Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
American Sniper (Screenshots)

American Sniper fought a culture war on the box office battlefield

Clint Eastwood's wartime biopic emerged victorious in a year of superhero blockbusters

American Sniper (Screenshots)
Graphic: Karl Gustafson

The Popcorn Champs

The Popcorn Champs looks back at the highest grossing movie in America from every year since 1960. In tracing the evolution of blockbuster cinema, maybe we can answer a question Hollywood has been asking itself for more than a century: What do people want to see?

In 2014, the year that he turned 84, Clint Eastwood had two movies in theaters — his 35th and 36th as a director. The first of the two was Jersey Boys, an adaptation of the jukebox musical that told the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The Jersey Boys film came out in June, earned about $47 million at the North American box office, and barely left a mark on the cultural imagination. That had been happening with a lot of Clint Eastwood films. Eastwood’s directing career was long and varied. There had been hits and flops and Oscars and critical bombs. By the second decade of the 21st century, Eastwood was steadily cranking out workmanlike mid-budget fare, usually adapting real-life stories and telling them in ways that were not terribly imaginative. Jersey Boys’ reception wasn’t much different from how Invictus or Hereafter were greeted. By that point, for Eastwood, it was routine.

Six months later, on Christmas Day, Eastwood’s American Sniper opened in limited release, and it went wide a few weeks later. What happened next was not routine. American Sniper had about the same budget as Jersey Boys—something in the neighborhood of $60 million—and it earned more than that in its first weekend of wide release. Over the next few months, American Sniper became a genuine cultural phenomenon, racking up $350 million at the domestic box office and setting off a whole lot of noisy bad-faith cultural skirmishes. Along the way, the movie just barely skirted past The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1 and Guardians Of The Galaxythe latter of which featured a very different Bradley Cooper performance—to become the biggest hit released in 2014. American Sniper was a true anomaly, a violent R-rated drama that conquered the box office in an era of zippy franchise fare. It’s worth asking how this happened.

The short answer is that American Sniper won by fashioning itself into a culture-war football — or, perhaps, by being thrust into that role. This was a lucrative thing to be. In 2004, Mel Gibson turned Good Friday into a bloody spectacle, and his The Passion Of The Christ became, domestically speaking, the highest-grossing R-rated movie in history, a record that it still holds. Five years later, in less showy fashion, The Blind Side made a white-savior hero of a McMansion-dwelling Tennessee lady, and it earned more than $250 million and won an Oscar for Sandra Bullock. American Sniper has a few things in common with both. Like The Passion Of The Christ, Eastwood’s movie depicts its story as one of gruesome righteous sacrifice. Like The Blind Side, it offers up red meat to Red State America, a part of the country that claims it never gets to see its heroes on screen.

With American Sniper, Eastwood and relatively inexperienced screenwriter Jason Hall adapted a memoir from Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL reputed to be the deadliest sniper in the history of the American military. The film was already in development when Kyle was killed—murdered by another Iraq War veteran with PTSD at a shooting range—in 2013. Chris Kyle was not a terribly complicated figure. In his book, he wrote with pride about all his killings, describing Iraqis as “savages” and never showing anything like remorse. Kyle also wrote that he shot dozens of looters from the roof of the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina, which is one of many straight-up lies in the book. (Jesse Ventura also successfully sued Kyle’s estate over a false claim that Kyle had punched out Ventura in a bar once.) Chris Kyle was, by all accounts, extremely good at his job, and he also seems like a puffed-up fabricator who couldn’t wait to make up stories about his own heroic deeds. Simply making a movie with Kyle as its hero was a political act, whether or not it was intended as one.

American Sniper earned good reviews, and it got six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture. (On its own, Sniper outgrossed the combined domestic earnings of that year’s seven other nominees.) But in the wake of its success, plenty of critics dismissed Eastwood’s movie as a right-wing fantasy. Seth Rogen, for instance, tweeted that American Sniper “kind of reminds” him of the Nazi propaganda movie from Inglourious Basterds before posting a statement that his tweet was “not meant to have any political implications.” At the same time, plenty of right-wing commentators seized on any criticisms against American Sniper—which of course drove more attention to the film, and helped it sell more tickets.

The fans and critics of American Sniper both see the film as a black-and-white fable, and I don’t think the film itself really reflects either depiction. I can see how people got that idea. Clint Eastwood, whose whole screen persona has long reflected a certain type of idealized American masculinity, had only just made his speech at the Republican National Convention two years earlier, famously arguing with an imaginary Barack Obama in a stage-prop chair. Eastwood and his producers made American Sniper with the cooperation of the Kyle family, and they didn’t depict Kyle’s death because Kyle’s widow asked them to leave it out. The film itself shows Kyle refusing any suggestion that he might feel bad for all the people he killed: “I’m willing to meet my creator and answer for every shot that I took.” If you’re trying to argue that American Sniper is militarist propaganda, or at least hagiography, the evidence is there.

For me, though, American Sniper makes the most sense as a work of subjective filmmaking. Watching the movie, we see the world the way Chris Kyle does. We see Kyle’s father (Ben Reed) making a dinner-table speech about how all people are sheep, wolves, or sheepdogs. We see Kyle as a young man grasping for purpose and finding it when he sees a news report about an embassy bombing abroad: “Look what they did to us.” We see Kyle being briefed on life in post-invasion Iraq, being told that “any military-age male who’s still here is here to kill you.” We see his friends going through horrible, painful deaths. We don’t see anything about the American government’s decision to go to war in Iraq, and we don’t see the Iraqi people as fully realized characters. But these aren’t propaganda choices. They’re filmmaking choices.

Eight years before American Sniper, Eastwood directed Letters From Iwo Jima, a movie where the terrifying and faceless enemies are American soldiers and where the real villains are the commanding officers who keep sending people out to die. American Sniper has nothing as obviously critical as that. But the film never really makes Kyle a glamorous figure. Instead, he’s someone given the terrible power of deciding whether or not people should die. In the very first scene, Kyle stares through his scope, trying to figure out whether or not he has to kill a mother and a kid. He shoots them both, and he doesn’t look happy about it.

In a lot of ways, American Sniper depicts Chris Kyle as a fucked-up, damaged person. He kills again and again and again, to the point where it becomes mechanistic. His one big triumphant moment—taking out an enemy sniper who’s more than a mile away—is ultimately a self-defeating decision that almost gets Kyle and his team killed. At a friend’s funeral, the dead man’s mother reads a letter that her son wrote questioning what he was even doing in Iraq. Kyle is incapable of asking those questions, and he tells his wife (Sienna Miller) that his friend died because he even considered the greater morality of the war : “He let go, and he paid the price for it.” Soon afterwards, Kyle blanks out at a barbecue and almost kills a dog. Whenever he’s at home in his family’s house, he looks deeply out of place. Battle has taken away his ability to be a functional human being in peacetime.

The real-life Chris Kyle seemed perfectly happy soaking up attention, but the movie version of Kyle simply can’t accept gratitude. When a fellow veteran approaches him at a car-repair shop and thanks him for saving his life, Kyle has no idea what to say. He only finds some semblance of inner peace when he’s spending time with other soldiers who have been destroyed in battle, and that new sense of purpose also leads directly to his death.

I don’t think American Sniper glamorizes Chris Kyle, but it definitely valorizes him, which isn’t quite the same thing. The movie’s depiction of Iraqis is deeply fucked. The enemy sniper, for instance, gets action-movie gun-preparation scenes, with ominous supervillain music. Another Iraqi figure, a made-up character known as The Butcher (Mido Hamada), uses a power drill to torture a little kid to death in front of his family. When Kyle says, “They’re fucking savages,” the movie seems to agree. That could just be the nature of its subjective approach, but it’s those moments where American Sniper feels most consciously political. Maybe Eastwood is making a point about how war flattens things out and forces people to force each other into clear-cut friend-or-enemy categories. Or maybe Eastwood really is depicting Iraqis as savages. He never makes this stuff easy to figure out.

Eastwood himself came to American Sniper late. Steven Spielberg, whose Saving Private Ryan had been the last real war-movie blockbuster before Sniper, originally planned to direct; Eastwood came aboard a few weeks after Spielberg dropped out. But American Sniper is still distinctly an Eastwood movie. It’s fast and businesslike, and the supporting characters sometimes feel like complete afterthoughts. Eastwood’s no-nonsense style led to one bit of notorious silliness: the scene where Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller hold a plastic doll that’s supposed to be a baby. (The baby who’d been cast was sick, and the back-up baby didn’t show up. Eastwood simply isn’t the type of director to wait another day to find another baby when there’s a doll sitting right there.)

But that same frill-free Eastwood style gives American Sniper a lot of its blunt-force effectiveness, too. Bradley Cooper, bulked-up and marble-mouthed, is pretty magnificent as Kyle. He underplays everything, and he never spells out how you’re supposed to feel about this character. The battle scenes are tense and ugly and chaotic. Eastwood never really indulges in action theatrics. Instead, he pushes us through the horrors of war with a sad and propulsive sort of grace. That’s probably another reason why American Sniper made all that money. It shows horrible things, and yet the movie itself is extremely watchable. It sucks you in.

2014 was not a big box-office year. If American Sniper had come out a year earlier, it would’ve been the year’s fifth-highest grosser. A year later, it would’ve been utterly obliterated by The Force Awakens and Jurassic World. American Sniper was an American phenomenon, right down to the title. Globally, Sniper didn’t even make the box-office top 10. (Around the world, Transformers: Age Of Extinction was the year’s biggest hit; it made nearly twice as much as Sniper.) Still, it’s pretty remarkable that a grimy, gore-drenched character drama was able to rule the American box office at a time when franchises dominated. Throughout American Sniper, Chris Kyle and his team wear the skull logo of the Punisher, the Marvel Comics vigilante who became an icon for cops and soldiers. In the year of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians Of The Galaxy, that adapted skull logo managed to beat out anything that Marvel itself had on offer. That won’t happen again. Honestly, it’s probably good that it won’t happen again.

Two years after American Sniper, Clint Eastwood came out with Sully, a film that used many of the same filmmaking techniques to tell a story about an American hero who wasn’t comfortable with being called a hero. Sully was a decent-sized hit, but it wasn’t a cultural phenomenon. Here, the menacing figures weren’t Iraqi insurgents; they were geese. You couldn’t build a culture-war narrative around Sully. It was just a good movie. In the 21st century, you’re not going to dominate the box office just by making a good movie. You need to stake out a place in the world. Whether intentionally or not, American Sniper did that. It reaped the rewards.

The contender: My favorite of the 2014 hits was a very different image of American militarism. The aforementioned Captain America: The Winter Soldier isn’t the paranoid ’70s political thriller that it sometimes pretends to be, but the film does present a more panoramic view of armed forces—one where those forces aren’t necessarily all that concerned with keeping people safe. Winter Soldier is also just a fun spectacle with a charming central performance and a couple of the best action scenes that ever come out of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. If I had to pick a 2014 movie about an American super-soldier, it’d be the Marvel movie every time.

Next time: Disney reinvents a dead franchise as a zippy, crowd-pleasing nostalgia trip with The Force Awakens.