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I sit on the Executive Council of United Academics, the University of Oregon faculty union.
The Conversation is funded by CSIRO, Melbourne, Monash, RMIT, UTS, UWA, ACU, ANSTO, ANU, Canberra, CDU, CQU, Curtin, Deakin, ECU, Flinders, Griffith, the Harry Perkins Institute, JCU, La Trobe, Murdoch, Newcastle, UQ, QUT, Swinburne, Sydney, UNDA, UNE, UniSA, UNSW, USC, USQ, UTAS, UWS, VU and Wollongong. In American Sniper, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is the ‘sheepdog’ – someone who operates in a state of constant, anxious alertness against inevitable attack.
Liberal writers have been lining up for the last month and a half to decry American Sniper along comfortable and predictable ideological lines. For certain, the film makes a hero out of a killer – Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, who was responsible for more deaths than any other sniper in US history. But straight propaganda rarely makes for compelling entertainment, so the enormous popularity of American Sniper (hauling in a mind-boggling US$306.5 million domestically so far) suggests that it has resonated far beyond the hardcore group of ultraconservatives these reviewers would expect to embrace the film. Far from being a film that simply trumpets the superiority of American values and military might, American Sniper depicts white, male vulnerability, along with the tragic costs of war – at least, for Americans. Ambiguity over violence and its purposes – both at the societal and individual level – is a common theme in the films of American Sniper’s director and producer Clint Eastwood. Eastwood hit on this formula in one of the first films he directed, The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976). Their challenge, ultimately, is to work out a way of living peacefully in the absence of war. The Outlaw Josey Wales contained anti-government sentiments that appealed to Americans on both the left and the right. When promoting the film, Eastwood often referenced Vietnam and Watergate, alluding to the profound distrust that Americans were starting to feel towards the federal government. It was the state and people of color who ultimately violated the Confederate Josey Wales and his family, even though he makes common cause with a Cherokee against imperial expansion of the US state.
Like American Sniper, The Outlaw Josey Wales appealed to audiences by not possessing a clear political agenda. In Eastwood’s rendering of Chris Kyle, Kyle’s need to be a killer of almost superhuman proportions makes him not sociopathic, but rather the sheepdog: someone who operates in a state of constant, anxious alertness against inevitable attack.

In Clint Eastwood's Sudden Impact (1983), Dirty Harry Callahan, a white police officer pointing his gun at the head of a black criminal who is holding a white woman hostage at knifepoint. From Sudden Impact, to American Sniper, to the recent cases of police who have killed unarmed African Americans, we can see this logic of white fear and vulnerability at play. Ultimately, American Sniper dispenses with conventional political ideology to portray the raw, emotional core of white vulnerability – and its connection to bloodshed in the face of triple insecurities of race, gender and empire in an unstable political era.
But unlike Dirty Harry or Josey Wales, Chris Kyle evinces a woundedness – and, ultimately, a kind of powerlessness – that does not re-establish white male superiority.
The long, final scene of the film presents actual footage from Chris Kyle’s funeral procession along Texas’s Interstate 35. In his Studies in Classic American Literature, DH Lawrence wrote that “The essential American soul is hard, isolate, stoic, and a killer. American Sniper’s Chris Kyle – the sheepdog, the last line of defense – serves as an exclamation point to Baldwin’s keen insight. Both Hamlet and ‘True Detective’’s Rust Cohle make audiences wonder whether they’re deserving of sympathy or blame.
A photograph from The Sabbat Cycle’s Austin stop, where a screening of ‘The Witch’ was held, followed by a satanic ritual. Sydney Ideas - What is a Teacher in the 21st Century and What does a 21st Century Teacher Need to Know? We use a Creative Commons Attribution NoDerivatives licence, so you can republish our articles for free, online or in print. Eastwood does here what he’s done repeatedly in his career: he resolves his hero’s ambivalence, psychic pain and sense of structural powerlessness through masculine honor, sacrifice and vulnerability (often played out on a highly racialized landscape). Josey Wales is a poor farmer in the Missouri Territory who, after his home is attacked by Union soldiers, sees no choice but to take up arms and become a Confederate guerrilla.
Coming on the heels of the Vietnam War and Watergate, the film reflected popular disillusionment with both. It is political ambivalence that made The Outlaw Josey Wales popular with a broad public, not unlike American Sniper.

Referring to this scene, political theorist George Shulman has argued that this demonic love triangle between women, blacks and the state fueled the rage of white men who opposed welfare, affirmative action and the ERA in Reagan-era America. Think of Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who shot an unarmed Michael Brown twelve times. Showing thousands of mourners on overpasses (accompanied by a beautiful, melancholy trumpet piece), it asks us to bear witness to the death of a hero.
Perhaps worst of all, it trades on longstanding Western stereotypes of Arabs and Muslims, ranging from inscrutable to untrustworthy to profoundly sadistic.
Similarly, in American Sniper, after Chris Kyle watches the World Trade Center collapse, he feels as though he must go to war. Eastwood was openly, angrily anti-government – in a way that not only blamed elected leaders, but also derided impoverished recipients of government assistance. Perched up on a rooftop, his rifle cocked, he offers protection from the chaotic aggression of people of color (just as the real-life Kyle told stories about picking off looters from the roof of the Superdome in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina).
We are not asked to question or challenge the war that made him a killer, or that made him the victim of another American veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder.
In doing so, both prove to be unusually good – if reluctant – marksmen and killers even as, in both films, the argument for war remains ambivalent. As he told one audience, “Today we live in a welfare-oriented society, and people expect more from Big Daddy Government, more from Big Daddy Charity. Then there are those who are blessed with the gift of aggression with an overpowering need to protect the flock.

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