Although quite different in tone, both American Sniper and Whiplash are films about a guy with one highly specialized talent: Chris, the titular sniper, is the most lethal sniper in military history, while Whiplash’s Andrew is a jazz drummer in the most prestigious jazz school in the country. And, both films surround separate drives to be the best. (Thankfully, neither of these movies do the dreaded thing where affability and sympathy is cultivated by merely possessing an uncommonly strong skill-set.) Andrew doesn’t just want to be the best in his class, but one of the best drummers in Jazz history – a fairly typical aspiration for a talented pupil. Chris, however, seems to have been afforded his talent naturally; the film portrays him as someone born with a gift. Where Andrew wants to achieve self-worth by being the best, Chris is burdened by his ability, believing he must keep going back to Iraq because no one else can protect U.S. soldiers with such proficiency.
Ultimately, Chris and Andrew’s drive to be the best are used in each film to ask questions about the ethics of abuse and the dynamics of mental health, including interpersonal relationships with the abused. The abuse portrayed in American Sniper is manifested through PTSD; though Chris has a loving family, he doesn’t feel comfortable around them. Whiplash pits Andrew against Fletcher, a verbally, mentally and physically abusive music instructor who claims to be pushing students past what they think they're capable of. Although Andrew and Chris’ motivations to be the best are distinguished from each other, their interpretations of their abuse are similar. In both American Sniper and Whiplash, the protagonists are conflicted about their abusive situations yet there is a powerful force that draws them back, repeatedly.
The first thirty minutes or so of American Sniper was harder for me to watch than anything that happens while in Iraq. There is a Cowboys-are-real-men characterization of Chris and his buds that is not only difficult to witness, but also hard to discern where the film situates itself in relation to some of the problematically macho things Chris does. But this first quarter of the film allows us to see that Chris was nurtured in a way that taught him to be a protector; his father taught him to be a "sheepdog." Unfortunately for Chris, this sheepdog ethos is what draws him back to Iraq for four separate tours.
I say unfortunately, but again, I’m not sure how clearly the film thinks his willingness to return to Iraq is tragic. Sure, we see the sadness his wife feels, but by the end of the film, Eastwood implements a patriotism-ridden memorial (using real footage of Chris Kyle’s funeral, oddly) that seems to suggest we need more heroes like Chris. To me, this is not the story of Chris. Not to imply that he was a bad man, but that his story is one of regrettable circumstances. Every time he returns from Iraq, Chris’ wife pleads him to stay with the family he has helped create but not gotten to know. She can't comprehend why he feels the need to go back. Chris responds by saying he is compelled to protect her.
At other times, Chris says his motivation to return is to help maintain United States' status as the greatest country in the world. I believe he really does believe this. The military is constructed and marketed in a fashion that persuades soldiers and citizens to believe this. But the film only slightly opens itself up to this conversation. Such is the central problem of American Sniper - it raises subjects I’m not sure it wants to go into depth about. Although mental health is no doubt the center of American Sniper, the film is not sure how much it wasn’t to find out about the causes of mental health in Chris’ situation. The film’s most powerful moments are when he might have to shoot a weapon-wielding Iraqi child. These situations offer the severe tension involved in Chris’ position – that there are emotional things about being a sniper that are not properly talked about or cannot be prepared for, things that permanently puncture the psyche. Bradley Cooper does a wonderful job showing the burden of being referred to as "the Legend," as opposed to some of his platoon mates who think he’s a rock star based on the aptitude that he snipes women and children. But, when Eastwood tries to propel a conversation about the confliction of being a soldier, and a really great one at that, he is characterizing the opposition with such xenophobia that the film is concurrently calling Chris a rock star.
There is a mini storyline running in the middle of American Sniper that is so dumb it concludes with a The Matrix-esque slow-mo flying bullet. The story commences with the introduction of an Iraqi sniper on par with Chris, and ends up playing like a cross-divisional NCAA rivalry. I only bring this up because the characterization of the Iraqi sniper exhibits Eastwood’s problematic xenophobia. The monosyllabic sniper is played as menacing and is usually accompanied by token Middle Eastern music that insinuates doom at the hands of The Other. It is during these scenarios that American Sniper also seems to get caught up in its genre’s boilerplate conventions, losing focus on its most penetrating subject matter for the sake of wartime adventures and battling egos. Actually, the more I think about this storyline, its obvious how grounded it is in Eastwood's beloved Western genre.
When the film spends more time with Chris at home with his wife, the film’s motivations are clearer and more interesting, despite Eastwood’s thin portrayal of Chris’ wife (i.e. one scene has her reading a magazine alone in her apartment, literally waiting by the phone, because that’s what potential wives and mothers do). Chris’ mental health fills the real estate of each frame during weekend afternoons and backyard barbecues, or wherever he goes in town. Through Chris’ interactions with his wife, perhaps the most sympathetic character in the film, we are afforded an outsider’s perspective of how damaging it is that Chris believes he is morally obligated to repeatedly return to Iraq for the sake of his country. However, there is an important scene that even calls in to question whether Chris really goes back to Iraq to save his countrymen. While at an auto shop, a young veteran (peculiarly casted as Jonathan Groff from Looking) recognizes Chris as the man who saved his life. The interaction is uncomfortable and disturbing for Chris. Whether this shapes our understanding of Chris' motivations for returning or not is hard to say. Maybe the trauma is just so intense that nothing related to his efforts can be recollected positively.
After Andrew has left Fletcher’s tutelage, they spontaneously meet up for a friendly recollection of their time together. During which, Fletcher imparts Andrew with his teaching manifesto. After regurgitating lore regarding how Charlie Parker only became a Jazz legend through physical torment, he tells Andrew that he abuses his students only out of respect for both the genre and his students; they will never transcend their perceived aptitude unless they rise to the requirements of his abuse, and great music will not be created unless people are pushed past the brink of comprehensive ability. Fletcher’s rationalization is so persuasive that the audience may momentarily get caught up in his charisma, thinking maybe he has a point. Of course, he does not, and we know great art should not come at the cost of mental health. (In a recent episode of Bill Simmons’ podcast, guest Chuck Klosterman references, in the context of Whiplash, the real life equivalent of how Stanley Kubrick mentally abused Shelley Duvall for the sake of a great performance in The Shining, which some jackass film nerds probably still think is cool.)
At the middle of both Whiplash and American Sniper are important moral persuasions that propel the abused to become increasingly abused, something that draws these victims back in to a situation they know will compound their abuse. They cannot reject something about the opportunity to return to their abusers. Whiplash is not about Andrew becoming a better drummer; we don’t root for him to become a better drummer as much as we root for him to evade his instructor’s abuse. More specifically, we root for Andrew to somehow transcend Flethcer’s methods. In the middle of the film, Andrew gets Fletcher fired. Wisely, the film does not play this up as a climactic and successful moment for Andrew. It is a successful and progressive thing that someone like Fletcher is fired, sure, but the focus of the film is Andrew’s mental health.
Like many people of power, Fletcher abuses his influence and the incredible persuasiveness of his approval. And that, more than wanting to become the best drummer, is why Andrew keeps returning to Fletcher – his approval is seductive, and he has found a way to harness something that Andrew desires in a way that perpetually maintains his power above his students. Just like we shouldn’t believe Chris that he wants to return to Iraq in order to protect his wife, we shouldn’t believe Andrew that he’s only in this to become the next Buddy Rich. Yes, they might believe this about themselves and they might also desire those things on the film's periphery, but both Whiplash and American Sniper are about the dynamics of the abused and their abuser.
So, instead of making Andrew’s happiness contingent on Fletcher’s firing, director Chazelle wisely ends the film on one of the most exhausting and exciting climaxes in recent history that is a mental power struggle between the two on par with any battle scene out of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Although I’ve heard others interpret this ending as Andrew reciprocating Fletcher's unethical methods, to me, it plays more as a powerful moment where the abused finally finds a way and a will to take control over his abuser. The power in Andrew’s voice as he tells Fletcher, “I’ll cue you in,” is unprecedented in the film.
At the end of American Sniper, Chris is approaching a similar victory. He has discovered that he doesn’t have to go to Iraq in order to use his skillset for good. But, as the stakes of Chris’ situation were higher than Andrew’s, so was the outcome. Chris is murdered at the hands of a fellow veteran that he was trying to help. This ending should suggest the pervasive, deeply engrained mental instability that war and the military produce. However, Eastwood doesn’t seem to know what strand to follow or how to ignore what I can only imagine are his own patriotic proclivities, and instead we get a memorial service that focuses on Chris’ heroics and temporarily obscures what the film has to say about mental health. There is a strange and compelling moment where Chris runs into his brother between deployments, and his brother, white-in-the-face can only say, “Fuck this place.” Likewise, the film leaves moments like this as seeds but does not foster them into any larger statements about war. (This is the second time Bradley Cooper has proficiently portrayed mental illness in a film that doesn’t exactly know what to say about mental illness.)
What Whiplash suggests more clearly than American Sniper is that we have to call in to question rationalizations of abuse. Why does Fletcher want to abuse? We know why he says he does, but can we believe that he just wants to harvest the next Charlie Parker? Surely, he’s satiated by tactfully manipulating his pupils. And surely, this manipulation has become its own kind of jazz for him. Similarly, we should examine what it is about the rhetoric of the powerful that draw people in to abusive situations, as well as why abusive situations become comfortable for particular people, like Andrew and Chris, who both feel the most self-worth in the midst of situations that leave long-term detriment.