The most important scene in Clint Eastwood‘s American Sniper has nothing to do with the bludgeoning of an innocent young boy or a fake baby. It comes earlier than all that, when Chris Kyle is a young boy at the dinner table with his family. Wayne, his father, is a scary, severe man and suggests that there are only three types of people in the world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Most of the populace is made up of sheep, while wolves use violence to prey on the sheep and sheepdogs “confront the wolves” and are “blessed with the gift of aggression.” To underline his insistence that he will not raise either sheep or wolves, he presents his belt. The question is immediate: of the aforementioned three types, what is Wayne Kyle?
Parentage and role models are a major fascination of Eastwood’s, who will release Sully later this week, another film about a controversial public “hero.” We only see Wayne Kyle in these early scenes but he maps out the total psychological underpinnings of the entire film in this one sequence. He’s depicted as a real motherfucker, a disciplinarian who cares more about his son’s masculinity than his son. Though touted as a conservative triumph, the family life of American Sniper, both when Chris Kyle is young and older, is belligerent towards religion and depends heavily on extreme distance, both emotionally and physically.
It’s also not a particularly celebratory film. If war is often cited in conservative think pieces as a place of honor and brotherhood, Eastwood conveys little of the former, if any. You certainly see brotherhood on display but all of Kyle’s closest brothers in arms are unceremoniously shot dead. Some live longer than others, but they all succumb. Eastwood’s vision of modern warfare is, if you’ll permit me, bleak as fuck and the question becomes whether war is really a place where we should look for and shepherd our heroes, which makes Kyle’s fate all the more devastating.
Of course, most people didn’t look for or even locate the nuances. They saw the fake baby and that was kind of it. Or, and this is far more aggravating, they simply saw a film about the tough glory of war and an ode to the heroism of our men and women in uniform. In other words, they took political sides in a film that went to painstaking lengths to illustrate that both sides are simplifying an astronomically complex subject. Kyle may very well have been a bigot but that doesn’t conclude him from being a great soldier or a decent family man. And just because he was a soldier doesn’t mean he was a walking, talking advertisement for American exceptionalism or a warmonger.
Though he is a very public Republican – he recently endorsed Donald Trump’s presidential bid – Eastwood’s films have the tough-minded perspective of a true independent. In J. Edgar, one of his very best films, he similarly got heat from the left for not depicting the titular FBI director as a monster, but also got some sass from the right over not overly praising Hoover. The traditional conservative values that Hoover, played with exquisite poise and rattling emotional undercurrents by Leonardo DiCaprio, learns from his mother may make him ambitious and well-suited for government work but they also repress his most personal desires. Eastwood sees Hoover as a tragic figure that lashed out at communists, civil rights leaders, and homosexuals to hide his lust and love for Armie Hammer’s Clyde Tolson. DiCaprio, much like Bradley Cooper as Kyle, suggests a silenced yet roiling inner life that is torturously kept at bay to live up to a tinny myth of the importance of masculinity and heroism.
This temperament is similarly easy to see in Eastwood’s take on the entertainment business, which has been his life’s calling despite the notable size of his political persona. In Jersey Boys, the story of a beloved pop band becomes a treatise on personal art and the not-so-easy working life of an artist. In Honkytonk Man, Eastwood cast himself as the alcoholic, diseased guitarist-uncle to Whit, who is played by Kyle Eastwood, his son. In both cases, Eastwood expertly captures the exhilaration of musical performance, another passion of his, but doesn’t skimp on the pain, loss, and personal issues that go on behind the scenes. Where Ray and Walk the Line minimize legends by depicting them in familiar scenes of love, addiction, and fame, Jersey Boys sinks into the wild flourishes of passion that drive great music and often ruin musicians.
In a way, it’s a perfect summation of Eastwood’s view of the world that he is an unrepentant jazz fanatic. Jazz giants like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Lee Morgan created some of the most indelible music of our time, gorgeous, impulsive, and explosive waves of rhythm and invention that just barely stay on course. They were also the worst kinds of dope fiends and wretched people to be in love with, most of the time. Eastwood considers that the very best of artists and political figures often comes from the same place where the very worst parts of their personalities come from, their failures and triumphs inextricably linked to one another. Even in Bird, his deeply moving, monumental portrait of Parker, he doesn’t speak to some great foreseen grandeur in the artist’s work but rather lets the thrill of the work speak for itself, alongside the need for premium skag and manipulation of women.
One can see his interests converging, to a degree, in Invictus, his undervalued depiction of Nelson Mandela as president of South Africa. As played by Morgan Freeman, Mandela certainly has gravitas and presence, but he’s not some god-touched being above the fray of politics. His use of quite-white Rugby star Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) is a political move to showcase his country as redemptive after years of being condemned by the world at large for Apartheid. Entertainment has a power that reason simply does not, but that’s not to say that there isn’t a need for reason and logic in leaders. Mandela was a great leader because he was, in part, a master manipulator and showman.
Eastwood’s immense talent is being able to see both sides of these iconic characters and empathize with a convincing psychological make-up that never condescends to leave these often real-life people as either good or bad. As such, it’s understandable that many viewers insist on seeing the artist himself as either a wolf or a sheepdog.