Friday, January 23, 2015

Further Thoughts on American Sniper – Movies Spotlight – January 2015

Like many others, I saw America Sniper over the weekend. I gave it a 7/10 in my Quick Review, which you can read here. Overall, as a film, I found it to be very well made and acted, which is to be expected from a quality director such as Clint Eastwood and leading man such as Bradley Cooper (who has now been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar three years in a row). But, there seems to be quite a bit of frustration surrounding the film stemming from its portrayal of the Iraqi War – is it merely a propaganda film, championing a war that generally seemed to be fairly unpopular amongst most Americans today and to what purpose? Is it trying to change our minds about the war? That indeed, America was right to invade Iraq? Or, is it the heroic story of a man who fought to keep America safe without overt political motifs – i.e., this is based on a real person who served in Iraq, but really it could be a fictional account of fictional heroics, characters and situation taking place during any war? The film feels like a bit of both.

I will start my discussion by saying that I have not read Chris Kyle’s book on which the film is based. I am looking at the film as a sole and separate entity.

Narratively, the film is structured with two distinct tonal sections: one in which Kyle is stateside and one with him fighting overseas. Kyle’s character transformation is striking. He seems like a happy and gentle person, but also very protective. As his time at war mounts, he becomes dejected and disengaged at home, afraid that he is not doing enough to help the war effort and probably also affected by the horror he has seen and inflicted. The film works very well as a character piece, tracking Kyle’s psyche as he shuts down his home personality to make himself a better warrior, only to have to rebuild himself as a husband and father once he gets home for good – speaking to real issues facing many veterans returning home.

Yet, merely allowing the film to play as a character drama does not seem like it is enough for Eastwood. And so, the film has a completely un-needed and frankly idiotic (and apparently untrue) B-plot revolving around a rival Syrian sniper who Kyle must kill before he is ready to finally come home. Each man is gunning for the other, in a way reducing the whole struggle to a battle between the two men – Kyle even risks the lives of his unit to gain a kill shot on his rival – which somewhat subverts the real tragedy of war for both those who die and those who come back and face the enormous struggle of rejoining normal life (something many are never able to fully do). All this nonsense resembles the WWII action film Enemy at the Gates (which, surprisingly or unsurprisingly depending on what you thought of that film and this film, actually does a better job of playing out a rivalry between two snipers in the midst of a greater struggle – and it is actually based on a true story, unlike this made up Syrian marksman). Seemingly, this rivalry was added to heighten the stakes, create tension, produce more action, and give the film more of a straight forward plot, something that character dramas do not generally have, as they are about the character(s) and not their exploits. But again, this B-plot seems to run contrary to what is seemingly the narrative point of the film: the true cost of war on a human level.

This film champions Kyle’s exploits, killing over 160 men in combat, as if killing men were something to champion at all (it is not). His brothers in arms call him ‘Legend’ as a testament to his skill and prolific body count. The Syrian sniper and another target of Kyle’s ‘the Butcher’ also allow Eastwood to create clear villains – although, if we are critically looking at Kyle and the Syria sniper, they are really no different, except Kyle is an American which presumably automatically makes him a hero and the Syrian by contrast then must be a villain. Iraqi soldiers are commonly referred to as ‘savages’ throughout the film, which very well may be accurate to the lingo used by Americans in combat, but it still has a sting to it – reminding us that there is still a disconnect between how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive others in the world simply because they appear different (although, it is likely that they want all the same basic things as us). Eastwood have a vicious Syrian sniper, ‘the Butcher’ and ‘savages’ as the film’s villains paints a clear picture of who is right and who is wrong, who is heroic and who is evil. Everything is black and white. But in reality, war is grey.

This is where the question of whether or not American Sniper is a propaganda piece starts to be raised, as it seems to present a fairly one-sided look at the war in Iraq. As a character piece, this film would feel very much like an anti-war film, as war clearly takes a great emotional toll on those subjected to it (see some data here). The film applauding the efforts of Kyle and his fellow soldiers while condemning the opposing forces as treacherous villains treats the Iraq War as a fight America needed to start to root out all this evil. The film even narratively alludes to a connection between the attacks of September 11th, 2001 and the war in Iraq, something we all now know to be completely unconnected. In the film, however, Kyle arises the morning of September 11th to the vicious attacks on TV and then he is deployed to Iraq. This feels like propaganda in support for the War in Iraq. But why? Maybe I am out of touch, but it felt like we had generally decided that the war was a mistake and that we probably messed things up even more for the region and made thing all the more dangerous than they were before – which is why leaving Iraq completely has been so difficult. So why make a film after the fact to re-garner support for the war?

Let us first take a quick break to look at the word propaganda. It has a negative connotation, because it is mostly used by us to discuss the way our enemies recruit others to join them or believe in their way of thinking. We often think of it as a nefarious and deliberate tool used in the spreading of information to corrupt and harm. Thus, calling American Sniper a propaganda film (to promote a positive impression of the war in Iraq, specifically) is meant to be an insult. Yet, many of Hollywood’s great films are propaganda films (in full or in part). During WWII, Hollywood churned out films in support of the war effort – great films like: Mrs. Miniver, Foreign Correspondent, Casablanca, and even The Great Dictator. Today we still make them. Though it may not be quite as overt as American Sniper, Zero Dark Thirty seems to try to justify many of the CIA tactics in obtaining information from captured persons. It is a brilliant film, nonetheless. I do not think that it is mutually exclusive for a film to be good and propaganda – for the propaganda to be completely effective, the film should be good, really good in fact.

But what feels frustrating, leading to American Sniper being simply dismissed as propaganda (which is unfair to the very good and effective propaganda films that are still beloved piece of art, culture and politics today) and not a narrative piece, is that it seems to be going out of its way to promote a war that resulted in the death of thousands and the destabilization of the region, causing lasting and profoundly dangerous ramifications. A war that we also now know was started due to bad information (which means that at best everyone just messed up really, really bad and at worse the information was doctored with the intent of starting the war – the combination of which is parodied brilliantly by Armando Iannucci in his film In the Loop).

So, what is the point of rallying support for a war we know to be regrettable? American Sniper touches on something far scarier that is building within America, and has been for a while now. This ignorant belief that America is infallible and always right, always the good guy – and not only that but also that America has the right to do whatever it wants globally (to put it in an overly simplistic way). It is not to say that this is what the U.S. government actually believes or what their foreign policy is; rather, this is seems to be a perception that has become a growing trend among many Americans. And, hand-in-hand with this belief that America is always right and good is that America’s enemies therefore must always be wrong and evil – again, making things black and white, which is far too simple. We could take the point even farther and say that it seems like this same trend is directly connected to the decreasing quality of education at the elementary and high school levels in America (some data here). Lack of education leads to ignorance and fear about foreign ideas and cultures, which also allows things to seem much more black and white, because ignorance and fears allows us to forgo taking into consideration the other’s perspective and position. Imagine what Iraq must feel like to an average Iraqi citizen before and after the U.S. bombed, invaded, occupied, and subsequently left their country in shambles.

It is not so much that America Sniper the film is a vile piece of propaganda aimed at rallying the ignorant, perpetuating their ill-informed opinions on the war, Iraq and its people. There is no evidence that Eastwood made the film with this intention, and I doubt that he did. Yet, the Box Office numbers support the fact that it fits nicely into the rhetoric of this growing trend of ignorance and fear. That is what makes it frustrating (it is also not a mark in the positive column that running to support the film is Fox News, a news organization known for putting its agenda above all other considerations like telling the truth, and the likes of Sarah Palin – both of which makes liking American Sniper feel a bit slimy even though Eastwood is a great filmmaker; and yes, cheap shot on Fox News and Palin, but they can take it).

In conclusion, I still think American Sniper is a good film, well made and emotionally powerful. It is not a great film, as it does have narrative flaws (like the pointlessness of the rival sniper), and it is probably not a deserving Best Picture Oscar nominee. The greater issue surrounding the film, however, is that it has become a battleground, to some extent, for America’s soul between those that would like to see tomorrow be better than today, not just for America but the whole world regardless of a person’s gender, race, religion, sexual orientation or economic/political background, and those who propagate and seek out ignorance, hatefulness and this incorrect notion that America is better than the rest of the world, and thereby Americans are better and more deserving than all other peoples. It feels like we are losing and ignorance is winning; and sadly, American Sniper feels like a reminder of that, which is why some have lashed out at it (fairly or unfairly).


  1. It feels like we are losing and ignorance is winning; and sadly, American Sniper feels like a reminder of that. I love this line. Suddenly it feels like if you voice an opinion other than love for this movie you don't support the troops and are a traitor. Good write up.

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