Cultural & Political Phenomenon
I must say, I don't think I've ever seen a reaction to a film quite like the current reaction to Clint Eastwood's blockbuster smash American Sniper. The issues surrounding the film are mainly cultural & politically based. The divide in America between right and left has surrounded other films before this, going back to the very beginning of the medium, but I can't remember a war film released in my lifetime that's provoked such a variance of strongly opinionated views not only of the film itself, Chris Kyle, and Clint Eastwood; but our American culture and how moviegoers interpret these films.
By far, [American Sniper](movie:401418) is already the most successful film set in either the Afghanistan or Iraq conflicts that dominated American foreign policy this past decade. After a very prosperous limited opening on Christmas Day, Sniper went wide over the weekend and did incredible business — a record-breaking $105 million over the four-day holiday weekend. It shows no sign of letting up either, with Box Office Mojo estimates the film will make around $65 million in its second full weekend.
Naturally, since it's a popular film, many people have chimed in on what they thought of it. It's received a polarizing response in the political arena. You have those on the left that supposedly criticized the film, like Michael Moore and Seth Rogen (who made the clever comparison to the film within a film Nation's Pride) -- they later clarified their initial comments. Then you have those on the right like Sarah Palin, who believe it's a patriotic film that celebrates a war hero and doesn't shy away from the truth about the terrorist threat.
I admit that while I did really like the film and pretty much found it to be anti-war, I'm more conflicted now than ever after having seen it again and reading the many opinion pieces about the film online that I will reference here. There are many misconceptions and truths on both sides of the spectrum.
The biggest divide over American Sniper might not necessarily even involve the film itself -- but the larger, broader take of Pro-War vs. Anti-War and what's perceived as Pro-Military vs. what's perceived as Anti-Military. I've noticed that quite a few commentators have made their thoughts known of the film without having seen it yet. Many on the right are just blindly Pro-War, flag waving Americans -- and many on the left (where I reside) are going off based solely on the controversial views Chris Kyle has in the autobiography the film is adapted from.
I don't the film echoes the real life feelings of its main character, as he is portrayed in the film. I believe it's more of a tale about how veterans of the Afghanistan and Iraq wars came home and were treated as heroes merely on a superficial level.
James Fallows recently wrote a very interesting piece for The Atlantic titled The Tragedy of the American Military. The piece is well-reported, in-depth, thoughtful, and makes a compelling argument that a society this terrified of critiquing the military, but this disinterested in soldiers themselves, is not a healthy one. We are a nation of Chickenhawk's, who don't mind war as long as someone else is fighting it for us.
Too much complacency regarding our military, and too weak a tragic imagination about the consequences if the next engagement goes wrong, have been part of Americans’ willingness to wade into conflict after conflict, blithely assuming we would win. “Did we have the sense that America cared how we were doing? We did not,” Seth Moulton told me about his experience as a marine during the Iraq War. Moulton became a Marine Corps officer after graduating from Harvard in 2001, believing (as he told me) that when many classmates were heading to Wall Street it was useful to set an example of public service. He opposed the decision to invade Iraq, but ended up serving four tours there out of a sense of duty to his comrades. “America was very disconnected. We were proud to serve, but we knew it was a little group of people doing the country’s work.”
Other than how people have perceived the film itself, a major source of controversy is whether the film accurately portrays Chris Kyle himself. The left-leaning audience has questioned whether the movie glossed over Kyle's polarizing views on the Iraq war, as well as for the alleged truth to some of his stories in his novel that the film is based on.
“Savage, despicable evil,” Kyle wrote. “That’s what we were fighting in Iraq. That’s why a lot of people, myself included, called the enemy ‘savages.’ There really was no other way to describe what we encountered there.” He later added: “There’s another question people ask a lot: ‘Did it bother you killing so many people in Iraq?’ I tell them, ‘No.’ … I loved what I did. … I’m not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun.”
This has lead to Academy members themselves, according to TheWrap; questioning whether nominating the film for six Oscars was wise.
The most disturbing aspect of all of this is the nasty threats directed against those who are criticizing the film, whether politically or strictly film standpoint. The website Alternet recently posted an article entitled 'Cut Her Head Off': The Shocking Death Threats You Can Receive for Mocking Eastwood's 'American Sniper' Movie.
Those threats aren't limited to those with dissenting opinions. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) have said that American Sniper is the cause of increased threats against Muslims in the US.
Regarding the depiction of Chris Kyle in the film, Lucy Steigerwald, in a piece for AntiWar.com titled The War at Home: The Unquestioned, Ignored, Heroic Military asserts:
Clint Eastwood’s previous war movies were not brainless shoot ‘em ups. His Letters from Iwo Jima even managed to make the hated and feared Japanese fighters into real human beings. But if the surprisingly antiwar Eastwood managed to turn the pathological liar who professed to "love killing" into a sympathetic human being in American Sniper, that’s not bad. Kyle was a person. His bravado perhaps is better explored by someone who wasn’t him.
Clint Eastwood: Anti-War Republican
“I was against going into the war in Iraq since I figured we would probably trip over ourselves in some way,” Eastwood said following a screening of American Sniper in Beverly Hills. “I had a big question when we went into Afghanistan. Did anybody ever study the history of Afghanistan, not only with the British, but the Russians?…Contrary to public opinion, I abhor violence.”
In a recent piece for The Daily Beast, Dirty Harry, The Dirty Hippie: Clint Eastwood Is Actually Anti-War, Asawin Suebsaeng points out a fact that both sides of the argument haven't paid attention too -- Clint Eastwood is and has always been anti-war.
Despite his dopey attempt at humor during the 2012 Republican Convention, something liberals weren't too happy with, he still got an audience of Republicans to applaud his criticism of the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan.
“I know you were against the war in Iraq, and that’s okay,” he said to invisible chair-Obama. “But you thought the war in Afghanistan was okay. You thought that was something that was worth doing. We didn’t check with the Russians to see how they did there for the 10 years.”
Eastwood registered as a Republican to vote for Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1952 and endorsed Richard Nixon's 1968 and 1972 presidential campaigns. However, during the subsequent Watergate scandal, Eastwood criticized Nixon's morality and later his handling of the Vietnam War, calling it "immoral".
Eastwood has disapproved of America's wars in Korea (1950–1953), Vietnam (1964–1973), Afghanistan (2001–present), and Iraq (2003–2011), believing the United States should not play the role of global policeman. He has referred to himself as "too individualistic to be either right-wing or left-wing", describing himself in 1974 as "a political nothing" and "a moderate" and in 1997 as a "libertarian". "I don't see myself as conservative," Eastwood has stated, while noting in the same breath that he isn't "ultra-leftist", either. At times, he has supported Democrats in California, including Senator Dianne Feinstein in 1994, liberal United States House of Representatives member Sam Farr in 2002, and Governor Gray Davis, whom he voted for in 1998 and 2002 and hosted pricey fundraisers for in 2002 and 2003. A self-professed "liberal on civil rights", Eastwood has stated that he is pro-choice on abortion. He has endorsed same-sex marriage and contributed to groups supporting the Equal Rights Amendment for women, which failed to receive ratification in 1982.
“I was a child growing up during World War II,” he told the Toronto Star. “That was supposed to be the one to end all wars. And four years later, I was standing at the draft board being drafted during the Korean conflict, and then after that there was Vietnam, and it goes on and on forever…I just wonder…does this ever stop? And no, it doesn’t.”
As the Raw Story reports; in the wake of antiwar criticism from the left and pro-war praise from right about his film American Sniper, director Clint Eastwood told those gathered at Saturday’s Producers Guild Award Nominees Breakfast that his film makes “the biggest antiwar statement any film can.”
Eastwood insisted that the film was an “antiwar statement” because it depicted “what [war] does to the family and the people who have to go back to into civilian life like Chris Kyle did.”
“One of my favorite war movies that I’ve been involved with is Letters from Iwo Jima,” he continued. “And that was about family, about being taken away from life, being sent someplace. In World War II, everybody just sort of went home and got over it. Now there is some effort to help people through it. In Chris Kyle’s case, no good deed went unpunished.”
It was also important to Eastwood and Cooper not to start some huge political debate over whether American Sniper is pro-war or anti-war. Simply insisting that it's about the plight of the soldier:
“My hope is that if someone is having a political conversation about whether we should or should not have been in Iraq, whether the war is worth fighting, whether we won, whether we didn’t, why are we still there, all those [issues], that really—I hope—is not one that they would use this movie as a tool for,” Cooper told The Daily Beast. “And for me, and for Clint, this movie was always a character study about what the plight is for a soldier…It’s not a political discussion about war, even…It’s a discussion about the reality. And the reality is that people are coming home [from war], and we have to take care of them.”
Lack of Perspective in American War Films
One thing that American Sniper doesn't have going for it, and I agree with this criticism, is a perspective other than Americans in the Iraq War. It's interesting to note when Steven Spielberg (who's made questionable war films before) was originally signed on to direct the film, according to screenwriter Jason Hall, wanted to focus more on the "enemy sniper" in the script — the insurgent sharpshooter who was trying to track down and kill Kyle.
"He was a mirror of Chris on the other side," Hall explains of Spielberg's vision. "It was a psychological duel as much as a physical duel. It was buried in my script, but Steven helped bring it out."
As Spielberg added more and more ideas to the story, the page count continued to grow, bloating to 160. Warner Bros.' budget for the film, though, remained a slender $60 million. Ultimately, Spielberg felt he couldn't bring his vision of the story to the screen for that amount of money and dropped out of the project. Within a week, Warner Bros. president Greg Silverman, one of the three executives who run the studio, asked domestic distribution chief Dan Fellman to call Clint Eastwood.
Eastwood is known for his quick and efficient shoots, often finishing the production on time or even a few days early, and always under budget -- which he did with Sniper.
The enemy sniper, named "Mustafa", is featured throughout the film, but is not really developed. Indeed, this is the most fabricated part of Kyle's story. We do see that the enemy sniper does have a wife and a child, so there is a relation between Mustafa and Kyle that I think could have been explored effectively.
Also, in Eastwood's defense, I don't think Mustafa is in anyway portrayed as an evil villain per say, the film avoids the cliches of how old westerns used to portray the savage natives. Like I've mentioned before, Eastwood has been one of the few filmmakers to show both sides of a conflict with his back to back Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. It would be interesting to see Eastwood, or indeed any filmmaker, examine the conflict from the Iraqi point of view.
The concept of an enemy sniper picking off American soldiers has been used in many films before like Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket, the 1993 Tom Berenger vehicle Sniper, Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker, David Ayer's Fury (also released this year), and more sniper vs. sniper in the 2001 film Enemy at the Gates.
As you'll see with the ending of Enemy at the Gates, it creates more dramatic tension when we know both sniper characters. This layer is missing in American Sniper.
It's a shame about the lack of perspective in American Sniper, because one of the most underrated accomplishments in film history -- Eastwood deciding to tell BOTH sides of the Iwo Jima story, was in direct response to the lack of perspective American war films have.
It's also ironic that Spielberg was the one who wanted to explore that duality, when he DIDN'T do so in Saving Private Ryan!
The finale of Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers (video above) is incredibly touching, and contains more depth and thoughtfulness than anything in Saving Private Ryan.
James Bradley: I finally came to the conclusion that maybe he was right. Maybe there's no such thing as heroes. Maybe there are just people like my dad. I finally came to understand why they were so uncomfortable being called heroes. Heroes are something we create, something we need. It's a way for us to understand what's almost incomprehensible, how people could sacrifice so much for us, but for my dad and these men, the risks they took, the wounds they suffered, they did that for their buddies. They may have fought for their country, but they died for their friends. For the man in front, for the man beside him, and if we wish to truly honor these men we should remember them the way they really were, the way my dad remembered them.
There Are No War Heroes & War is Political
In a fantastic piece by Afghan war veteran Adrian Bonenberger, writing for The Concourse on American Sniper, he asserts that the film seeks to avoid a truth: War is political, and a movie about war is bound to make political pronouncements.
When you sit down to enjoy American Sniper, you are committing a political act, and your evaluation of the movie, and Kyle as a person, reflects your political attitudes. But it's more complicated than the simple equation that progressives dislike it and conservatives enjoy it. Politics notwithstanding, those who've seen it tend to describe the experience in religious terms: awe-struck congregations of Americans seeing the Iraq War the way it happened, traveling down the path to PTSD together. Ask around: Be it Texas or Williamsburg, it's not uncommon to hear of packed theaters with the patrons filing out in reverent silence after the closing credits.
Bonenberger goes on to say:
The film is an uneasy composite of the many Chris Kyles people have encountered and argued about over the years. It's necessary to point this out, because the movie is inspiring a great deal of emotion, which seems based on an assumption that what's onscreen is "real" or "true," and what is being consumed is a portrait of authentic heroism.
I'm still waiting for a good war movie to describe Iraq or Afghanistan. It seems like the literary and cinematic trend now is to capture realistic and factually probable events from war, and to deliver those images to the American public without judgment or politics (as though a frank discussion of war could avoid politics).
We need a fictional movie with a plot, with a narrative, that isn't afraid to acknowledge certain truths about war: namely, that there are no heroes. There are no good guys. Killing doesn't lead to epiphany or to personal truth, save as a horrified revelation of human guilt. The people who thrive at war accept some of war's hatred inside them. This does not make American soldiers or the Muslim fighters we call terrorists heroes or monsters—it makes them human.
Considering this is coming from a veteran, who's actually experienced some of the things that Chris Kyle has -- it definitely carries a little more weight than most other opinions on the film.
True Anti-War Film
I just wanted to quickly point out what a film that is 100% committed to an anti-war message looks like. While all kinds of anti-war films have been made -- mostly taking place during World War I or Vietnam -- not popular wars -- there is a tendency of films that take place during World War II, seen as the "honorable" war (thanks to this Greatest Generation bullshit) that try to balance the horrors of war with the honor of war.
In his essay title ANTI-WAR WAR FILMS, Dennis Rothermel concludes that the legacy of war films -- especially those produced in Hollywood -- engenders the expectation for war films to glorify war, to encourage the virtues of warriors, and to justify the particular wars depicted. It should take nothing more than to show war for what it is to evoke a countervailing message. How well a national audience is prone to hear and understand that countervailing message may suffer from the common expectations that the legacy of war films has inculcated into the national culture.
Rothermel cites the best examples of complete and undiluted efforts may be Milestone’s All Quiet on the Western Front and Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line (1998). He outlines 13 strategies of true anti-war films. Strategy #4 is something neither Steven Spielberg's false anti-war film Saving Private Ryan -- released the same year as Malick's to more acclaim, or Eastwood's American Sniper share with Malick's film:
Strategy #4: Show the brutal logic and tactics, borne of necessity, serendipitously unmasked through confrontation with an enemy soldier representative of one’s self. Among Pvt. Train’s voice-over lamentations in The Thin Red Line is how the humiliation and terror of defeated prisoners shows the conquering soldiers what might just as easily have been their own fates.
This strategy is outlined in the scene below from the film. Notice how the enemy isn't merely faceless, and the almost shock each side is realizing that they are confronting essentially the same being.
My review of the film wasn't negative, and I think it allows the viewer to either judge Chris Kyle as a hero or villain - more likely a combination of both.
I just think it's a little troublesome that truly anti-war films about the Afghanistan and Iraq conflict aren't nearly as popular or successful from a box office an critical standpoint. Films like Stop-Loss and Paul Haggis's superb In the Valley of Elah, were films dealing with Afghanistan and Iraq that had anti-war sentiments, and they bombed at the box office. Last year's Lone Survivor, which I believe is the most pro war film about the recent conflicts, also faced similar praise and controversy last year -- but did really well at the box office just like Sniper.