On the heels of another Oscar Awards controversy, Best Picture nominee American Sniper is now the hot topic at the intersection of Hollywood and politics. The film grossed an amazing $105 million over the long holiday weekend, shattering all expectations and box office records for this time of year, and also became the talk of the conservative political media by virtue of an alleged liberal backlash against the film. The film centers around the life and times of the late Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sniper who, with over 150 confirmed kills, was designated the “deadliest sniper in American history,” and liberals like Robert Greenwald or Michael Moore could be forgiven a little nervousness about the film’s politics.
Kyle was killed in February of 2013 by a veteran he was trying to help by using the shooting range as a form of therapy, but little more than a week before that tragedy, he was at a gun show in Las Vegas, and gave an interview to the website Guns.com. As you will see, Kyle’s gun politics were pretty extreme, and included offering up his security company to train teachers to carry firearms in schools. There are also glimpses of his human side, and an eerily ironic question about the politics of another controversial film, Zero Dark Thirty, which Kyle said he hadn’t seen:
Kyle also famously claimed to have decked Jesse Ventura for badmouthing the Iraq War, President Bush, and the SEALS (Ventura denied this, and won a defamation suit after Kyle’s death), and the film is directed by this guy:
Given all of that, plus Hollywood’s already-spotty record with our recent wars (see the aforementioned Zero Dark Thirty) and the chatter I was hearing about it, I was ready to grit my teeth through long stretches of American Sniper. As it turns out, Eastwood has created a viscerally thrilling and terrifying war drama that largely, and wisely, steers clear of politics. Star Bradley Cooper delivers on the promise of those manipulative but riveting commercials, delivering a performance that fills in the humanity that the under-written script leaves out. Without Cooper’s acting and Eastwood’s deft camera, you would essentially have, as Seth Rogen observed, an Iraq War version of Inglorious Basterds‘ film-within-a-film, Nation’s Pride.
Aside from granting the Kyle character his point of view that he is serving his country, there’s very little politics at all in American Sniper. In the first act, there’s a scene in which Kyle and his wife-to-be watch the 9/11 attacks unfold on TV, which you could argue implies a relationship between the attacks and the Iraq War because Eastwood jump-cuts to Cooper on a Fallujah rooftop, but my moviegoer brain generally understood this to signify a deepening of the character’s existing sense of duty and patriotism. For the most part, Eastwood’s lens puts the viewer in Kyle’s boots, being moved around by a brass that’s convinced it can “win the war,” but mainly bent on protecting, and avenging, his brothers.
Eastwood (I’m assuming) even throws in a moment between Chris Kyle and his brother Jeff (who says they never actually met up in country) in which the younger sibling, crossing paths with his brother on the tarmac in Iraq, wearily intones, “Fuck this place” to his stunned brother. It’s as close as the film gets to examining the war on a philosophical level, rather than at gritty, tense ground level. The film covers the familiar ground of modern war movies, but Eastwood and Cooper elevate the cliches with flawless execution. You might come away from this movie liking Chris Kyle, but if you think the film is pro-war, then you’re not paying attention.
Which brings me to the overblown conservative wailing about a liberal backlash, which as far as I can tell, consists entirely of Michael Moore and Robert Greenwald. Rogen is getting a bad rap for his tweet comparing American Sniper to Nation’s Pride, which has been shorthanded to “Nazi propaganda,” because there is a stretch of the film that actually is reminiscent of that darkly comical bit of Inglorious Basterds. Moore, on the other hand, issued tweets that he now says had nothing to do with American Sniper:
My uncle killed by sniper in WW2. We were taught snipers were cowards. Will shoot u in the back. Snipers aren't heroes. And invaders r worse
— Michael Moore (@MMFlint) January 18, 2015
But if you're on the roof of your home defending it from invaders who've come 7K miles, you are not a sniper, u are brave, u are a neighbor.
— Michael Moore (@MMFlint) January 19, 2015
You be the judge, but I call bullshit. He says he was thinking of snipers because of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s murder by James Earl Ray, but that whole invaders/7,000 miles thing is a little on the nose. In any case, Moore thought better of it, and says he liked the movie, except for all the references to Iraqis as “savages.” Dehumanization of the enemy, though, is a standard feature in war and in truthful war movies, and in American Sniper, the characters draw too-clear lines between the enemy and the rest of the locals, veracity-wise.
Even if American Sniper were politically objectionable, though, that wouldn’t disqualify it as art. Some of the greatest filmmakers in history produced films with deplorable politics, including actual Nazi propagandist Leni Riefenstahl. Eastwood, empty chair and all, has managed to keep storytelling front and center in most of his films, and in American Sniper, he and Bradley Cooper distill something essential about their subject. Whether you individually wanted him to be or not, Chris Kyle was a piece of hardware that was wielded for us, and by extension, by us, but he was also a human being.