Targets: American Sniper

<em>Targets: </em>American Sniper

“When I was younger, all my friends were older,” Peter Bogdanovich said in 2014, late in his life. Keeping company with one’s professional predecessors is not that uncommon, but the roll call of pals cited by the director is the stuff that dreams are made of: John Ford, Howard Hawks, Alfred Hitchcock, Cary Grant, and Orson Welles, who famously took the younger man as a confidant and, later, a collaborator. If one major through line in American film history has been an almost worshipful reverence for the past—a result of artists’ desire to be part of something larger than themselves—Bogdanovich cuts a uniquely gallant, if also gadfly-ish, figure. As a precocious programmer at the Museum of Modern Art, the New York–born filmmaker, who initially studied acting with Stella Adler, spent his early twenties as America’s most assiduous auteurist, non–Andrew Sarris division. He was a swashbuckling critic, a celebrant of exiled expressionists like Fritz Lang and pioneering homegrown showmen like Allan Dwan; he wrote early, influential monographs on Ford and Hawks, dubbing the latter “the most typically American director of all”—a compliment to his hard-driving eclecticism. Bogdanovich’s sweeping claims split the difference between authority and affection: his guiding principle was a respect for his elders. By the time he started making his own movies, he was already the old soul of the New Hollywood.

While Bogdanovich was about as immersed in cinema as is possible, a key inspiration for his 1968 debut, Targets—a thriller whose terse, nightmarish qualities would not be repeated across his wide-ranging and influential filmography—came not from the movies but from real life. Charles Whitman was an altar boy, an Eagle Scout, a marine, and a mass murderer: in 1966, between the last day of July and the first day of August, the twenty-five-year-old ex–bank teller killed sixteen people—including his wife and mother—and wounded more than thirty others, shooting the majority of his victims from the observation deck of the Main Building of the University of Texas at Austin. For the mass media, which made him a household name—“The Psychotic and Society,” declared a Time cover featuring his image—he was a cleaner-cut cousin to Lee Harvey Oswald, his sights trained not on political power or celebrity but on the everyday citizens whom he resembled at a distance, and maybe under the skin as well. “I don’t really understand myself these days,” the shooter himself observed in the half-typed, half-handwritten suicide note discovered at his residence. “I am supposed to be an average reasonable and intelligent young man. However, lately (I can’t recall when it started) I have been a victim of many unusual and irrational thoughts.”

Targets is not a movie that tries to understand Whitman or his thoughts, but it does reckon with the fissures that his rampage opened up in America’s psychic armor; hard, jagged, and compact, it’s the cinematic equivalent of shrapnel in the cracks. Released in the wake of Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, the film was sold partially as a polemic. But Bogdanovich denied that his movie shed “a little light on a dark topic,” as one ad proclaimed, saying he just wanted to present the mechanics of a senseless crime. In this case, it’s possible to trust the tale as well as the teller: regardless of its message—or lack thereof—Bogdanovich’s debut stands in the company of John Frankenheimer’s The Manchurian Candidate (1962) and Brian De Palma’s Greetings (1968) as a film that serves less as an analysis than as a tissue sample of a decade defined by long-distance and increasingly high-profile gun violence.

You have no items in your shopping cart