“American Sniper” – for better or worse – has become a phenomenon.
The right has rushed to co-opt it just as quickly as the left has sought to condemn it. Its historic box office earnings ($200 million plus) and surprise showing at the Oscar nominations have secured its place as a fixture in the pop culture zeitgeist.
It has undeniably been a triumph of marketing -- the more controversy it generates, the more curiosity it engenders -- yet it is also deeply unworthy of both the praise and the fury that it has provoked. "American Sniper" is, quite simply, not very persuasive propaganda.
From almost the opening frame, director Clint Eastwood paints his protagonist, the late Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, and the Iraq war with absurdly broad strokes. Raised to believe that all human beings are either wolves, sheep or their sheep dog protectors – the Kyle character (ably played by Bradley Cooper) enlists without hesitation after watching footage of an American embassy bombing on cable news. “Look what they did to us,” he says in a stoic monotone.
Kyle will go on to tally over 160 confirmed kills, according to the film, a fact we are meant to revere instead of find revolting. Both the movie and its characters underline this point ad nauseum by bestowing the nickname “Legend” on Kyle, while largely steering clear of any potentially unflattering aspects of his psychology. The movie does try to be substantive about PTSD but placates its audience by never delving in too deeply. Instead we are subjected to scene after scene of unconvincing domestic conflicts featuring some of the fakest prop babies in movie history.
Eastwood’s great strength as a director is his simplicity. He is famous for shooting the bare minimum of takes and he has a largely no-frills cinematic style. His terse, old-fashioned storytelling imbued modern classics like “Unforgiven,” “Mystic River” and “Million Dollar Baby” (which was vilified by some conservatives for romanticizing euthanasia) with casual elegance. But when he has bit off more ambitious narrative than he can chew, as he did for instance with “J Edgar” or his ill-fated RNC speech to an empty chair filled by an imaginary president – the 84-year-old Hollywood icon’s flaws begin to show.
The material in “American Sniper” begs for complexity but Eastwood refuses to provide it. He presents an Iraq where there are no civilians or insurgents, only “bad guys.” In fact, a significant portion of the film’s screen time goes by before there is a single Iraqi portrayed not carrying a gun or an IED, and not one gets to show much character development or humanity.
Eastwood is correct – in a way – that his film is "anti-war." Pretty much every film that portrays war even the slightest bit accurately becomes a de facto anti-war movie because the brutality of the imagery would persuade all but the most ardent fatalists to steer clear of combat. However, “American Sniper” is woefully irresponsible, because it attempts to reduce the most polarizing military conflict of the perhaps the last 40 years into a mere video game.
The film is in some ways reminiscent of a far better war film, which is no less problematic, 1978’s Best Picture winner “The Deer Hunter.” That film, like this one, was only concerned with the impact of war on Americans. It made no effort to portray the nuance of the Vietnam conflict or our complicity in deepening it. Instead that film sought to help a nation still reeling from an uncommonly contentious conflict to feel some sense of closure – hence the unintentionally ironic recitation of “God Bless America” in its poignant finale.
"The Deer Hunter" arrived in theaters about three years after the U.S. had fully extricated itself from Vietnam and so perhaps it’s fitting that Eastwood’s film has arrived after roughly the same amount of time since America’s combat operations formally ended in Iraq. Perhaps, one day, it too will be viewed as an undeniably watchable albeit tone deaf time capsule of our country’s first attempts to come to grips with a war that has been increasingly understood to be one of choosing and not of necessity.
“It is the perfect movie for how polarized America has become in all things political,” Garrett Reppenhagen of the Vet Voice foundation told msnbc. “We are already creating mythical narratives about the war and no single opinion has won out on how the conflict will be read about in history books.”
“There was a lot of the dynamics in the combat zone, and here at home politically, that were not investigated in the movie,” said Reppenhagen, who served in Iraq as a sniper with the U.S. Army 1st Infantry Division. “It showed a very one sided view of the conflict.”
And yet, despite widespread quibbles about its authenticity, “American Sniper” has managed to largely sideline another fact-based film, Ava DuVernay’s Martin Luther King biopic, “Selma.” Despite stronger reviews and an arguably more timely storyline, “Selma” has underperformed at the box office and has seen its Oscar fortunes diminished in the wake of the “Sniper” juggernaut’s rise.
IndieWire deputy editor and chief film critic Eric Kohn concedes that “American Sniper” is “definitely a dark horse in the Oscar race,” even though he says he “likes it less and less the more I think about it.”
“It used to be considered box office poison to deal with this topic because it was so unglamorous,” Kohn told msnbc, adding that the movie has benefited from “an increasing frustration [on the right] with left wing dominance of Hollywood storytelling.” That said, he believes its success was the perfect storm of timing, casting and the Eastwood pedigree.
“If this movie was released in an election season it might have been more divisive,” said Kohn. And yet the movie has quickly become a de facto way to delineate one's political leanings.
Conservatives have even started a petition to pillory Michael Moore and other prominent figures who have dared to question the film’s ethics. Meanwhile, critics on the left have called on Eastwood and the film’s star, Cooper, to speak up against anti-Arab sentiment that’s allegedly been inspired by the film.
The movie is uncomfortably comfortable throwing around the term “savages” to describe the Iraqi people, and during its denouement, they increasingly appear like the “Indians” of old-fashioned westerns – faceless, inhumane hordes to be gunned down at will.
The final shootout takes place in a cloud of dust. When it settles, Kyle’s character is still remorseless and emotionally stunted -- just like the movie he anchors.