their deaths is his central flaw. This reluctance to self-examine, this habit of (quite literally) soldiering on without looking back is not only at the core of Kyle’s downfall but at the sickly heart of conservative American masculinity as well.

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