Back in December, Jane Fonda took to Twitter to express her love for Clint Eastwood's American Sniper. The tweet garnered predictable criticism from many on the left who believe the film is a blind embrace of American superiority. On a micro-scale, the incident was reminiscent of her trip to Hanoi in the midst of the Vietnam War, which landed her on Hollywood's shit list.
By now, her 1972 visit has become the stuff of legend. Pictured smiling as she sat on a North Vietnamese anti-aircraft battery, Fonda invoked the wrath of the country's far right—her face still adorns a number of urinal targets throughout the country. Overnight, her public persona shifted from Hollywood sex kitten to emboldened, countercultural revolutionary. She was, and remains, a deeply divisive figure.
Eastwood's film, a box office juggernaut, has accrued a mythology of its own, becoming the moral outrage police's latest punching bag. There's been a rash of think-pieces penned, some of them by writers who haven't even watched the film. And while the popular leftist stance at the moment is to write the film off as a piece of masturbation fodder for right-wing hawks, Fonda is correct to point out that the film is more complex and valuable than some believe.
In 1978's Coming Home, Jane Fonda played the wife of an American soldier (Bruce Dern) during 1968. While her husband is away at war, Fonda, candy-striping in a local veterans' hospital, falls in love with a deeply troubled veteran (Jon Voight) who's been left paraplegic after the war. Fonda's cheerleader-turned-housewife sees her every patriotic principle upended by this man who shows her what "real" love is like. (The film became famous for a scene where Voight eats Fonda out, guiding her to the first orgasm she's ever experienced.) Trouble arises when her husband returns home.
From today's vantage point, Coming Home resembles an earnest and flawed time capsule. Fonda's character morphs quietly from all-American sweetheart to an actively skeptical, disillusioned woman—a mirror of the shift in Fonda's own persona from Hollywood naif to hard-edged activist. But Fonda's performance, which netted her a second Oscar, doesn't entirely work. The bite of Fonda's wised-up public image makes her character's naiveté seem unconvincing, as if she's condescending to the role. Dern's performance as the emotionally disoriented soldier, too, is tonally askew. It's intentionally—but caustically—at odds with the gentle fabric surrounding it, like some opera of unmodulated shouting without an emotional anchor.
Sniper succeeds where Coming Home failed. Bradley Cooper's Chris Kyle has a firm anchor, rooted in some deep, sick pain he can't make sense of. The film is a love story between a guy and his country, and Eastwood effectively probes the psychology behind this man's blind devotion to America.
In the war zone, Kyle exacts his deadly craft like an obsessive, moody artist. Killing thrills him. When he returns home, though, he wrestles with the pain; the experience has numbed him in a way he doesn't entirely understand. When he visits the doctor with his wife, he finds that his blood pressure is alarmingly high. He doesn't think it's a big deal. In another scene, he almost attacks the family dog.
Eastwood gets a ton of mileage out of Cooper, whose face exhibits a nervous resolve throughout the movie. His is the face of a man who's dedicated to a vision of America that's showing signs of wear and tear—an America that believes it is always the hero.
It's telling that Fonda, one of the most outspoken lefties of her cultural moment, has vocally supported a film so many on the left want to hate. The left may be right. A number of moviegoers may exit theaters convinced, more than ever, that Chris Kyle was a hero, as they believed Sandra Bullock was doing something heroic when "saving" an impoverished black teenager in 2009's The Blind Side.
So what if the American public misses the film's finer points. Has our outrage become so lazy that we respond to middle America's reductivism with a reductivism of our own?
Art—even populist art—should have no obligation to stroke our politics. When we demand artists reflect values that are progressive to us and regressive to others, we betray the point of art: to let us question how we live.
And it's not as if Dinesh D'Souza is behind the camera here. Eastwood is, objectively, an artist. Throughout his career, Eastwood has deconstructed American values with precision. Taken at face value, a critic could construe a film like Unforgiven as a celebration of tried-and-true American beliefs. Its worth as a work of art, though, comes from its complete inversion of the American Western.
Eastwood is a vestige of an American cinema that was once vibrant and challenging—a cinema that barely exists now. It isn't his job to give us easy answers.
And he doesn't. Fonda is right. The film shows a side of war that Coming Home glossed over: the troubling pathology of patriotism. In one scene in Sniper,Kyle watches the collapse of the World Trade Center on television, and it's as if he freezes in time. The moment recalls an early scene in Coming Home, when Fonda, before she becomes "radicalized," stands firm as she listens to the national anthem on television. In those moments, Cooper and Fonda's faces cut deep, getting at something perversely authentic—the sad, sorry myth of American exceptionalism some of us never outgrow.