An Open Access Review Journal Encouraging Critical Engagement with the Continuing Process of Inventing the Middle Ages

January 11, 2017

Eastwood (dir.), American Sniper

American Sniper. Written by Jason Hall, Chris Kyle; directed by Clint Eastwood.  Distributed by Warner Brothers, 2 January 2015.

Reviewed by Leila K. Norako (

Set in the early 2000s and inspired by Chris Kyle’s eponymous autobiography, the film American Sniper hardly appears inflected with medievalism at first glance. It seeks – according to screen writer Jason Hall – to focus on a single, historic warrior’s consecutive tours of duty in the Iraq war, and is strictly contemporary in that regard. The film, moreover, polarized audiences upon its release. While many praised Bradley Cooper’s convincing performance and the film’s portrayal of a serviceperson’s struggles to reintegrate into civilian life after combat, others critiqued it for its inaccurate portrayal of the Iraq war and for its two-dimensional portrayal of the Iraqi people encountered by Kyle and his fellow sailors and soldiers.

The film’s controversial narrative harnesses affective power by way of a subtle but powerful medievalism: it evokes contemporary perceptions of the crusades at several junctures, and it reaffirms contemporary Islamophobia by stressing the “medieval” brutality of AQI insurgents. Finally, and perhaps most pressingly, it discourages — by way of a comparison of the war in Iraq to the historical crusades — the audience’s impulse to engage in critical thinking about the war or the complex identities of the enemies Kyle and his fellow servicepersons encounter. These moments work in concert in the film and create, however unintentionally on the part of Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall, a film that projects an unequivocally triumphalist Christian narrative even as it tries to focus on the disastrous effects of war on those who see combat.

In order to trace American Sniper’s medievalism, it’s crucial to consider the autobiography on which it is based. Also entitled American Sniper, the book enjoyed 37 weeks on the New York Times’ Best Seller’s list, and it recounts Kyle’s childhood and his ten-year career as a Navy Seal, which involved four consecutive tours of duty in Iraq. While the autobiography repeatedly affirms that the world is split between those who do good and those who do evil, it simultaneously reveals a tension between the author’s lived reality and the narrative about his experiences that he tries to construct and interpret. It’s regularly unclear, for instance, whether Kyle believes the insurgents’ actions or the insurgents themselves to be evil. Kyle also simultaneously describes his crusader cross tattoo as a marker of his Christian identity but stresses that he’s not fighting a religious war. These moments in the book reveal the instabilities of Kyle’s worldview, and part of what is striking about his autobiography is its authenticity in that regard; the reader can see him trying to make sense of himself and his ideals and not always succeeding in that endeavor. Thus while his worldview— especially his insistence on xenophobic binaries—might be disturbing to many, the autobiography’s contradictions reveal Kyle’s struggle to come to terms with a series of brutalizing tours of duty, and the book reveals at least one way in which veterans attempt to come to terms with their actions and experiences in war.  As more than oneserviceperson has expressed, and not without some ruefulness, the belief that your enemy is wholly evil is a tempting one to adopt. As I have written elsewhere, “how else can you pull the trigger if you don’t at some level dehumanize the person in your crosshairs? How else can you live with yourself afterwards?”

But whereas the autobiography retains these authentic interpretive contradictions, the film attempts to scrub them from Kyle’s story, thus amplifying his conservative Christian and American heroism. It is worth considering, in this context, that both Taya Kyle (Chris Kyle’s wife) and Wayne Kyle (Kyle’s father) admonished Eastwood, Cooper, and Hall, to get the film “right.” Kyle’s father told them in no uncertain terms that he would “unleash hell” if his son’s memory was dishonored, and Taya Kyle pleaded with them to leave out her husband’s death. As Jason Hall recounts
“Thankfully Taya embraced us a few days after at the funeral and said, ‘If you guys are going to do this, you’re going to need to get it right,’ ” he says. She told him, “This is going to play a part, for better or worse, in how my kids remember their dad.”
While it’s impossible to say how direct an effect these admonishments had, it is clear that the film creators took special care to sanitize certain aspects of Kyle’s character and worldview in order to make him a more sympathetic figure to a wider audience. Kyle regularly refers to the Iraqi people as “savages” in his autobiography, for instance, yet he never once uses that term in the film. Others around him do, and he does not critique them, but the script carefully prevents him from being overtly complicit in that kind of overt xenophobic and Islamophobic branding. The same goes for the impulse to label AQI insurgents as evil. Whereas the autobiography vacillates between labeling the people or just their actions as evil, the film does not allow Kyle to muse along those lines. While a fellow seal (Goat-Winston) calls an AQI insurgent a “fucking evil bitch” after Kyle kills her (an act that, tellingly, seems to upset Kyle tremendously), Kyle only has the following to say in a subsequent scene: “that’s evil like I’ve never seen before.” As he is depicted in the film, then, Kyle takes absolutely no joy in killing people. This is a significant departure from his autobiography, wherein he insists on a clean conscience and says that he had “fun” doing what he did in Iraq.

In keeping with this trend to sanitize, while American Sniper shows Kyle sporting his “crusader cross” tattoo, and shows it prominently featured on a (fictional) bounty poster, the film simultaneously tries to draw as little attention to it as possible. The tattoo is fully visible for grand total of three seconds in the entire film, and it is otherwise hidden or half-covered by a shirtsleeve (thus making it impossible to see the red cross). And unlike the autobiography, Kyle never explains his reason for getting the tattoo.

The only real description of the “crusader cross” tattoo comes mid-way through the film, Lt. Col. Jones and fellow SEAL Lt. Martin debrief Kyle. Jones explains to Kyle that “this war is won or lost in the minds of our enemies,” hands Kyle a bounty poster, points to the cross, and asks: “that you?” Kyle looks at the poster, nods, and says “that’s a crusader cross, yes sir.” After being told that he’s “the most wanted man in Iraq” and has a bounty of $180,000 on his head (a massive exaggeration of the actual $20,000 bounty placed on all American snipers in Iraq at the time), Jones agrees to let Kyle lead a “direct action squad to hunt the Butcher” (an especially vicious – and fictional—AQI insurgent) and instructs him to “put the fear of God in those savages,” which Kyle agrees to do. This scene is compelling for a number of reasons. It metonymically links the crusader cross and Kyle, but it pointedly avoids framing the impending mission to take out the Butcher as religiously motivated. Instead, Jones stresses the tactical value of Kyle’s status as a perceived “crusader.” If, as Jones he sees it, the war will be won or lost “in the mind” of the “savages” they are fighting, then allowing Kyle — identified as a crusader by AQI — to take point on the mission to kill The Butcher stands to have a tremendous psychological impact, given how terrified AQI already is of Kyle (as evidenced by that exaggerated bounty).  This scene, then, simultaneously acknowledges and distances Kyle from the crusader iconography in question. While Kyle acknowledges the tattoo as his own, Jones does the implied interpretive work here, and the insurgents are the ones who use the crusader cross tattoo as the primary symbol with which to identify Kyle. This scene, then, operates much like the split-second glimpses of the cross-tattoo: simultaneously acknowledging the presence of the crusader cross while retreating from its problematic implications shortly thereafter.

While the film should not be critiqued for its refusal to interpret itself on screen, per se, the implications of this interpretive discomfort are worth probing, since the film’s creators inject forceful moments of internal interpretive work elsewhere. Early in the film, Kyle’s father gives a speech to his two sons after Kyle’s brother comes home with a black eye after being bullied at school:

There are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Now some people prefer to believe that evil doesn’t exist in the world, and if it ever darkened their doorstep they wouldn’t know how to protect themselves. Those are the sheep. And then you’ve got predators, who use violence to prey on the weak. They’re the wolves. And then there are those who’ve been blessed with aggression and the overpowering need to protect the flock. These men are a rare breed, who live to confront the wolf. They are the sheepdog. [starts to remove his belt] Now we’re not raising any sheep in this family, and I will whoop your ass if you turn into a wolf [slams belt down on table]. But we protect our own. And if someone tries to fight you, or tries to bully your little brother, you have my permission to finish it.

This division of people into neat categories is a convenient fiction presented as fact in the world-building of this story. The scene serves as a prime example of the film’s attempt at overt interpretive cueing. It provides the film’s central thesis, one that most subsequent scenes seeks to affirm and support. As a result, the fact that the film doesn’t seek to present easy interpretive cueing for Kyle’s crusader cross is conspicuous. It suggests rather markedly that the film, while striving for at least the veneer of accuracy, simultaneously seeks to erase from Kyle’s story aspects that might complicate his heroism. And more pressingly, the film attempts through this silence to solidify the categories that it establishes at the outset. The Iraqi civilians in this film are presented either as nameless collateral damage or as wolves in sheep’s clothing, and the AQI insurgents are always presented as predatory wolves defined by a brutality that audiences are consistently encouraged to code as backwards and “medieval.” The film cannot sustain that category fantasy, then, if it foregrounds Kyle’s adoption of crusader iconography too emphatically. The film thus alludes to the cross as briefly as possible in an attempt to smooth over the interpretive wrinkles the cross tattoo otherwise presents; and when it is forced to acknowledge the presence of Kyle’s tattoo, it does its best to insist that the cross can be used in service of Kyle’s role as a “sheepdog.” In this way, the film tries to avoid destabilizing the interpretive lens it insists upon from its inception. This is one way of explaining, perhaps, why the film foregrounds the image of the Punisher logo instead (a comic book antihero who ascribes to a near identical black and white view of the world), which Kyle and his men, according to the autobiography, adopted as a charged symbol of their role in the Iraq war. A viewer could be forgiven for forgetting that Kyle even has a cross tattoo, in other words, but she is hard pressed not to notice the Punisher logo and its evocation of a comic book “hero” who, like Kyle, insists on a black-and-white view of the world. The film, then, in insisting on its own interpretation at certain junctures and refusing to interpret itself at others ultimately champions Kyle’s inherited worldview rather than complicating it, and it does so at the expense of other, more nuanced perspectives on the Iraq war.

The film insists on the validity of this worldview by coding the AQI insurgents as “medieval,” and this impulse fully realized in the fictional portrayal of The Butcher. As Clare Monagle and Louise D’Arcens have stressed, there is a strong tendency in our post-9/11 world to describe Islamic terrorism in just this way. As they explain:

When commentators and politicians describe Islamic State as “medieval” they are placing the organisation opportunely outside of modernity, in a sphere of irrationality. The point being made is that they are people from a barbaric and superstitious past, and consequently have not matured into modern political actors. Medievalising IS supporters puts them a very long way away from the here and, even more pointedly, from the now.

While the word medieval isn’t used in the film, American Sniper nevertheless “medievalises” the AQI insurgents in this exact way. They are constantly referred by US servicepersons as “savages,” and the civilians are also subjected to a range of slurs as well. The Butcher, in particular, operates as the most vivid embodiment of this impulse to “medievalise.” He revels in torture, going so far as to display the stray limbs and heads of his victims in what appears to be a meat locker. And in what is doubtless the grisliest scene in the entire film, he takes a power-drill to a child’s leg and head. While The Butcher may be loosely based on Ismael Hafidh Al-Lami, a Shia terrorist,  this scene and character are a complete fiction. Kyle never encountered anyone like the Butcher during his four tours of duty, and he never witnessed the torture and death of a child as he does in the film. This scene is profoundly disturbing, then, not only because of its horrific content but because of its affective purpose. Like “The Prioress’s Tale” in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, it attempts, through its completely fictional content and its encouragement to sympathize with tortured child and with Kyle, to stoke (in this case) Islamophobia in its audience. The film does not simply acknowledge Kyle’s insistence on a simplistic binary. Through its representation of the Iraqi people as nameless collateral damage and/or two-dimensional “medievalised” villains, the film actively encourages audiences to insist upon it as well.

This false and deeply problematic insistence on AQI as implicitly medieval accords with the film’s rejection of critical thinking about the Iraq war. Right before leaving on his third tour, Kyle spies his brother on the tarmac. They embrace, and it becomes abundantly clear that the tour has shattered Jeff. Kyle tries to reassure Jeff that their father is proud of him, and Jeff all but brushes off that assurance, stepping back to say “fuck this place” (referring to Iraq) before turning to head for his transport. While his brother’s attitude clearly disturbs Kyle, he says nothing. A space opens, as a result, for audiences to critically examine the war and its tragic effects on those who fight in it. This space is sustained in an ensuing scene where Kyle talks to his friend and fellow SEAL Marc Lee. Lee has consistently been portrayed in the film as a more cerebral man than Kyle up to this point, and he expresses a newly developed and/or mounting concern about the ethics of the war in which he’s fighting:

Marc: You know growing up in Oregon we had this electric fence around our property. Us kids would grab on to it to see who could hold on the longest. War feels kinda like that. It puts lightning in your bones and makes it hard to hold on to anything else. 

            Chris: Hey man, you need to sit this one out?

            Marc: I just want to believe in what we’re doing here.

            Chris: Well there’s evil here, we’ve seen it.

            Marc: Yeah, there’s evil everywhere. 

Chris: You want these motherfuckers to come to San Diego or New York? We’re protecting more than just this dirt. 

Marc: [with a look that signals something short of agreement] Alright. Let’s go kill this fucker.

Marc is eventually shot and killed in the line of duty, and at his funeral his mother reads a portion of the letter that he wrote a few days before his death:

"Glory is something some men chase and others find themselves stumbling upon, not expecting to find it. Either way it is a noble gesture that one finds itself bestowed upon them. My question is, when does glory fade away and become a wrongful crusade . . .”

The script faithfully replicates the opening lines of the letter that the actual Marc Lee wrote shortly before his death. As these lines suggest, the unread portions of the letter reflect the thoughts of a man who wants to believe in the rightness of what he is doing in Iraq, but who is clearly torn about some of his experiences and about the virtues (or lack thereof) of the country that has sent him to war. While Kyle has nothing but positive things to say about Marc and this letter in his autobiography, the film inserts a (presumably fictional) dialogue between Kyle and Taya that works to inscribe Marc’s rather mild questioning of the war in the moralizing framework of the film:

Taya: Marc wrote that letter two weeks ago. Did he say any of that to you? [pause] Chris, I wanna know what you thought of his letter.

Chris: An AQI informant had called in a tip and, uh, Biggles had just been shot and we were operating out of emotion, and we just walked right into an ambush. But that’s not what killed him [Marc]. That letter did. That letter killed Marc. He let go and he paid the price for it. 

Rather than sustaining a space for criticism of the Iraq war (created by the scene with Kyle’s brother and the earlier scene with Marc), this scene unequivocally rejects the very impulses that lead to such criticism. Instead, it stresses the fact that criticism of the war, especially if you are a serviceperson, either weakens (in the case of Jeff) or kills (in the case of Marc) those who engage in it. The scene, then, reaffirms the governing ideology of the film. Kyle survives the war and Marc and Jeff do not, because Kyle is able to correctly categorize his enemies and those he, as a sheepdog, must protect.[1] In this way, the film sets up its audience to expect a degree of ambivalence about the war that it then patently rejects. And in having Kyle reject Marc’s impulse to think critically about the war in which he is fighting, the film tacitly chides its audience for being inclined to do so as well. Audiences are potentially manipulated as a result: invited into a space of critical inquiry only to find themselves condemned by the hero of the film for entering it.

Aside from the mention of Kyle’s “crusader cross” tattoo, Marc’s letter is the only other instance in the film where the word “crusade” is uttered. But in rejecting Marc’s impulse to critique the war, Kyle stresses the importance of not thinking of history as cyclical, especially if you are in combat. Several veterans have rightly critiqued the film for this particular message, stressing that it is possible to be a committed serviceperson and hold complex feelings about the wars in which they fight. It is nevertheless crucial to consider the implications of this scene for the viewing audience. If we accept Kyle as the narrative and interpretive authority that he is presented to be—then we are being encouraged to believe that critical thinking is inherently harmful to a serviceperson (and potentially to audience members as well), and that any consideration of our cultural past, any willingness to acknowledge the lineage that we have inherited from the Middle Ages, any attempt to resist the impulse to medievalize those we might Other, is inherently wrong-headed.

Admittedly, the film does try to assess the costs of war in certain ways. We are forced to witness the death of innocent Iraqi civilians, for instance, with special attention being paid to the horrific and tragic impact of the war on Iraqi children, and we are shown throughout the film (but especially towards the end) the dramatic impact the war has on the bodies and psyches of those who fight in it. However, even these scenes work to amplify the audience’s sympathy for the Americans in question. The scene where the Butcher kills the Iraqi child, for instance, is ultimately made into a means of stressing Kyle’s post-traumatic stress: It explains both his distress over hearing his newborn daughter wailing in the hospital nursery and his agitation as he listens to the innocuous sound of a power tool at a car dealership. The scene where an Iraqi child picks up a rocket launcher, in turn, becomes a way of amplifying sympathy for Kyle; as he stares at the child through his scope, we hear him pleading with the child to drop the weapon so that he doesn’t have to kill him. The child eventually does drop the weapon and run, and Kyle nearly breaks down in response. We are encouraged, then, only to see the child as a threat both to the Americans on the ground and to Kyle. Perhaps the clearest example of this tendency, however, lies in the depiction of the Syrian sniper. In one brief scene, we see the Sniper in his home with his presumed wife and child. This might seem, at first, as an attempt to forge a positive comparison between Kyle and the Sniper, demonstrating that both are family men serving their respective sides), but this reading is ultimately difficult to sustain. Whereas Taya is shown consistently as Kyle’s equal in marriage, the woman with the Syrian sniper is granted only a few seconds of screen time and says nothing, presented only as a wildly problematic Western stereotype of a submissive Muslim wife. Whereas Taya is given a voice and agency, this woman is shown staring nervously and timidly at the floor as she tries to sooth her agitated infant. Whereas Kyle actively engages with both his wife and children, the Syrian sniper does not so much as glance at his wife or child in this scene. Instead, he sits on the couch, spinning a bullet on the table as he waits for his next call to action. And when that call comes, he mechanically gets up, readies his weapon, puts on his signature bandanna, and leaves without so much as a parting look at his family. This lack of engagement directly contrasts with a scene immediately prior, where Kyle and Taya have a tense conversation about his service in his infant daughter’s light-filled nursery – Taya openly expresses her anger about his inability to prioritize his family while Kyle holds his daughter and concedes (through facial expressions if not through words) that she is right. Rather than humanizing the Syrian sniper, then, the scene dehumanizes him by directly inviting comparison. Kyle—imperfect as he may be—is immediately positioned here as the superior warrior, husband, and father. And while Kyle does, in the last several minutes of the film, express a readiness to go home for good (symbolically leaving his sniper rifle and Bible in Iraq), American Sniper takes considerable care to frame Kyle’s service as heroic and worthy of praise, even as it acknowledges the terrible toll that the war took on him.

Jason Hall, Clint Eastwood, and Bradley Cooper have consistently claimed that the film was meant to “promote discussion” about the sacrifices veterans make, and the toll wars take on those who fight in them. And, in truth, the parts of the film focused on the costs of war (both physical and psychological) are consistently and impressively wrought. Hall was also emphatic that this was a film told from one Navy SEAL’s perspective, and that as a result the interpretive lens could not be widened to accommodate other takes on the Iraq war. The film could have accomplished this goal more effectively, however, without fictionalizing and white-washing Kyle’s story, and without insisting on a troubling impulse to “medievalise” the enemy while glossing over Kyle’s appropriation of crusader iconography. Instead, the film becomes a moralizing tall-tale that, in an attempt to present a resolutely positive and heroic portrait of Kyle, promotes an array of profoundly problematic ideas about the wars in which Kyle fought.

History, as so many have argued, is cyclic, and given our current socio-political moment, that truth is especially pressing. This is why a film like American Sniper, well-intentioned as it may well have been in many respects, warrants the very kinds of critical inquiry it seeks to discourage in its viewing audience. It is imperative, as a result, that we acknowledge the problematics of historical elision in a film like American Sniper, because, simply put, the stories we tell matter. The words we use to tell them matter. They have the capacity both to reflect our desires and to shape our aspirations and worldviews. The concerning thing about the story presented in this film is how much it represents cultural binaries not as fictions but as facts, and how much it promotes the notion that thinking carefully and critically will either break you or get you killed.

--Leila K. Norako, University of Washington

[1] The film ends with Kyle’s death (which took place well into the production of the film) at the hands of a veteran, and thus seems to complicate this representation of Kyle as someone who can always correctly categorize those around him. It suggests, then, that while Kyle can correctly read his enemies abroad, he has a harder time identifying those who might do him and his loved ones harm once he’s back home. This is problematic, ultimately, because since the film’s thesis is one that insists on a world comprised of wolves, sheep, and sheepdogs, the veteran who kills him – ostensibly suffering from PTSD -- is a wolf, and therefore evil. This governing ideology of the film then, allows the closing moments of the film to perpetuate, however inadvertently, abelist stereotypes (and the impulse to Other veterans psychologically affected by the war) as opposed to encouraging complex thinking and compassion.