Forever Remaining Mysteries, Even to Themselves: Listen Up Philip & American Sniper

Listen Up Philip and American Sniper – two of the best American films of 2014 – have a great deal in common. Each focuses on a narcissistic, distant and delusional male who feels alienated from a pedestrian life in which they feel undervalued and decide to throw themselves whole-heartedly into their work as a form of emotional protection disguised as intense devotion. Pointedly, both of these occupational roles are heavily associated with masculine iconography. By devoting themselves so thoroughly to them, both characters are able to justify their natural aloofness, and by placing each figure under their microscope, Eastwood and Perry dissect the disconcerting psychological conditions that underpin these two popular archetypes.

Philip repeatedly tries to garner the admiration of those around him, but instead attracts scorn, condescension, or indifference. In the film’s opening moments, we see him venting his long pent-in resentments by viciously berating a number of past acquaintances for their failure to acknowledge his brilliance and their own relative lack of success. However, he always fails to faze them or align them with his worldview, and ends up merely re-affirming his own isolation and unhappiness.

American Sniper’s Chris Kyle is also plagued by the gulf between his perception of himself and how others see him. He’s been raised to believe in the values of individualism and vigilantism and  likes to sees himself as a modern day cowboy, though in practice he has to instead settle for staging campy novelty rodeos on weekends. His masculinity is directly threatened when he returns home  after one of these shows to find his girlfriend cheating on him, and then lambasting him for his negligence towards her before telling him: “You think you’re a cowboy because you rodeo. You’re not a cowboy, you’re just a lousy ranch hand.” After this confrontation, he realizes he agrees with her – his perceived brilliance as a warrior is being squandered in shallow circus shenanigans. His decision to sign up is totally apolitical, and directly linked to his insecurity as a male. He latches onto a simplistic us-vs-them jingoism perpetuated by a news show which he digests unquestioningly, following an attack on  an American embassy in the Middle East. This isn’t so much a case of a man finding a cause he believes in, then deciding to fight for it, as it is a case of a man deliberately setting out to find a cause that will allow him to indulge his romantic delusions.

Each character escapes from having to deal with their flaws by instead entering an environment populated by individuals willing to encourage and foster their worst tendencies, as well as seeking out a legend within their field with whom they can strongly identify. Within these environments, these men are heavily idealized and treated as though they are above the rest of civilization.

Philip moves into the summer house of Ike Zimmerman – a semi-reclusive, brazenly abrasive author in the Roth-Updike mould – and under Ike’s influence Philip self-consciously tailors his persona to mirror that of his idol. It’s a gendered legend that imagines intense suffering and personal sacrifice as a necessity to serious writing, and deems an author valuable only if they devote themselves whole-heartedly to their work.

Chris attaches himself to the world of the military, where he’s idealized by his comrades for his remarkable combat ability. He initially expresses some internal torment at the acts he’s forced to commit, however, as his fellow soldiers increasingly assure him of how noble and heroic he is for amassing such a high kill count, he increasingly buys into his own legend as an elaborate defence mechanism. Significantly, the soldiers in Chris’ troop are also drawn to figures from pop culture that unambiguously ennoble masculine stoicism and solitude, such as the comic book character, The Punisher.

Both Chris and Philip remained tethered to their narrow worldviews throughout their respective narratives, willfully blocking out or cutting off anyone who represents an alternative opinion that challenges theirs. Early in his life, Chris’ father bestows upon him the simplistic worldview that the humanity is made up of protectors, those who need protecting, and those who needlessly attack the weak. When it comes to protecting the weak, any degree of violence is justified. It’s through this lens that Chris continues to see the world throughout his life, and develops his identity as a contemporary warrior-hero in its image. At one point, Chris brushes off a distraught comrade who begins to raise ethical concerns about the war, instinctively reminding him that the only reason they’re there is to protect their homeland against unwarranted threats. He fails to register the enemy as individuals, because to do so would be to raise moral doubts that would stand in the way of fulfilling his occupational role. Philip treats every criticism of his worldview as a joke to be shrugged off. A superficially more self-aware character, he sometimes even pre-emptively directly voices these criticisms and thus insulates himself from them, such as when he complains to Ashley, “it’s so hard, what I do”, before adding “well, it’s not at all, is it? That’s the joke, right?” – it’s a very different form of defence mechanism, but it essentially serves the same function as Chris’.

Both characters use their all-consuming commitment to these roles as a means to increasingly cut themselves off from the women in their life who recognize that their emotional isolationism isn’t a sign of bravery, but unhealthy insecurity. What they both fail to realize is that the emotional nakedness and honest self-reflection of the partners they thoughtlessly neglect is more active and courageous than their stiff-lipped rationality.

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The more time they spend indulging their self-aggrandizing fantasies within this insular occupational sphere, the further they retreat into themselves. Increasingly, Chris and Philip desire to be surrounded by fans and subordinates, as opposed to equals. Philip explains that he doesn’t want his students to see him outside of class, because it might taint their view of him as an authority figure. Finding that he’s looked down upon at the college due to his youth and lack of teaching experience, he opts to isolate himself rather than be condescended to, and Ike becomes his only close friend.

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Even when he’s on leave, Chris feels more comfortable spending his time with wounded war vets who look up to him as a hero than being at home.

Late in each film, the protagonist encounters a tragedy that reveals the consequences their chosen lifestyle can hold: Philip discovers that his equally self-absorbed professional rival, Josh Fawn, has been driven to suicide; Chris’ brother is severely wounded in battle, and in hospital reveals that he tried to dissuade his fiancé from being tied to someone so intensely committed to the military.

Despite momentarily vexing them, these events don’t snap them out of their self-destructive patterns of behaviour but encourage them to pursue them more aggressively. Philip seeks out a romantic relationship with someone he believes to be more befitting of his literary lifestyle – Yvette, a French literature professor. Predictably, his self-absorption, fear of rejection and subsequent weariness of emotional intimacy quickly leads him to sour this relationship as well.

Chris pursues an ego-driven revenge mission against an enemy sniper responsible for a close comrade’s death, in the process devoting more time to fighting, when he’d originally planned to be at home, and ultimately putting his squad in danger as a consequence of his focus on personal vengeance.

Each film ends with its protagonist being definitively shut out from the domestic sphere and unable to connect with anyone on a substantial level. Philip, returning to the city with the expectation that the long-neglected Ashley will welcome him back, finds that she has instead moved on and forged a personal space entirely of her own, literally locking him out of her life. As the omniscient narrator tells us, his narcissism will lead to him instinctively destroying every one of his future relationships in a similar way.

american sniper 15Chris, though admitted re-entrance into the family home, remains as distant as ever. In the final scene, he’s seen engaged in a role-play game with Taya, taking on – pointedly – the role of a cowboy. Though a playful and joyful moment for the couple, it still expresses his inability to break out of his self-serving disguises, even when in private. Immediately afterwards, he puts off playing with his son so he can take a vet out shooting. His untimely death is portrayed as being a consequence of his self-delusion and remoteness.

Each film ends on a bittersweet note that reveals the enduring legacy that awaits its protagonist following the closing moments. Philip will go on to become a literary figure of considerable wealth and renown – actually achieving the reputation he’s always dreamed of at the cost of totally sacrificing his private life.

American Sniper ends with documentary images from the real Chris Kyle’s funeral set to patriotic music, with an emphasis on crowds of supporters waving American flags by the side of the road. In death, the deeply complex, contradictory, and tormented character we’ve spent the past two hours grappling with is simplified into a mere hero by public perception – he’s achieved a legendary, even mythic status.