Thoughts on American Sniper
Usually when I go to movie theaters I go during off hours to avoid the crowds. So, imagine my surprise last month when the 3pm weekday showing of American Sniper I attended was packed with moviegoers during the film’s second week.
Since then, the movie has become a bit of a phenomenon. Although it has virtually no chance of winning, it has joined seven other movies on the list of Academy Award nominees. Its total domestic box office sales, 280 million dollars and counting, trailing only The Passion of the Christ on the list of R-rated movies.
The huge box office for American Sniper and The Passion of the Christ have similar roots. While they are both reasonably good movies in their own right, the true secret to their success has been that they’ve tapped into a desire among many Americans to affirm their self-identity – whether religious or patriotic. Among certain social networks, seeing these movies is as much or more an exercise in asserting in-group belonging as it is seeing something interesting or entertaining. That’s not to say that bandwagon-ing among friends and relatives doesn’t help (or the effect create by media controversy), only that both these films represents a litmus test for some Americans who feel a need to differentiate between those who “get it,” like they do, and those who don’t. Since there is a correlation between the need to draw in-group/out-group distinctions and membership in the Republican Party, it is not surprising that American Sniper would provide grist for the conservative e-mail mill.
The movie has become a bit of a Rorschach test for the left as well. Liberals have encouraged the “right-thinking” crowd’s self-affirming patriotism-by-proxy by slamming the movie as pro-war propaganda, mythmaking, and full of lies. In particular, the fact that the movie lacks “context” is a theme that one sees a lot in liberal commentary. What about the fact that the Iraq war was launched under false pretenses or mistaken assumptions? How can the movie imply 9-11 and the Iraq War were connected? What about the 100,000 plus Iraqis who died and continue to die as a legacy of the conflict?
To these liberals I’d ask how many movies, particularly war movies, actually provide context? Most soldiers and veterans seem to say the same thing – that they were fighting for their buddies and didn’t much think about or consider some bigger picture. The essence of a war movie is to capture this dynamic, not necessarily explain the complicated history of American involvement in the region. When the central figure in the movie, Chris Kyle, is depicted as joining the military in response to 9-11, it is because many soldiers did just that (although not Chris Kyle himself).
As for Chris Kyle being romanticized and his many flaws, as a questionably psychopathic, arrogant, and either dishonest or delusional person, being glossed over – well, that’s part of movie-making (although I think it would have been a better, albeit less popular, movie had Eastwood explored Kyle’s pathologies a bit more). How many who have criticized the lack of candor in this movie were silent about the sanitized, adultery free depiction of MLK that also came out in recent months?
I saw another movie that was presented at my university last month called Five Broken Cameras that was a nominee for the Academy Award for Foreign Film in 2012. It was an engaging first-hand look at life in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The heroes of the movie were the filmmaker who recorded the footage and his friends who protested the Israeli barrier that was being constructed near their village. The villains were largely silent walls of Israeli soldiers who were unable or not allowed to talk to converse with the protesters, but were quite proficient at shooting things at them. There was no context, no explanation of the terrorism that shook Israel a decade ago that killed and maimed thousands of Israelis and provoked them, out of self-preservation, into building their barrier. It was just a good movie that showed the everyday desperation of an occupied people rallying on behalf of one another.
Rooting for the good guys against the bad guys isn’t necessarily a bad thing in movies. It makes for good drama and relatable situations. However, it’s up to us, as adults, to realize that there are shades of moral grey in the world and to educate ourselves about the context and consequences of decisions made in our names, especially when it comes to issues of war and peace. American Sniper doesn’t do this, because it depicts a man who didn’t think like that. He was a helluva soldier, but was not the type of person you would want making policy.