Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently streaming on Amazon Prime and other platforms. He has written about movies and television for Filmmaker magazine, American Cinematographer and Film Comment, and is the author of The Art and Craft of TV Directing: Conversations with Episodic Television Directors. He also serves as a film historian at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and has contributed audio commentaries to DVDs and Blu-rays for Indicator, Shout Factory, the BFI, and other home video labels. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.
Clint Eastwood is responsible for my becoming a director. It’s a horrible burden to place on the man, I know, but it informs my experience every time I watch one of his films — in other words, abandon all hope of objectivity here. I was already fanatical about Eastwood the actor by the time I saw Bronco Billy at the age of eight, but it was that film that made me appreciate Eastwood the filmmaker. I didn’t even know what a director did, but I intuitively felt that there was something special about the Eastwood vehicles that he directed versus those helmed by other people, and after seeing and loving Bronco Billy I asked my dad what it meant when a movie said it was “directed by” Clint Eastwood. My father’s answer was simple and to the point: “Well, the director is the one who tells the story.” That sounded pretty good to me, and from that point forward I became hyperaware of directors and what distinguished the ones I liked from the ones I didn’t — Clint was the gateway drug that led to my addictions to Walter Hill, John Carpenter, Martin Scorsese, Howard Hawks and so many others.
Hawks, in my opinion, is the director Eastwood resembles most, though Eastwood can also lay claim to being the legitimate heir to John Ford’s throne as the cinema’s most poetic chronicler of the complexities and contradictions of the American soul. Eastwood’s films are as deep as Ford’s but as broad as Hawks’. Like Hawks, he has an uncanny ability to jump from genre to genre and deliver the conventional satisfactions of whatever idiom he’s working in while subtly, almost invisibly, injecting the material with his own preoccupations. For a case in point, one only has to look at the two movies Eastwood directed in 2014, last summer’s Jersey Boys and the current release American Sniper. Superficially they don’t have much in common; one is a doo-wop musical, the other a war movie/biopic in the tradition of Sands of Iwo Jima, and Eastwood honors both traditions. He doesn’t subvert the genres as much as he absorbs them and fuses with them, creating a common thread in the way that both movies examine the same issues from different perspectives.
That thread has to do with the relationship between what a man does and who he is, and the (nearly always negative) effects an obsessive professional life has on one’s personal relationships. Jersey Boys and American Sniper are also both films about men who are more or less hopeless when it comes to communicating with women, a theme that Eastwood has been exploring and developing ever since Play Misty for Me. Jersey Boys is populated by men who either sustain a musical career while leaving emotional wreckage in their wake or sacrifice their artistic dreams for the good of their family, while American Sniper focuses on the (ostensibly) true story of soldier Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), an expert marksman responsible for over a hundred confirmed kills in Iraq. Kyle returns to combat several times over the course of the film, to the increasing dismay of his wife Taya (Sienna Miller). To her — and to us — his assertions of patriotic duty become less convincing the more vociferously and frequently he makes them. For Kyle, killing seems to serve a function beyond the merely professional, feeding something undefined and unsettling at his core. The film traces a clear line of psychological development via an exquisitely crafted opening act of flashbacks detailing Kyle’s youth, but to screenwriter Jason Hall’s credit, it stops short of explicitly asking or answering the question of what drives Kyle; in the end he’s as much a mystery to the audience as he is to his wife, or himself.
Whether or not this is true of the real-life Chris Kyle, who was killed by a fellow soldier suffering from PTSD in 2013, is highly open to question, as are many of the “facts” in Kyle’s own ghost-written memoir of the same name. Even a casual perusal of the book makes it clear that Kyle wasn’t the soulful Bradley Cooper type — the tome is filled with racist generalizations and unambiguous celebrations of killing that are at odds with the more conflicted hero at the center of Eastwood’s drama — and many proclamations he made both in and outside of the book have been convincingly challenged. This makes American Sniper highly suspect as a “non-fiction” film, given that it’s removed from reality by several degrees; Kyle’s own account is hardly trustworthy, and Eastwood and Hall sand down an awful lot of the book’s rough edges to take it further into the realm of fiction. I can see why critics like the L.A. Weekly’s Amy Nicholson take issue with this, seeing American Sniper as a celebration of a lying jerk, but personally I don’t care if the Chris Kyle presented in American Sniper is “real” any more than I care how historically accurate Young Mr. Lincoln is or if Mark Zuckerberg really created Facebook to get back at a girl. (Then again, I don’t believe there’s any such thing as non-fiction film anyway — the only non-fiction filmmaker I know of is Allen Funt — but that’s another essay.)
Eastwood is after something more mythic than political commentary or reportage, something more universal, more timeless. American Sniper is the latest in a long line of his films about the toll that violence takes on both the human body and soul; it’s a more visceral, less philosophical companion piece to The Outlaw Josey Wales, Unforgiven and Mystic River. It doesn’t quite have the emotional weight that those films do, partly because of its relentless adherence to Kyle’s point of view; even fictionalized, he’s not a particularly reflective or expressive man, and thus the film is inherently restricted in a way that Eastwood’s earlier masterpieces weren’t. Yet this also allows the director to come at the material in a different way, expressing character and theme through action in the tradition of his mentor Don Siegel. With a few exceptions, the ideas in the film remain unstated, or at the very least understated — there are no “we all have it comin’, kid” or “all on account of pullin’ a trigger” speeches here. It’s one of the most impressionistic films Eastwood has made in a long time, one that recalls the surrealism of earlier works like High Plains Drifter and Sudden Impact — particularly in an extraordinary late action sequence in which the characters are engulfed in sand to the point that they become indistinguishable forms drifting through the frame.
Linking the imagery so closely to Kyle’s day-to-day experience leads to striking, kinetic effects thanks to Eastwood’s mastery of widescreen composition, sound design and low-key lighting; the limitations of the film’s protagonist keep the film from cutting as deep as Unforgiven or Mystic River, but they also yield a clear, direct intensity that makes American Sniper the most dynamic and compelling Iraq war film to date. It’s a real movie movie in ways that well-meaning but self-important slogs like Lone Survivor and Green Zone aren’t, expertly shaped with alternating rhythms and tones and punctuated by riveting combat sequences every bit as exciting as those in the classic Eastwood war flick Where Eagles Dare. Back in 1992, when Eastwood made Unforgiven, it seemed like his testament film — the movie that compiled all of his obsessions and motifs in one grand summation. More than 20 years later, we can see that Eastwood was only getting started — Unforgiven was a beginning, not an end, kicking off an extraordinary run of poignant, somber meditations on violence, guilt and regret that included A Perfect World, Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers and Gran Torino.
American Sniper fits squarely in that cycle, but also looks further back to revisit elements of Eastwood’s early work and further develop or tweak them. Aside from the aforementioned surrealism of High Plains Drifter and Sudden Impact, there’s a fascinating callback to Eastwood’s debut directorial effort, Play Misty for Me, in the relationship between Chris and Taya. Their marriage plays like a kind of erotic thriller, in the sense that it’s about a woman slowly discovering that she doesn’t know the man she’s married to. As she becomes increasingly worried about what he’s hiding from her, Eastwood shoots their scenes together like a film noir, and Hall writes them using the underlying structure and themes of Skinemax staples like Killing Me Softly — but the different context, and the gravity of Cooper and Miller’s performances elevate all of it to the level of high art, much as Eastwood did over 40 years ago in Misty. There are aspects of other Eastwood classics running through American Sniper as well, particularly in terms of the action direction — this has some of Eastwood’s most lively, visceral set pieces since The Gauntlet. But he’s not repeating himself; he builds on what he’s done before, learns from it, and takes his style to the latest stage of its evolution. American Sniper encompasses so much of what Eastwood does well that one is tempted to make the same mistake we all made back in 1992 and look at it as his grand summation; I’m hoping it’s yet another beginning, and that Clint will be making masterpieces well into his hundreds.