Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Politics Of: American Sniper

American Sniper is on pay-per-view so, months and months after it has left the theater, The Omnivore has seen it! The Omnivore used to get to go to sneak previews of big movies for free--with press seating. The Omnivore attended opening night extravaganzas with tons of friends--and worked writing reviews. The Omnivore used to go to Comic Con and interview stars!!

The Omnivore is old and bitter.

Let's talk about American Sniper. The first part is a normal review--the second assumes you have seen it and will spoil things.

American Sniper

Chris Kyle was the real-life Navy SEAL sniper with the highest number of confirmed kills in American history (160--but his total with un-confirmed was 225). He served four tours in Iraq and came home a legend (literally: he was called The Legend). The movie stars Bradley Cooper who worked hard to put on 40 pounds of muscle to look like Kyle--and apparently did.

The film follows Kyle from his childhood through his training and then into war. He periodically comes home--but he struggles with it. We watch years pass as his kids grow up, his wife being unhappy with his absences, and the tension filled operations in the Iraqi theater. At home he is on edge and sometimes sad--out in the heat, he is demigod, killing effortlessly from above.

The film doesn't make war look fun--Kyle's little brother is seen going home demoralized and damaged--but it can't help but make war look cool. The SEALs race around Baghdad in vehicles inscribed with Marvel's Punisher logo, safeguard marines (who are tough--but not as tough as the SEALs), and seem to have a buoyant sense of camaraderie and brotherhood.

The movie more or less invents two antagonists by name--an Al Qaeda enforcer named The Butcher who tortures and kills his victims with a drill--and an Olympic Syrian sniper 'Mustafa' who has virtually no speaking role (he might have literally no lines) but is his own angel of death and seems as intent on bagging The Crusader (Kyle) as Kyle is on bagging him.

American Sniper proves that whatever else you might think of him, Clint Eastwood is a great director and possibly, even at his age, at the top of his game. The film balances its three story lines easily, doesn't feel boring or over-long, and, even if you know the ending, keeps the tension high. The film is intensely patriotic--but it doesn't try to portray Kyle as 'Captain America' either. He's human--he's damaged--and while he's fighting his way back to his family emotionally, he's also jetting off without them because he can't leave the war behind.

The film is the second highest grossing war movie of all time (in adjusted dollars, behind Saving Private Ryan). It is the second highest grossing R-Rated movie (behind The Hangover). It was on many critics top-10 lists for 2014 and it has won numerous awards and been nominated for many more. It lives up to its hype: Eastwood doing war is a dead-on center-of-mass direct hit.

Let's do the politics.

The Politics of: American Sniper

The politics of American Sniper are those of patriotic center-right America finding a movie that expresses their identity and the politics of the farther right engaging in the culture war by voting with their dollars. The dialog around American Sniper looks like this:

Center-Right (Mainstream) Patriotic Americans
  1. Is the film pro-war or anti-war?
  2. Was the movie Chris Kyle a hero?
Far Right vs. The Left Culture War
  1. The success of American Sniper is a rebuke of the left (embodied by Hollywood)
  2. The movie depicts truths about Iraq that liberals won't say
We'll take a look at each position!

Center-Right (Mainstream) Patriotic Americans

For the average American, soldiers are pretty heroic, America is a pretty good country, and the Middle East is full of our enemies and terrorists. This isn't to say that the average American is stupid--far from it: The Omnivore holds that soldiers are pretty heroic, that America is a great country, and that there do sure seem to be a lot of terrorists (and regimes that support terrorists) in the Middle East.

Trying to explain to The Omnivore that America also supports terror [because Dronestrikes] is going to be a hard slog (but The Omnivore will listen to you--the Average American has better things to do. Also, remember, The Omnivore is bitter).

This means that for the average guy, they react to American Sniper as a war movie.

Is the Film Pro or Anti War?

American Sniper is Pro-War. Why? It certainly depicts war as often awful--damaging to good people--and even a mechanism that breaks families up and takes loving parents from their children. The reason American Sniper is firmly pro-war--without being, let's say, fascist pro-war propaganda--is that it portrays war as Good vs. Evil.

This is fine in a WWII movie: the Nazis had style, but man were they the living embodiment of evil. Even their style was evil--look at those SS uniforms! In Iraq there were a lot of victims of our invasion-without-follow-up-plan--and a lot of those families were basically innocent.

The film gives us one, kinda--but the guy tries to sell the enforcer out for 100k and gets his son drill-murdered and himself killed. Pretty much every other Iraqi--including women and children--is a terrorist. In American Sniper, the US is full of good guys and they are fighting pure evil. Whether or not you think this is the way it was or not, the fact is that when the film is constructed that way it is pro-war. Even if its hero dies at the end.

Now, let's be really clear: it doesn't have to show both sides. There were guys who complained that 12 Years A Slave was unfair to whites because it didn't portray any good white slave masters. Uh huh. The point is that if American Sniper wants real anti-war cred it needs to do more than show the emotional cost. We know that our hero soldiers sacrifice--our hero soldiers know that going in--that alone isn't enough to make it anti-war.

To make it anti-war it would need to present war as stupid, a waste, an unnecessary evil--these are things that other movies have had no trouble doing with Iraq but American Sniper is not one of them. It is not blindly patriotic--but it gives us the point of view of someone who supports the war (as it should: it was telling the story of Chris Kyle who certainly supported the war).

Was The Movie Chris Kyle A Hero?

In the movie (not in real life) Kyle's first kill is a young boy. He is given a grenade by his mother and sent to throw it at marines. Kyle pauses--disturbed--but then shoots the boy as he runs towards the marine group. His mother shrieks and runs to her fallen . . . grenade--she hefts it and rushes the marines. He shoots her too. In real life this didn't happen. He says he did shoot a woman with a grenade who was rushing marines ("The woman was already dead--I just made sure she didn't take anyone with her")--but he didn't kill children (he also said in his book he wouldn't do that).

One of the "Hollywood rules" is that you don't kill dogs and children--but this doesn't apply to bad dogs and I guess now we know it doesn't apply to terrorist children. The point is that the movie opens with Kyle doing one of the least heroic things you can do . . . and still be a hero.

That's where the movie winds up: it deftly plays with its events so that Kyle is distant with his wife, uneasy with veterans who idolize him, absent from his kids, and unsympathetic to his enemy--and still a hero. Whatever the real Chris Kyle may have been, the movie Chris Kyle is the hero of the story. He is in every scene save the end-credits and he never even really approaches the "moral event horizon" (an action so evil that redemption would be impossible).

In the end (well, not the very end) Kyle is there for his wife and kids, helping other veterans adjust, and no longer jetting off to war. When the chips are down he saves his mates, doesn't leave any man behind, and takes his moral-mission to guard the soldiers under his protection super seriously. He never does anything morally gray (in his book he claims he beat up Jesse Ventura--Ventura sued for libel and won).

In short, the hero scales are firmly weighted on Kyle's side.

The Far Right and The Culture War

For people on conservative blogs, American Sniper was an event. It was their show. It was the one they'd been waiting for--from the one they'd wished for. American Sniper's box-office success was a blow against Hollywood and the liberal left itself.

American Sniper as a Rebuke of The Left

In 2012 in Tampa on the last night of the Republican National Convention a secret guest speaker took the stage . . . with an empty chair. Clint Eastwood, who had starred in a pro-Detroit Super Bowl commercial in February had been irked that it was seen as pro-Obama (remember: "General Motors is alive and Bin Laden is dead"?). He was asked to speak for Romney and he was delighted to.

Unfortunately, what he did was use an acting-practice trope of having a one-sided conversation with an imaginary person--Barack Obama--in the empty chair. Eastwood was good enough that you could actually infer what the invisible Barack was saying--and it sure wasn't flattering--but coming at the end of a damaged and demoralizing nominating convention, the strangeness of the spectacle was more than many could take. One Romney staffer was so nervous he threw up in the back room.

The crowd was a bit confused--but rallied and applauded. On the day after, Mitt Romney's speech was most noted for forgetting to thank the troops--and EVERYONE was talking about the empty-chair stunt. This forced conservatives into a corner: they couldn't abandon Eastwood (they couldn't really back him either: Eastwood probably didn't give a shit what the press said about him). For individuals, though, they had to stand by the stunt and absorb the wide-spectrum mockery.

When the costs were counted, Team Romney didn't even get a convention bounce. Eastwood was a key player in what was the latest disastrous electoral humiliation.  

When American Sniper came out, though, it was crisp, powerful, and manly. It gave us a hard-core Republican hero. It gave us a vision of patriotism that was pure and good. It elevated the sometimes murky Iraq war to the cinematic equivalent of World War II: Good vs. Evil. It didn't get George Clooney cynical (Three Kings) or attack the military ethic (Stop Loss) or the Republicans (Lions for Lambs). 

It was sober, serious, and intelligent--and it pissed liberals off. Every dollar it made--every award it won--was another smack in the nose for the left. By the time it left the box office it had racked up quite a few unanswered blows.

It also showed that Hollywood was (maybe) leaving "money on the table" by constantly dissing conservative audiences. The conventional wisdom that movies that showed America as good and strong would fail wasn't true--American Sniper was proof that Hollywood was full of ideological losers. 

Whether or not any of this was true was, of course, questionable: American Sniper is a damn fine movie in terms of craft. The fact that it upset people on the left wasn't material to its success or failure--and it is highly unlikely that Eastwood thought of the film as making a Tea Party statement. He likely thought he was making a film about the war and a particular hero of it--and he was right.

Still, in the harsh eye of the Culture War, everything has to choose a side and everything has expanded meanings.

American Sniper: Truths Liberals Won't Tell

Here is a critique of American Sniper from the left. It contrasts tweets of people who saw it and want to kill some rag-heads with quotes from Kyle's book with commentary by the critic (tweets!). The upshot: it white-washes an evil war and a bad man who was a murderous assassin. For conservatives American Sniper tells a particular truth that Liberals won't admit to: Those People are Savages.

Indeed, in the movie Kyle doesn't mince words. He calls 'them' savages--and not just "Radical Islamists" either--when his buddy buys a diamond ring for his girl on the cheap, Kyle tells him it could be a blood-diamond and that he shouldn't trust those savages. Unless the diamond vendor then opened up with an AK-47, we aren't confining the savage-izing to people who were explicitly trying to kill Kyle and his team.

Today President Obama won't even call ISIS radical Islam--and we have Howard Dean saying that the guys who shot up Charlie Hebdo are as 'Muslim as [Dean] is.' The Omnivore hates to break it to Howard: the guys who shot up Hebdo 'to avenge the prophet' are way, way more Muslim than Howard Dean is. Sure, they're the evil radical kind of Muslim--but that kind, unfortunately, exists (there are also evil radical Christians, right, lefty? Yeah. Thought so.)

So what about it? Is it true that "They're savages?"

Well, that kind of depends on how you define 'savages' doesn't it? Firstly the things that Saddam and his crew did to people both before and after the American invasion were without question savage (such as dissolving people in acid and drilling holes in them--something Saddam's son Uday was famous for). It's also true that, for example, what constitutes justice in the Muslim world is, well, pretty savage by western standards. Beatings are part of the system.

The penalty for apostasy is death. In Iraq, according to a Pew Poll, some 88% of the population think it's okay to kill a young woman for dishonoring the family (Honor Killings). That's . . . savage. The things that ISIS are doing in Iraq now go beyond savage and into atrocity.

So does this taint every Iraqi man woman and child? No--of course not--but it also provides a context for the real Chis Kyle to have some battle-induced xenophobia. Our own WWII heroes weren't politically correct about the Germans or Japanese--to think that soldiers are going to give The Enemy the benefit of the doubt is simply naive.

The far right is also correct about something: The Left doesn't like to play in this territory. Part of that is tactical--if you come out and say that Islam has a streak of medieval savagery running through it (today exemplified in ISIS) you will cede ground and give oxygen to the likes of Pamela Geller. This is actually true--not giving ground is a reasonable move in shouting wars. On the other hand, bending over backwards NOT to acknowledge the Islamic roots of ISIS (and Al Qaeda before them) was a very specific kind of blind-spot.

So American Sniper isn't so much "telling the truth" as it is "giving a soldier's perspective." Now, the movie's plot backs that up by making just about every Muslim a terrorist and providing us with no "good ones" save maybe the group's interpreter--but this IS a war movie. World War II movies didn't have to give us good Germans or the odd noble officer. It simply isn't part of the formula.


A lot of the debate has centered around the "real" Chris Kyle (in his book he (A) doesn't fight Mustafa and (B) is very clear about loving his service and having a blast being a SEAL--and (C) that Iraqis are savages) vs. the movie Kyle. The Omnivore doesn't think this argument is especially interesting. Firstly, every true war movie has to have Us and Them. Secondly, the idea that the filmmaker should give extra oxygen to liberal's views is just wishful thinking. Liberals are perfectly capable of making their own movies and, like Stop Loss, most of the really liberal ones suck.

It's true that Iraq wasn't World War II--but no one needs a movie--or a liberal--to tell them that. We're all very familiar with the issues around the Iraqi war (Bush's low ratings were at least partly responsible for handing Barack Obama a win). The film does give voice to a centrist-right patriotism but not a far right conspiracy mindset. For not hating on America because of Iraq, the left has decided that it's far right and the far right has decided it's their long awaited statement.

Neither is true: it's a patriotic American war movie in a long tradition of patriotic American war movies--and it's a good one.


  1. So what about it? Is it true that "They're savages?"

    Well, that kind of depends on how you define 'savages' doesn't it?

    Actually it depends on how you define "they".

    Are "they" members of Saddam's government? Terrorists? Or are "they" every man, woman and child in Iraq?

    1. Clearly Kyle meant 'everyone over there'--but in reality it meant people he met in the context of agents of Saddam and Al Qaeda trying to kill him and reestablish control (which they did, in the form of ISIS). He wasn't over there taking a survey or providing humanitarian aid--he was performing overwatch in hot-zones.

      Kyle would be, in my opinion, a better man for making the distinction--but apparently he didn't and as a soldier that doesn't surprise me. People trying to kill you is a pretty big chunk of context. He also may not have seen the exact events portrayed in the film (Drill-murder of a child) but I expect he was exposed to some, well, savagery.

      The key thing to keep in mind here is that where further right conservatives are in fact over-willing to tar ALL Muslims as terrorists/savages/etc. The context for American Sniper being a point in the culture war is that (a) it does portray his antagonists as evil (and does so in a manner congruent with its charge as a war movie) and (b) has Kyle speak against the "there-are-no-radical Islamists--just terrorists who happen to Muslim" trope which is also a real thing.

      Finally, though, the movie doesn't demand you think Kyle is right (he's not exactly right to leave his wife for two more tours once he has a tiny baby at home--however fake the baby appears on camera . . . and that is one fake looking baby). It just demands you accept that's how *he* sees things.

      -The Omnivore