What the success of American Sniper says about America


I have not seen, and do not plan to see, this film about a real life sniper Chris Kyle who apparently has the deadliest kill record in US military history. While some critics say that Clint Eastwood’s film portrays war in a complex way, it may have been too nuanced because the public seems to have reacted to it with jingoistic pride at the way that Kyle gunned people down in the war in Iraq, making it a huge success at the box office. The fact that Eastwood put the word ‘American’ in the title seemed to me that he was saying that Kyle somehow represented America and this undoubtedly would have colored people’s perceptions to think of this film as an exercise in patriotism.

Henry Giroux, Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department at McMaster University, writes that the popularity of this film, when compared to the much smaller crowds for better films also about real people such as Selma about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Citizenfour about Edward Snowden, is a telling sign of America’s addiction to violence.

Of the three films, Citizenfourand Selma invoke the courage of men and women who oppose the violence of the state in the interest of two different forms of lawlessness, one marked by a brutalizing racism and the other marked by a suffocating practice of surveillance. American Sniper is a film that erases history, spectacularizes violence, and reduces war and its aftermath to cheap entertainment, with an under explained referent to the mental problems many vets live with when they return home from the war. In this case the aftermath of war becomes the main narrative, a diversionary tacit and story that erases any attempt to understand the lies, violence, corruption, and misdeeds that caused the war in the first place. Moreover, the film evokes sympathy not for its millions of victims but exclusively for those largely poor youth who have to carry the burden of war for the dishonest politicians who send them often into war zones that should never have existed in the first place. Amy Nelson at Slate gets it right in stating that “American Sniper convinces viewers that Chris Kyle is what heroism looks like: a great guy who shoots a lot of people and doesn’t think twice about it.”

It is clear that the film seems to have energized those who had been dispirited by the manifest failure of the war to achieve its stated goals and has made the situation much worse.

Americans tend to genuflect to the military. Larry Wilmore devoted one show to this film and had on the panel a leader of a veterans organization and a sniper. The other two guests (one of whom was the normally acerbic Matt Taibbi) and Wilmore seemed cowed by the presence of the two military people and did not go near the key issue of whether the glorification of killing people, some of them civilians, in an illegal war that was dishonestly sold deserved to be portrayed heroically.

Comments

  1. starskeptic says

    To be fair to Eastwood, he didn’t have to add ‘American’ – it was already in the title of the book.

  2. George Garnaut says

    Can’t help comparing this movie to a much better ‘sniper movie’, called ‘Enemy at the Gates’, set in Stalingrad in WWII, starring Ed Harris and Jude Law. Much better movie, more nuanced.

  3. says

    It is clear that the film seems to have energized those who had been dispirited by the manifest failure of the war to achieve its stated goals and has made the situation much worse.

    “The Green Berets” had the same effect.

  4. mnb0 says

    American Sniper was on Surinamese TV a while ago. As I think Eastwood a pretty good director I watched it – he’s hardly ever boring.
    Obviously Eastwood’s political views are not mine; I’m pretty radical left. But I also think we should try to appreciate a movie on its own terms and that means taking those views for granted. Then we have to recognize that Eastwood indeed tried to honestely depict the dark sides of war as well – like the dilemma “shoot the kid or not?”
    That doesn’t make the movie a great one though. My biggest problem was that the idea of the movie was basically the same as the first Dirty Harry one, which happened to stir up a similar controversy. And that one is far superior, simply because Harry Callahan is not a flat character, which greatly contributes to his status of antihero. As a result the moral dilemma’s American Sniper tried to address were mostly far less probing.
    The two scenes “shoot the kid or not” are well done though and make clear that the accusation of cheap patriottism is not entirely justified.

    “a telling sign of America’s addiction to violence”
    This is just bogus. Watch any action or war movie (beginning with Rambo and ending with the Transporter series) and do a body count. Heck, The Godfather has more victims. But hardly anybody ever complained about that one Eastwood gets accused of this because liberals reject his political views. And that’s a cheapo. American Sniper tells nothing about America’s addiction to violence we haven’t known since say 1970.

  5. mikeinohio says

    “American Sniper convinces viewers that Chris Kyle is what heroism looks like: a great guy who shoots a lot of people and doesn’t think twice about it.”

    There is no doubt that one could take issue with many parts and the narratives inherent in the film. But I didn’t get the impression that Kyle “never thinks twice” about any of the people he shot. There is little question that there is a fair share of jingoism in the film. And the almost binary representation of “America good-Iraqis Bad” is completely absurd on its face. But Kyle is a bit more complicated than that. I hated everything about the war and believed from the beginning that it was all sold to us as a lie. But I am hesitant to form solid judgements about Kyle based on the likes of a Clint Eastwood film.

  6. dean says

    More troubling are the items left out from the book: Kyle’s blatant racism, his propensity for telling lies (his participation in the shooting of 30 looters in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, for one example, the entire story about the run in with Jesse Ventura for another), his claims that he and other seals raided homes of Iraqis they had killed, urging his fellow soldiers to kill every iraqi they see, claiming that Iraq was involved in September 11, and so on. By the time he came back he was clearly a troubled man – understandable, given the violence he saw and participated in. My father-in-law still had nightmares about his time in Europe in WWII when he died in the early 1990s. That part Eastwood seems to have attempted to discuss in the movie, as a “war can do bad things to good people” message.
    The troubling thing is that he seems to have been a racist and just as troubled before he deployed, and that is completely ignored, because nobody wants to admit that their heros are people who may have undesirable flaws before they are put into the limelight.

  7. kevinalexander says

    I saw the movie and was most reminded of a fellow that I worked with in the seventies. On his eighteenth birthday he got on the bus to Detroit and joined the Marines. Since we were Canadian we asked why he wanted to help the US fight in Vietnam. He shook his head. He just wanted to kill people. It was the most exciting thing he could thing of and joining a war was the only legal way he could think of to do that. What made it even more exciting was that the people he was shooting at would occasionally shoot back.
    He was accused of being a psychopath but he said no, the rest of us are in denial of our basic animal nature. As evolved predators we love the idea of killing–it’s what so-called action movies are all about. We love the idea of human suffering–the largest Christian Church is based on it.

  8. Numenaster says

    @kevinalexander #7, sounds to me like the accusations were accurate. Nothing you’ve said about your coworker indicates he had any empathy for other humans at all.

  9. kevinalexander says

    I think that the word psychopath is way overused. The political leader of a large nation can kill by the thousands and no one calls him a psychopath. The guy at work didn’t kill anyone here except in his fantasies–like many if not most people do. In war killing is legal so the restraints are off.
    When I was kid we used to ask our dads, who fought WWII, what it was like. They talked about the partying but not about the fighting. At first I thought it was because they didn’t want to talk about what they saw but in time I came to realize that they didn’t want to talk about what they did.
    What we tend to call a psychopath is someone who breaks our modern social rules but he isn’t doing anything that isn’t in our evolved character.

  10. dean says

    “At first I thought it was because they didn’t want to talk about what they saw but in time I came to realize that they didn’t want to talk about what they did.”

    My father-in-law actually said “The things we had to do in Europe haunt me to this day.” That type of statement convinced me that I didn’t want to know specifics.

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