Does “American Sniper” Have a Political Agenda?

Bradley Cooper’s interest in developing the American Sniper project was to do a character study on Chris Kyle, specifically how Kyle’s life in combat placed an immense strain on his family life. Given the subject matter (a war that is still polarizing to the American public) and Eastwood’s political activities, many news outlets have heavily scrutinized the political subtext, if any, of the film.

Eastwood’s films tend to be ambiguous when dealing with politics, but his films may be marketed in a manner that portray them as one-dimensional. Typically, Eastwood’s films flow like a running commentary on a given subject matter, presenting an idea that one or more characters sincerely support in one instance, but that then faces serious challenge by another character or event in the story.

American Sniper follows this approach. Kyle’s autobiography approaches the subject of war in a more black-and-white manner than the movie. The book portrays clear distinctions of what the author believed to be good and evil, and except for some of the book’s more controversial statements, much of this is seen in his character throughout the movie. By contrast, certain moments in the film that initially come off as didactic are quickly matched by a strong counterpoint, clear deviations from the book.

For example, in Eastwood’s film, Kyle consistently argues that he has no doubt of the good he’s accomplishing in Iraq. Yet, Kyle also consistently exhibits feelings of doubt, even though these moments are never articulated with dialogue. Rather, the moments of doubt are presented visually such as by hesitating before pulling the trigger of his gun. Kyle very obviously struggles in two instances where he has to make a choice as to whether to shoot an Iraqi child. This deviates from Kyle’s autobiography where he describes his enemies as savages who are despicably evil and says his only regret is that he didn’t kill more.

Another debate that has raged in the media deals with the dea of making a film in which the protagonist is a sniper. Some believe that the film celebrates a professional killer and that it’s an uncomfortable reflection of the country’s gun culture. This argument usually accompanies a belief that the film has an unambiguous political agenda supporting the military engagement in Iraq. However, others point out that Kyle sacrificed a lot to serve in the military, that he was ultimately asked to perform a difficult task that he executed with great efficiency, a task his character in the film never seemed entirely comfortable with (despite his verbal insistence that he had no regrets).