This article was written on 28 Jan 2015, and is filled under Film & TV.

On American Sniper: Some Preliminary Notes


In case you don't get the joke, see‐sniper‐plastic‐babies.html

In case you don’t get the joke, see‐sniper‐plastic‐babies.html

As everyone knows, Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper (2015) is, as of this writing (January 24, 2015: just over three years since the Iraq War officially ended, about two years since the shooting death of Chris Kyle, and less than two weeks after the Charlie Hebdo massacre), a surprise smash hit in the United States. Various postulates as to its success have been formulated: its belated offering of Iraq War cartharsis or even justification; its tight filtering of historical events through a single, largely sympathetic protagonist (memorably played by Bradley Cooper); or the highly effective publicity campaign surrounding it. My own suspicion is that part of the film’s appeal lies in the fact that it is fundamentally about war‐themed video games – or rather, is a successful attempt to capitalize on those games’ colossal popularity.

That the film’s iconography, sensibility and rhythm are at one with such games is too obvious to require comment: even I’ve played enough to know that. (Filling out this brief comment would require serious formal comparison of the film with games. See here for an archive of potential sources.)

But I think that part of what the film does is convince its audience that playing those games is actually a form of civic participation, requiring concentration, commitment and self‐sacrifice. (Though not only about video games by any means, given the penetration of the military into every layer of life in so many parts of the country – even if games and our experience of them may also be qualified in important ways by the military leviathan; see here.)

Clint lets the cat out of the bag near the end of the film, when Chris Kyle’s kids are playing some game or other (“Level 4, daddy!”), but I think it’s best to read the atavistic scenes of “hunting” in the film as figures for the perceptual (and political) pedagogy offered by war‐video games. In other words, what the film does is construct one of those good old four‐level allegories familiar from medieval times, enabling the private wargames‐player (the “moral” level) to insert him/herself into the “legend” of Chris Kyle (the “typological” level), and thereby connect to the larger destiny of the imperial nation as such (the “anagogical” level). The “literal” level, the history of the Iraq conflict, serves as nothing more than material for these figurations, to be arranged and rearranged like the body parts in the torture chamber.*

The point of doing this, of course, is to siphon off some of the enormous libidinal/capital investment in such games ‐ the film is doing huge business! ‐ by providing a gratifying political emplotment of that investment (as a form of civic commitment). Refusing to be weaned off the war/game becomes a profoundly patriotic gesture, accompanied by all the pathos of self‐doubt, introspection and “trauma,” but redeemed as heroism when we see just how savage the “savages” are (and Clint, employing tried‐and‐true racist iconography of “the bad guys,” makes sure that we do). After all, you can even jeopardize your precious family life if you spend too much time trying to defeat the (computerized or real [i.e., “savage”]) enemy: yet despite these existential risks, the vindication will come, draped in the flag, somewhere down the road….

*Where I’m getting this from: Fredric Jameson, The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1981), 30; and Erich Auerbach, “Figura,” available here.

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