By Ygal Kaufman
Sniper in the Crosshairs
Controversy is the umbrella term for when the fieriness of a disagreement rises beyond the politeness of pretend tolerance. People often pretend to tolerate a viewpoint they vehemently disagree with, but then when someone makes it earnestly, or practically, it becomes… controversy (cue ominous music). So it goes for the Clint Eastwood-directed, Bradley Cooper-produced and starring vehicle, American Sniper.
The movie has received accolades, including a Best Picture nomination at the Oscars, and more notably, wild popularity at the box office. It’s already surpassed $200 million in domestic ticket sales alone and is performing unexpectedly well overseas, too. Why unexpected? Let’s get into the fake tolerance…
American Sniper is an adaptation of the memoir by the late Chris Kyle, and he was the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. Now that’s a pretty heavy crown to wear, and Kyle wore it proudly and with panache. He wasn’t a perfect person and nobody has seriously suggested he was. But because of some of the things he said in his memoir, which range from impolitic to downright racist, mixed with the overall population’s skepticism of, anger at, and fatigue for the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, Kyle’s story is now the symbol of jingoism the Left lusts after torching, and the Right breathlessly and unquestioningly holds up as a banner of truth.
Of course that’s not the movie Eastwood made, but never let the facts get in the way of a good controversy.
Seth Rogen got in the epicenter of the foot-in-mouth disease outbreak by tweeting that the film reminded him of the propaganda movie about the Nazi sniper in Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. An unexceptional observation, other than the fact that he compared (inadvertently, he claims) a dead American soldier, who many consider a hero, to a Nazi. Michael Moore got in the mix as well, first noting that a sniper had killed his uncle in World War II and that he was raised to believe snipers were cowards. Of course, he then had a bit of a controversy to calm down, so he quickly clarified: the sniper in question isn’t a coward if he’s shooting at invading American troops…
Needless to say both have been pilloried and canonized by the respective corners.
Now it was the turn for the talking heads and “explanatory journalism” websites to get in the mix and summarize the situation for their readers who presumably don’t want to see the film and judge for themselves. They made a variety of points, but the two that almost all of them made are the ones that can deserve debunking.
Claim: American Sniper peddles a false connection between the attacks on 9/11 and the war in Iraq.
This claim has been the central theme of a lot of the criticism the movie has received, including an Alternet article, reposted by Salon, breathlessly headlined, “7 Heinous Lies American Sniper Is Telling America,” as if the movie is running for Governor. This accusation is also the “original sin” of the film that gives birth to most of the other criticisms. The crux of it lies in the fact that the film shows Kyle seeing the footage of the planes crashing on 9/11, and then cuts to him in the field fighting in Iraq. This, detractors claim, is proof that Eastwood believes the Iraq War was a response to 9/11, and since everyone knows Saddam Hussein had nothing to do with the attacks, that this is not only stupid, but feeds a dangerous anti-Arab sentiment. Let’s set aside for a moment the fact that while the invasion of Iraq was indeed predicated on WMDs and not 9/11, it obviously was not a U.S. priority until after 9/11, so in that way at least, they’re very much related. More important is that this film is not a retelling of U.S. foreign policy successes or failures. It’s a telling of Kyle’s story, and for him, the attacks on 9/11 are what galvanized him to fight. It’s irrelevant how much they were factually correlated to his deployment to Iraq; for better or worse, to Kyle, the fight to defend his comrades in the field was all the same fight, no matter where the battlefield was. Though to some, quite unfairly, the fact that the film does only attempt to tell Kyle’s story, and not cover the entirety of the war on terror and the US invasions, is itself an unforgivable crime.
Claim: American Sniper’s white hat/black hat depiction of the war in Iraq is inspiring idiots to hate Arabs and pushes a false narrative that the war(s) were/are the right thing to do.
This claim is at least half right; the film does indeed seem to be inspiring some really moronic and loudmouthed people to declare things on Twitter, like that that they want to go kill Arabs because the movie got them so fired up. And I’m not exaggerating that. Lots of people on Twitter and Facebook have been saying lots of really stupid, racist, and disturbing things in “support” of the film. But since when does the intellectual elite in this country back down from defending a piece of art that happens to also be misconstrued by the dunces among us? Or even from defending actually racist art that is still of high artistic value? Which is to say not much about the fact that the film is pretty clearly in the “war is hell” genre and is very supportive of the men and women who stand up to defend us, not the bureaucrats who send them out, who may or may not be soulless monsters. It’s just not a “pro-war” film, at least not in any simple sense, and the claim that it clearly pushes some revisionist history about the war is just too thin to substantiate.
The film I saw was complex, and regardless of the many valid criticisms and debates that can be had about it, branding it as dangerous or without value on account of it being taken in the wrong direction by some frothy-mouthed internet commenters is just anti-intellectualism. And it’s against the very nature of art, which should be to trust the audience.
None of this is to say it was the best film of the year, or even necessarily a great film at all. But much like the self-portrait I painted in the bathtub, you should see it without the taint of controversy and judge for yourself.