American Sniper did well this past weekend, smashing box office records and garnering 6 Academy Award nominations. It has also been making waves online, as a number of articles were written in the past few weeks either praising it, critiquing it, or placing it somewhere in a gray area.
I didn’t see it (I’m still in Afghanistan), but I intend to, when I get home, on a big screen in the theater. The last time I wrote about a war film was when I posted a few thoughts on Lone Survivor, which I still haven’t seen for reasons I elaborate on in that post. I really like war films, but not for the violence. I like war films that capture the absolute absurdity of war and showcase the limits of heroism. For that reason, Full Metal Jacket is still my favorite movie and I look forward to the Iraq and Afghanistan version of it.
I was never really that excited for American Sniper. When I originally saw the well-done trailer, it all seemed so ho-hum to me – another story of a Special Operator that would undoubtedly lionize and champion the role of the “warrior” absent the black context of the war(s) itself. Additionally, I have less and less of a stomach for war movies about our modern conflicts. We’re still in Afghanistan and we’re back in Iraq. While I don’t think that in order to make a good war film the war necessarily has to be over, it seems to be a good general rule.
There are two running lines in the veteran community about American Sniper; 1) it’s the best modern war movie about the current conflicts, and 2) it’s a caricature of war that feeds into America’s obsessions with its military.
The first point of view is is championed by Paul Rieckhoff in an essay for Variety. In it, he writes:
I’ve seen just about every film about the Iraq War ever made. I’ve produced and associate produced a few. I even appeared in one (for about a millisecond). And without a doubt, “American Sniper” is the single best work of film about the Iraq War ever made.
It’s a strong opening statement. While Paul goes on to admit that the story isn’t terribly complex, it gets the war better than any other war film about Iraq. He even compares American Sniper to Full Metal Jacket, which I have a hard time believing, especially because FMJ is a work of fiction whereas American Sniper is based on the real life of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. I’ve disagreed with Paul in the past concerning war films. I actually liked The Hurt Locker, despite its exaggerations, whereas Paul made it very clear that he did not.
Still, I appreciated Paul’s thought process on one of the reasons he did like American Sniper:
Most of America is tired of hearing about Iraq. But now, they’re at least open to being entertained by it. And as an activist and as a veteran, I’m OK with that. After a decade of working on veterans issues with an unprecedentedly disconnected civilian population, I’ll take it. Like Chris Kyle was, every one of America’s newest generation of 2.8 million veterans is still processing the war ourselves. And will be doing so forever. And we know that films like “American Sniper” may bring civilians closer to us than anything else.
It’s a good point. It’s been over a decade and the closest thing to realistic depictions of military service that are widely viewed have been in the form of video games like Call of Duty and Battlefield (which isn’t saying much). Despite winning the Oscar for Best Picture, The Hurt Locker bombed at the box office. Now, finally, we have a film that prominently features Iraq that is actually entertaining, critically acclaimed, and being widely seen.
On the other side of the spectrum, Alex Horton writes in the Guardian that the movie is another in a series of films that highlight the exploits of special operations forces while dismissing the much more prevalent experience of the conventional military that have rotated in and out of theater for over a decade. He writes:
These films have the potential to distort how the United States views its own history and its troops. The everyday stories of war are background noise. We rarely see intel soldiers piecing together insurgent networks, or low-ranking officers meting out local grievances in rural Afghanistan.
It’s a good point, and one that I think lends ammunition to former Defense Secretary Robert Gates’ statement that the American public has a “cartoonish” idea of what the military is and how it operates, largely based, as Alex suggests, on films like Zero Dark Thirty and now, American Sniper.
He also gets in this gem, which he says was to see if I’d notice:
People under 40 no longer ask what war is like; they ask if it’s like Call of Duty.
Alex’s point is one that I’ve made before as well: whether we like it or not, the films become the historical record of the conflict. When I think of Vietnam, I think of the movies I’ve seen that tell me what it was like. When tomorrow’s children wonder what the hunt for Osama bin Laden was like in the first decade of the 21st century, they’ll think of Zero Dark Thirty. And when they want to know what Iraq was like, they’ll think of American Sniper.
Of course, any criticism about getting details right or exploring the full context of war are always dismissed as either not the job of the filmmaker or brushed aside as secondary to capturing the spirit of the war-fighter:
“And for me (Bradley Cooper), 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, and we have to take care of them.”
The same thing was said over forty years ago, when another film that lionized special operators was made during the heat of the Vietnam War, The Green Berets:
In defense of the film, John Wayne said his “motive was to glorify American soldiers as the finest fighting men “without going into why we are there, or if they should be there.” His “compulsion” to do the movie was based on his pride of the Special Forces, determined to show “what a magnificent job this still little-known branch of service is doing.”
Rightfully so, war is a topic that people get emotional about. Servicemembers and veterans do not get a monopoly on having opinions on war, and a film that is largely based on the auto-biography of a real person is likely to receive more scrutiny than a work of pure fiction. Reactions to the film’s heroiziation of Chris Kyle have been harsh. So too is the barely latent bigotry of theater-goers who took away only hate from the movie.
All that said, I’m looking forward to seeing it (albeit, after Mockingjay, Guardians of the Galaxy, Gone Girl, and Interstellar) and like Zero Dark Thirty, I fully expect that it will be both entertaining, and overly simplistic. Pass the popcorn.