Clint Eastwood’s conflicted morality in American Sniper – interview

with Clint Eastwood

with Clint Eastwood

Chris Kyle was proclaimed the most lethal sniper in the US military history, with over 160 confirmed kills, most of them were carried out during his deployment in Iraq between 2003-2009, where he was nicknamed The Devil of Ramadi by the Iraqi insurgents, who put a bounty on his head. Ramadi is the capital of Iraq’s Western province, Anbar, where the US army faced the fiercest local resistance, resulting in heavy casualties on both sides. In the US, however, he was accoladed with two Silver Star Medals, five Bronze Star Medals, one Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal and two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals for acts of heroism and meritorious service in combat.

The conflicting morality of Kyle’s actions is laid bare in the opening scene of Clint Eastwood’s new movie “American Sniper,” which tells his life story. Sprawled on a rooftop somewhere in Fallujah and gazing below through his rifle scope, Kyle shoots dead a child, barely 8 years-old, who is hauling grenade in his hands and walking towards a group of US soldiers, and then he blows off the head of the child’s wailing mother, when she fetches the grenade and starts towards the soldiers.

As Kyle reflects on his kill, Eastwood takes us back to his childhood in Texas, where he was born and raised by his father, who teach him how to shoot a rifle and instills in him the religious-driven American values that see the world in black and white. Kyle grows up believing that America is always right, and its enemies are evil, who ought to be crushed. Hence, when he watches the World Trade Center crumbling on his TV screen in Sep 2001, the only thought on his mind is revenge. The following day, he volunteers for the Navy Seals, where he is subjected to an intensive training programme before he impresses his training officers with his extraordinary precision in hitting targets with his rifle. He is a better sniper than his own trainer.

The US invasion of Iraq offers Kyle the chance to punish those whom he deems to be America’s foes. He is ferocious in the battle field.  His ferocity stems from his fanatical conviction that he is fighting a morally just and necessary war to defend America. Not only does he save the lives of many of US marines, who are fighting on the ground, by eliminating any danger, being a man, a woman or a child, with his rifle from a distant rooftop, he also joins them in the bloodiest and most brutal fighting, particularly in Fallujah, which witnesses the largest number of human loss on both sides.

The film is fraught with gruesome battles from the Iraq war, and horrific scenes of destruction and suffering, particularly by the local civilians, but it doesn’t reflect on the morality of the war, the questionable reasons behind it or its devastating consequence on the US soldiers and the Iraqi people. Instead, it conforms to the good-vs-evil tradition of Hollywood movies, portraying the American soldiers as  benevolent heroes, endowed with high morals, while  all the Iraqi fighters are Al Qaeda terrorists, who commit the most hideous crimes against the Iraqi civilians. There is no mention of the atrocities committed by the American soldiers against the locals or the torture in Abu Ghraib prison, or the theft of the Iraqi archaeological treasures.

Ironically, Eastwood was a stalwart opponent of the Iraq war, and still believes that it was a wrong war, which begs the question why didn’t he dwell on the morality of the war and its repercussions instead of just glorifying those who conducted it?

“What interested me in this project was not the war, but the drama in Kyle’s family,” Eastwood tells me when I meet him at a downtown hotel in Los Angeles. “And then you got the drama of being in war: life, death, suffering and destruction. Basically, conflict is the basis of drama and wars are about conflict.”

Kyle’s brother is also serving in Iraq, though reluctantly. He doesn’t believe in and criticises the war, upsetting Kyle, who fights like a crusader on a sacred mission. Kyle’s wife, who is left to raise their kids on her own in Texas, is not pleased either, and pleads with him to return home. “I think Kyle was very torn and that’s the drama of the picture,” says Eastwood, who has opposed all America’s wars. “I personally would stay with my family. But if push comes to shove, it’s hard to know, those are very hard choices to make up in your mind.”

Eastwood was 11 years old when WWII broke out, and ignited the feelings of patriotism in the hearts of the American People. “Everybody was extremely patriotic,” he quips. The horrors of war, and it consequent destructions and suffering that young Eastwood saw in newsreels, projected in cinema theatres, disturbed him and made him despise it. He was relieved when it was over, naively thinking that peace henceforth would prevail. But he was soon disappointed when in 1951 he was drafted to fight a new American war in Korea. He reportedly managed to evade fighting by romancing the daughter of an army officer, who arranged for him to stay on home soil and serve as a swimming instructor in Fort Ord in California.

“We wondered what the hell we were doing there, and I suppose in later wars, Vietnam, everybody was asking more questions: Why we keep doing this and where’s the end of it all?” Eastwood wonders. “It does question mankind’s ability to live in a peaceful way. It seems like history is not on the side of peace, which is sometimes a depressing way to look at things, but that’s the way it is. But you know, there is a good aspect to them. War is a very creative time in mankind’s history, because humanity seems to make a lot of advances, technological and everything else, due to the haste and the necessity. But it’s a shame that it’s that way.”

Even after the September 11 attacks the Hollywood superstar didn’t believe that violence was the appropriate response, and was against the US wars in Afghanistan and in Iraq. “Saddam Hussein was not a popular individual, but there’s a ton of unpopular individuals around, so where do you make a judgement of going into that kind of thing? And we go over and introduce democracy in different countries and then you find out that they do not even want democracy,” Eastwood says.

Those are indeed very relevant and interesting questions, but the veteran director doesn’t pose them in his movie, and instead of examining the legitimacy of the war, he focuses on the warrior, whom he presents as a hero. “I think a hero is someone who goes above and beyond to help either his partners in the war or in the conflict. Nowadays, everybody is a hero who goes and volunteers for war, but in the old days if you got a medal of honour or something, it was a big deal. I gave a guy the Heimlich Manoeuvre a few months ago and everybody is saying it was a heroic move, and I said no it wasn’t, I just didn’t want him to spit out the beef in front of me,” he laughs.

Eastwood’s definition of heroism is conceivably valid, yet it’s incongruous with the message of his movie, in which he portrays all the Iraqi fighters, who are defending their cities, as savages working for Al Qaeda and oppressing their own people while the invading US soldiers and Kyle as the defenders of America, who are avenging 9/11 attacks and bringing freedom to the Iraqi people. Ironically, the Iraqi sniper, who instills fears into the hearts of the marines and take the lives of several of them before he is hunted down and killed by Kyle, is not perceived as a hero by Eastwood, even though he is defending his own country. “I am sure he is a hero in the eyes of the Iraqis,” he remarks.

Here the 84-year-old director falls into the convoluted American logic and the sense of superior morality, which invariably leads to the wars that he strenuously condemns. How could one abhor a war so much on the one hand, and on the other hand glorify those who conduct it and vilify those who resist them? The war in Iraq has been widely regarded as immoral and illegal, so how could one ascribe heroism to its executors? Kyle was an ardent supporter of the Iraq war, and reacted violently against whoever dared to criticise it. Not only did he not express remorse for taking the lives of so many Iraqis, he was proud of his deeds, insisting that all his victims were evil and deserved to die. But Eastwood thinks that Kyle concealed his doubts, which are subtly manifested in his body language, performed by Bradley Cooper, as he speaks to his psychiatrist near the end of the movie.

“He says I am going to my maker knowing I did the right thing etc etc, and these are all good words, but in his eyes you saw: should I or shouldn’t I or am I? A slight amount of doubt, not played cliché and broadly, but just kind of in the back of his brain. I thought that was particularly brilliant.”

Irrespective of Kyle’s feelings and attitude, his participation in an illegal war, in which he killed hundreds of people, shouldn’t make him a hero but a criminal from a legal and moralistic point of view. He would’ve been a hero, had he truly been fighting to defend the US, but he was attacking people in a country that had not been at war with his own nation. Morally and logically, the heroes in the movie should be the Iraqis who are resisting an invading army, but most likely their stories will never be told by Hollywood, which will most likely continue to portray them as savages, like the Vietnamese and Native Americans, just because their skin colour is a bit darker.

Kyle didn’t live to see this movie, which is based on his best-selling autobiography that he wrote when he returned from Iraq in 2009. He was shot dead by a deranged Iraq war veteran in 2013. It seems that even he himself was a casualty of this futile war.

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Clint Eastwood: I Never Let the Old Man in – interview

with Clint Eastwood

Smiling jovially and offering greetings as he saunters into a meeting room in New York’s Astoria Waldorf, Clint Eastwood conjures up none of the tough characters, most notably eponymous Dirty Harry, that he portrayed in so many movies. Slim and beaming with life, The 84-year-old  Hollywood legend looks and sounds at least 10 years his junior. So what is his secret?

“Never let the old man in,” he laughs. “I think what keeps you going is just your interests in the work you are doing, and you are interested in the project you are working on at the moment, and if you don’t have that interest, you will find something else to do. If you stop living forward, there’s nowhere to go but living backwards and that becomes nostalgia maybe, but nostalgia sometimes you have to set aside and say okay, let’s just move forward now, and enjoy it.”

And moving forward is what he has been doing since the onset of his film career in the mid fifties. With a career spanning over 6 decades, Eastwood has starred in, directed and produced over 55 movies. And he is not planning to quit anytime soon. In fact, he has just wrapped his latest project “American Sniper,” and is releasing “Jersey Boys,” the screen version of the Tony Award-winning musical, which has been a hit for nine years on New York’s Broadway and 5 years in London’s West End.

Starring John LIyod, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Vincent Piazza, and Christopher Walken, “Jersey Boys” tells the story of four young men from the wrong side of the tracks in New Jersey who came together in the early 60’s to form the rock group The Four Seasons, producing some of the songs that influenced a generation, including “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “I Can’t Take My Eyes of You,”, “Walk Like a Man,” “Dawn,” “Rag Doll,” “Bye Bye Baby,” “Who Love You,” and many more.

Eastwood is known for his music talent and for his particular affinity to jazz, having composed the original scores for nearly all his movies since Mystic River (2003), released records and directed music-centric narrative films, Honkeytonk Man (1982) and Bird (1988). Yet, he admits that, although he had known the Four Seasons and had liked their music, he had not seen Jersey Boys in theatre until he was asked to direct the film.

“I wasn’t a big fan of the generation that this was made in, but I did like this music particularly,” he explains. “I thought ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,’ was probably the closest thing to a classic song that I had seen out of the 60s and 50s era, which I didn’t think was a great music era. I think The Four Seasons did some great stuff, a lot of variety to it, and lost of spirit to it.”

So when he was asked to direct the Jersey Boys, he went out and saw the play three times before he responded with an enthusiastic “yes.” And having been impressed with the performances, he hired the play’s cast to reprise their roles in the movie. “It was a chance to work with people who had done over 1200 performances in some cases, and it was nice, new experience.”

The fact that those actors were virtually unknown to cinema goers didn’t worry the iconic director. “They were all unknown in the theatre, yet people love that play and so I just got to go along with that as a road map,” he stresses. “I have always been a believer that if a film works, it has to work as an ensemble, and you can have the biggest names, or the name of the moment, and it doesn’t make any difference if the picture doesn’t work.”

And when Eastwood makes a decision, no one, including the studios, who favoured having stars in the lead roles, can stand in his way. In fact, he has produced all except four of the movies that he has starred in or directed, under the umbrella of his own production company Malpaso, which he formed in 1967 to help him satisfy his drive to govern every creative aspect of films he has been involved in. His company’s motto has always been making films economically and efficiently, a trait Eastwood has been known for as a director. His film shoots invariably wrap on time and often under budget. “I do edit in my mind and I edit where it’s going, so I get a pretty good idea of where things are headed,” he expounds.

When I spoke to the cast members of the film earlier, they said that he worked exceptionally fast.  Sometime shooting only one take.  Eastwood confirms, attributing the paucity of takes to the experience and familiarity of the actors with their roles. “They certainly were well prepared, and they just got on with the job.”

Nonetheless, while many renowned directors, such as Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick, he admits that he is not fond of abundant takes. In fact, he took the helm of movies he starred in early in his career because he couldn’t tolerate the slow pace of shooting of other directors, who kept demanding repeated takes, which he thinks stemmed from indecisiveness.

“I am always trying for it in one take, but I will do as many takes as it takes to get it done properly. I usually know what I am looking for, so I just make a decision. A lot of times, there’s a lot of reasons for people to do a lot of takes, and sometimes, they are not confident in where they are going with it. Everybody has their own style, but I find my style is no rules, it’s just what is right. The main thing is that you set an atmosphere that is comfortable for people to work in, and then they can come up with it right away,” The two time Oscar-winning director says.

Evidently, his methods have worked brilliantly for him, gaining him massive commercial success and critical acclaim. Two of his movies, “Unforgiven (1992)” and “Million Dollar Baby (2004)” were the recipient of the Oscar for best picture, and two more, “Mystic River (2003)” and “Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) “ were nominated for the accolade.

Having done two movies in a row in one year, Eastwood decided to take it easy and “smell the roses a little bit. I am reading a lot of material now, but if a good project popped up, I would probably change my mind and the adrenaline would get going,” he laughs.