by Matt McKenna
American Sniper has been both a wildly successful and wildly controversial film. While moviegoers have made the film the highest grossing war movie of all time, cultural critics have alternatively lauded and criticized the film for what they see as either a stirring depiction of a soldier's travails or a galling piece of jingoistic propaganda. Neither interpretation, however, hits upon the real takeaway of American Sniper, which is that unprovoked shark attacks off the Pacific coast are becoming a more prevalent threat for surfers, swimmers, and regular folks just trying to enjoy the water. It may seem counter-intuitive that a war film set in the desert could comment on shark attacks in the ocean, but then again, the actual Iraq war was sort of counter-intuitive too.
On its most literal level, American Sniper is a film about Chris Kyle, a real-life sniper and Navy SEAL. Kyle, portrayed by a beefed up Bradley Cooper, is enraged by the terrorist attacks he witnesses on television and subsequently decides to join the American Navy at thirty years old. Despite his advanced age, Kyle quickly becomes the “most lethal sniper in U.S. military history,” and the passionate debates about the film have centered around the depiction of how his transition from concerned, freedom-loving American to red-white-and-blue killing machine is depicted. For many right-leaning commentators, the film realistically describes the struggles of an honorable soldier putting himself in harm's way for his comrades and country. For many left-leaning commentators, the film is an overt piece of propaganda, a nuance-less film that refuses to acknowledge that there are regular people living in Iraq, people who don't necessarily spend their days fantasizing about blowing up Apache helicopters with RPGs.
It is unfortunate though understandable that the discussion around American Sniper has been relegated to such a literal reading. After all, the film's story neatly fills the wedge driven between Americans who perceive themselves as “conservative” or “liberal”. Indeed, if you read the opinion pieces floating around the Internet, it certainly feels like there must be a correlation between one's opinion of American Sniper and one's patriotism or gullibility.
This politicization of such an important film is a shame because director Clint Eastwood has created something much more interesting than a simple action movie about a guy with really good aim. The truth is, American Sniper may look like a war film, but it has the story beats of a shark film. For example, Chris Kyle in American Sniper is a clear allusion to Sheriff Martin Brody in Steven Spielberg's Jaws. Both characters are easy-does-it, fun-lovin' guys until they see something that spurs them into hero-mode: Kyle watches the towers fall on 9/11 and Brody watches a great white shark devour a little boy.
Having established the nemesis of each film–terrorists in American Sniper and the shark in Jaws–both Eastwood and Spielberg must then deal with the narrative problem of creating tension around a bad guy with an abundance of disadvantages. Specifically, the shark in Jaws obviously can't follow its prey onto land and has all the intellectual drawbacks associated with being a prehistoric creature without a neocortex. Along those lines, Kyle's adversary in American Sniper, the Syrian sniper Mustafa, similarly has the disadvantage of being unable to track Kyle outside of Iraq while he is simultaneously being hunted by the world's best, most well-trained military. It is therefore to both Spielberg's and Eastwood's credit that they can build any drama at all, and it is not surprising that they use similar tactics to achieve it. For example, both films make the point that the problem at hand could be solved if only the lily-livered bureaucrats would get out of the way. In Jaws, it's the mayor who refuses to close the beach despite pretty good evidence a shark is eating people. In American Sniper, shifty-eyed military bureaucrats question Kyle on whether his kills followed protocol, and later his team is not allowed to pursue Mustafa and “The Butcher” despite being tantalizingly close to catching them. This narrative technique allows Spielberg and Eastwood to both manufacture drama and make the point that meddling, out-of-touch bureaucrats can turn a villain who should otherwise be easy to dispatch into something much more dangerous.
So why would Eastwood turn a war film into a shark film? Perhaps it is because as mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea, Eastwood worried about a shark attack claiming one of his citizens. Or perhaps it is because the number of shark attacks has increased during the 21st century–although the media all but ignored it, the Shark Research Committee released its 2014 report this past January, and the numbers were concerning: Last year, California saw at least six unprovoked shark attacks. Then again, maybe Eastwood just likes sharks.
Of course, the media prefers to leave the sharks out of the American Sniper discussion. It is simply too tempting to bait a credulous, TV-watching American populace into yet another culture war roll call masquerading as political discussion or–worse–film criticism. The fact that every new piece of culture or entertainment is at risk for being consumed by the ever-growing vortex of editorial hackery goes to show that our country's sources for news and opinion are nothing more than venues for the meaningless cacophony of harping sycophants and the ceaseless din of compulsively braying automatons spraying opinions into the air like a broken lawn sprinkler system.