The Good, The Bad and The Patriotic – What Clint Eastwood Can Learn from Kathryn Bigelow in Representing America

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Clint Eastwood’s newest release, The 15:17 to Paris, has come under recent fire for its overt, treacly patriotism. While the heroes who inspired and in fact star in the film based on their own ordeal are worthy of any amount of recognition, the filmmaking that brings their story to life is less deserving.

However, this shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Eastwood is an accomplished filmmaker for sure: Unforgiven and The Outlaw Josey Wales are but two examples of his craft at its finest. But with his more recent efforts – films such as American Sniper, Sully: Miracle on the Hudson and now The 15:17 to Paris – a trend is starting to emerge within his filmography: a predilection for celebrating and immortalising a heroic, glorious America that overwhelms the dark shadow that looms behind it like a phantom.

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The all-American hero: but is he a hero we need right now?: Tom Hanks as Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger. © Warner Bros. Entertainment

Now, before I continue, I must assert that I’m not proposing that a patriotic cinema disappear entirely. Within the appropriate context, this kind of moviemaking can be accomplished and necessary, helping to unite a disparate nation in a moment of crisis with tales of heroism and victory. An example would be the strenuous period following the devastation of 9/11. A film such as Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down can be read as a response to the event, released in 2001, telling the tale of a rescue mission to extract the survivors of a Black Hawk helicopter crash during a military operation in Somalia: a story of success arising from almost certain disaster, it is an unavoidably inspirational film that, irrespective of its quality or political views, sits suitably within that discomforting time.

However, the reason that Eastwood’s particular brand of national pride is coming at an inapposite time is that, considering the social and cultural instability of America in its current presidency, this period should be inciting interrogation on the state of modern America, as opposed to encouraging reflective commemoration as Eastwood’s cinema does.

I’d like to take American Sniper into consideration in this line of argument. American Sniper is Eastwood’s adaptation of the memoir of famous/infamous U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper within the film) who, operating as a sniper during the Iraq War, accumulated an estimated 150 kills during his service. An impressive feat for certain, but one that raises questions as to the validity of the claim that Kyle is a ‘hero’: can one be considered legendary for killing so many? Rather than engaging in this latter debate, Eastwood simply opts to define Kyle as a hero confronting the Iraqi insurgents, referred to as ‘savages’ by Kyle and his compatriots throughout the film.  This approach would certainly work, if made during the immediate post-9/11 period mentioned earlier. However, in our contemporary moment, with a back-and-forth mentality between liberal and conservative attitudes concerning those ‘other’ to America, this moral characterisation of Kyle, based on the binary of Self/Other, is subsequently dangerous. While Eastwood has argued that the film itself is anti-war, American Sniper cannot help but feel like a film that endorses the Islamophobic attitude that is unacceptably prevalent within our society, intensified by the man in charge of the Oval Office. Therefore, Eastwood’s classically patriotic style is alienated within our collective and cultural context and needs to adapt, in order to survive.

The Curious Case of Chris Kyle: has the post-9/11 patriot lost respectability as a result of a change in ideological views?: Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle. © Warner Bros. Entertainment
The Curious Case of Chris Kyle: has the post-9/11 patriot lost respectability as a result of a change in ideological views?: Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle. © Warner Bros. Entertainment

Moreover, with a focus on individuals – Chris Kyle, Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger, Spencer Stone, Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos – Eastwood is a little out of the depth of society and its demand for unity. While the feats of Sully and the stars of The 15:17 to Paris inspire many, their cinematic adaptations merely satisfy, instead of speaking to the wider truths or injustices of our community. Sully: The Miracle on the Hudson is the best case in point. A serviceably enjoyable drama that covers Sully’s incredible accomplishment, it comes to its end without anything more to add to the story that we are already familiar with. Moreover, while we value Sully’s valorous act, it does not further or embolden our understanding of the confused world we live in. Eastwood seems to tackle subject matter that could give rise to an interrogation of America: Sully: The Miracle on the Hudson, in particular, could have probed the complexities of idolisation as Sully is suddenly thrust into the limelight. But Eastwood refuses to go beyond the foundational, patriotic pull that attracts him to his projects (see any interview with Eastwood explaining why he chose to direct his chosen film for proof).

This is where Kathryn Bigelow comes in. Unlike Eastwood, Bigelow aims wide with her topical bases. Zero Dark Thirty covers the Bin Laden hunt, dealing with the clandestine, perhaps even criminal undertakings committed by U.S. forces in order to finally reach the ‘end goal’ of killing Al-Qaida’s leader, an aim that would ultimately change nothing, as inferred by the film’s protagonist Maya (Jessica Chastain) in her surprisingly distressed reaction to the result. In Detroit, Bigelow and her screenwriter Mark Boal partially dramatise the devastating events of the Algiers Motel tragedy during the Detroit riots of 1967, an incident that culminated in the death of 33 African Americans: the film deals in the racist propensities of the police force, openly draws attention to the brutal violence committed against people of colour and delivers no happy resolution. With these two examples, one can already notice the difference in how Bigelow and Eastwood approach the representation of America: while Eastwood hones in on the enclosed, American saviour, Bigelow broadens her horizons, delving into the dank, dark issues that many refuse to acknowledge or discuss beyond mere acknowledgement.

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Fair justice for all?: the all too familiar image of the subjugation of African Americans at the hands of an oppressive police force: Will Poulter as Philip Krauss. © Annapurna Pictures

The Hurt Locker would seem to be an outlier. For those of you acquainted with the film, it seems to follow the same vein as American Sniper, trailing the tours of a bomb disposal expert, William James (Jeremy Renner) and his teammates, J.T. Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Owen Eldridge (Brian Geraghty). However, Bigelow dives deeper than Eastwood ever would. While Kyle is depicted as a victim of the government that enlisted him, James is shown to thrive off of the promise of war, off of the thrill of near-death experiences. With this, Bigelow taps into a devastating truth: America is addicted to war, refusing to pull out of conflicts that are not their own. Epitomising this within James, Bigelow challenges the fabric of American patriotism, a bold directorial decision that opposes Eastwood’s conservative storytelling.

It’s this radical perspective that Eastwood should aspire to. While one can venerate the actions of Chris Kyle or the heroes of The 15:17 to Paris, any artistic evaluation of their deeds is fruitless. Society is unstable, burdened by prejudices and forever on the edge of conflict: Bigelow’s cinema captures this in a nutshell. She refuses to veer from controversy. She is dedicated to the harsh truths of civilisation: its embedded racism, its toxic masculinity and its obsession with war. Eastwood seems reluctant to explore these avenues, stuck in a corner, exhibiting films that speak to a patriotic temperament that is no longer fitted to our time. With the rise of conservative values, seeking to impose regressions on the progressions made to overcome society’s discriminations, Eastwood’s thematic tendencies need to evolve against these steps backward in order to make an impression, a difference in the representation of America’s troubled reality. With a lesson or two from Bigelow, Eastwood might just move beyond his conventions in order to achieve this.

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