Sunday, January 25, 2015

American Sniper and the Role of Film in Warmaking

I'm already quite tired from a long day, but before I go to bed I wanted to post some articles about American Sniper. I tried to watch the film last weekend on a Sunday night when usually theaters are empty on Guam, but to my surprise it was sold out. In just a week it is now a huge blockbuster and seems to be a commercial and critical success. Amidst all the buzz, people have been criticizing the film because of the incredible amount of fabrication that went into creating the movie figure of America's most lethal sniper. The Chris Kyle in the film is very different than the Chris Kyle of history and who published a memoir and loved to exaggerate his history of violence, even to the point of boasting and lying about fights he was never in and murders he never committed, all in the US, not the Middle East.

I have written so many times over the years about the way in which national policies become conflated with the soldiers who enact, in some cases illegally or violently those policies. If you oppose a war, you oppose the troops who fight the war. It is a frustration sort of discursive strategy because it doesn't leave any room for national error. It basically assumes that if the US is bombing or attacking someone and troops are involved, shut up and support the troops. Don't question what the troops are doing, don't question whether it is right or not, just shut up and support them. 

In my history classes we often times discuss the interactions between history and film. How people create a movie using elements of history and make changes to it. All films will take "liberties" but the question of analysis is why they take these particular liberties? In my history classes, students all usually agree that history isn't boring, as I try my best to make it exciting and interesting. But the usual response that people have is that movies change history because it is too boring and has to be spiced up. History is shaped in movies to meet different artistic or narrative needs. It is changed to meet audience expectations. It is changed for convenience. The creators make choices and we are at the mercy of their choices. All this is important though because films are a way in which people absorb information about history and also absorb values or at least fragments of values. For movies that take recent wars as their backdrop there is always the problem of patriotism. Do you create something that is challenging and that shows the horror of war and how the world needs less of it and not more of it? Or do you show war as being exciting and heroic and epic? A narrative form that tends to give the impression that more war is needed in the world, so we can have more awesomeness both of the national form, but also the individual servings in veterans. 

One problem with American Sniper is that since it is from the perspective of Chris Kyle himself, the movie offers up what is largely his world view as historical fact. The connections that he saw between races and countries become the scenery in front of which he kills, the color palette that gives meaning to his actions. It is no wonder that there was a sizeable amount of tweets in the first week of release all expressing a desire amongst viewers to go and kill Arabs, because according to the film's universe the Arab world attacked the US on 911, evil Arabs and Muslims were killing the US in Iraq and making widows of poor ladies back home and giving PTSD to other good American heartland boys. 

This is such a distorted view of history, and perhaps the main reason why the film is being criticized as propaganda. Iraq had nothing to do with 911 and the US was the occupier in Iraq. The fact that we are to see American troops in Iraq as victims and not invaders is part of the whole imperial consciousness that most war movies tend to perpetuate. America is a nation of liberators who go from place to place liberating and handing out freedom. Anyone who doesn't like that must be evil right? As we focus on the anguish of Chris Kyle and other American soldiers in Iraq and feel the potential patriotism well up within us, we so easily and too quickly forget that the entire Iraq war was based on lies. Lies that cost billions of dollars and thousands of lives. Clint Eastwood has stated that this is an antiwar film because it shows the incredible cost that war can cause on the families of soldiers, the wounds both visible and invisible that persist when soldiers return home. If he wanted to make an antiwar film, he went about it all wrong. A film like 'American Sniper' will most likely increase the chances of future, purposeless and pointless wars. So long as the focus of a movie about the War on Terror is on the heroes who come out of it, people who watch it will still have trouble distinguishing between the policies and the troops. They will support whatever next fight is on the horizon, because American heroes will fight it. War is the domain of national, masculine hero-making. It is the place of last-stands and valiant sacrifices, and so long as those things are highlighted and promoted, people will have trouble remembering the lies, the manipulations which often led to the wars taking place. It is unfortunate, because all of this blindness prevents people from actually supporting the troops, meaning only deploying them if they are actually needed and not sending them into quagmires like Iraq. 

Four articles are included below to give you a better sense of some of the critiques of the film.

"My 12 Years of Support for the Troops "
by Michael Moore
Before I post my more general thoughts later today or tomorrow about the ruckus of the past week regarding the response to my heartfelt comment on twitter about my uncle who was killed in World War II by a sniper - and how I was taught to despise snipers of any stripe - I would like to address this one insane mantra that the right-wing has twisted my tweet into: "Michael Moore hates the troops."
Well, who would know better about hating our troops than those who supported sending them into a senseless war Iraq in the first place?
And, for 4,482 of them, a senseless, unnecessary and regrettable death. 
If you supported that invasion, if you voted for George W. Bush and the Republicans and Democrats who backed this war, then you are the ones who have some 'splainin' to do. Not me. You. 
Because only "haters" of our brave young men and women would recklessly send them into harm's way for something that had absolutely nothing to do with defending the United States of America. Nothing. Nothing to do with 9/11. Nothing. In fact, WE, the USA, were the ones who provided Saddam with his weapons in the 1980s that he used against the Kurds. We wanted him to use them against the Iranians, but you hand a crazy guy crazy weapons, something crazy is probably going to happen. Ask Osama bin Laden about that -- what he did with the crazy training, crazy money and crazy weapons that WE gave him. Oh wait. You can't ask him. Because the new president took him out. No 150,000 troop invasion necessary. Just 12 or so Navy SEALS and two and a half choppers.
Here's the truth they can't or won't report: I'M the one who has supported these troops - much more than the bloviators on Fox News. To prove it (and I know this is going to crush some of you out there), here's just a partial list of all the things I do and have done for those men and women who serve -- and I guarantee you, you've never heard any of this reported about what the real me does because, frankly, it messes up their little story of the fictional "Michael Moore" they've created for your hate and enjoyment (please feel free to cut, paste and send this to your conservative brother-in-law):
** I have an aggressive affirmative action policy specifically to hire Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at my film production company, my movie theaters in Michigan and my film festival. I have asked other businesses in my town (and nationwide) to join with me on this.…/michael-moore-asks-business… . A vet was an editor on my films "Fahrenheit 9/11" and "Sicko" and a vet (who served in both Iraq AND Afghanistan) is the projectionist at my flagship theater in Michigan (to name a few). 
** I also ask people to post a sign I designed and have made available: "I Shop Where Vets Work". Here's my policy and the poster: (Can someone at Fox News send me your posted affirmative action program to hire Iraq and Afghanistan vets?)
** Since I opened my movie theaters in northern Michigan, this has been my admission policy: "Admission to all movies at my theaters is FREE, 365 days of the year, for ALL active duty military and their families." 
** I allow local veterans support groups to use my theater to meet for PTSD issues, I host quarterly PTSD summits, and I've hosted a conference to start a jobs movement for vets in our town.
** I have raised tens of thousands of dollars through my website for groups that help veterans and wounded warriors:…/20140829053240/http://fa…/soldiers/
** In the early years of the war I made all my books and DVDs available free of charge to all service members through
** I produced and hosted a benefit for military families at the House of Blues that received national attention to their plight (raw clips here from the AP: )
** I will NOT do business with vendors who don't have a policy to hire vets.
** I gave voice to the troops who weren't being heard by publishing a book of their letters from the front lines in "Will They Every Trust Us Again?" (NY Times bestseller for 4 weeks)
** I regularly post blogs from troops and I show and support many movies about what they've gone through in the past 12 years at my theaters.
** I took vets, soldiers and their families on a 60-city tour of the country so their concerns could be heard:
** I helped Iraq Vets against the War with "Operation Recovery" and…/how-bout-dinner-just-you_b_…
** My movie, "Fahrenheit 9/11" - #1 selling/#1 rental on all military base PXs
** My books were the #1 requested books by troops from the nonprofit
** I sit on the Advisory Board of the Pvt. Bradley (Chelsea) Manning Support Network
** From the Dept. of Irony: I only hire Navy SEALS and ex-special forces for when I need security - such as this week, when so-called supporters of those SEALs want me harmed.
** When my father passed away this year, in lieu of flowers I asked that donations by made in my dad's name to the veterans group, Veterans for Peace. Enough money was raised so that the Vietnam Vets chapter could build a home in Vietnam for a family still suffering from the effects of Agent Orange. It's being dedicated in my dad's name. 
** I am currently showing "American Sniper" at my theater that I helped restore and that I program and help run in Manistee, MI. Not because I like it, but because, unlike the other side, I'm not a censor. I trust smart people and people of good heart will know what to do. You can't have a conversation about what Clint Eastwood is up to if you haven't seen what it is he's up to. And regardless where u are on the political spectrum, you'll see that every character in Clint's film comes out dead or permanently damaged. This ain't no John Wayne rah-rah pablum. Eastwood made maybe the greatest western ever - "Unforgiven" - but now it's sad seeing him talking to an empty chair on a stage or making an Iraq movie that Rolling Stone this week called, "too dumb to bother criticizing."
In the end, the thing I'm most proud of for what I've done for the troops was sticking my neck out 12 years ago to become a leading opponent to Bush and the war. I tried to save more lives than a sniper ever could hope to -- by preventing us from going to war in the first place. Well, I failed at that. But I've done everything else humanly possible to try and make it up to those troops when they return home -- that is, the ones lucky enough to return home. 
So, Fox News and the other lazy media -- quit making shit up about me! You look ridiculous. If you want to have a debate with me about the ISSUES and the POLICIES, then let's have it. If you want to debate a movie that's trying to rewrite history, then let's have that. But when you hide behind falsehoods and then use them to try and manipulate the public, then all you are is afraid. Afraid of me, an unarmed American, and the truth I bring along as my sidekick. Only cowards have to lie. Be brave. Report the truth. It will feel good.

Why we're allowed to hate a movie about the military
On 'American Sniper' and more: judging art, and propaganda
By Drew McWeeny  @DrewatHitFix | Monday, Jan 19, 2015 7:30 PM

Over the weekend, I saw a headline go by about the truly remarkable box-office earned by "American Sniper," and I made a quick joke about it on Twitter. It was a passing thought, and then I was done.

"I'm not surprised 'American Sniper' opened so well. Fantasy films are huge at the box-office these days. #yeahIsaidit"

Yes, the hashtag at the end is snide. But it's still a joke. I put it up and I moved on. Or at least, that was the plan. A few hours later, I had to shut off the notifications on my phone because they just kept coming. For the most part, lots of retweets and a few jokes back at me, but there was a percentage of those replies that were overtly hostile and angry, and several threats of/calls for violence as a result. “Said the liberal insane POS. Sad our military die for ass wipes like you. Go away, little boy” was a charming one. I was intrigued by the one who called me a racist and then said, “You think there aren’t black people in our armed forces? You think that’s a ‘fantasy’?” I like it when people get upset about things that were never remotely part of my thought process.

One guy even attempted to loop Marcus Luttrell into the conversation, which made me laugh. The idea that the author of "Lone Survivor," the real-life retired SEAL whose story was the basis of the film and book would take time out of his day to join some anonymous goofball off of Twitter on a trip to LA to physically assault me is laughable. "Hmmm… maybe I should listen to this guy with 175 Twitter followers and go punch someone over a 140 character long wisecrack."

Right now, Seth Rogen's taking his turn in the barrel because of (this sounds familiar) a comment on Twitter about "American Sniper." His comment has been RT'd over 5000 times now, and favorited almost twice as many times. And you can now Google "Seth Rogen" and "American Sniper" together and you'll get an entire page full of results. People are getting hot about Seth's comment because it gives them a chance to say the word "Nazi" and draw huge ridiculous false connections between what Seth said and a very particular insult.

Here's the thing… he's not wrong. Sure, the film at the end of "Basterds" is direct state-sponsored Nazi propaganda, while "American Sniper" is a commercial movie, released by a major studio. In both films (one of which, I should point out, doesn't technically exist), though, we see a sniper being canonized on film for the killing of the enemy, the sniper-as-hero archetype. Rogen's comparison, offered up without any further slam or attempted insult, is an accurate one.

Personally, I have always been troubled by what our pop culture depictions of war say about us, and by the attributes war gains any time you point a camera at it, fact or fiction. Truffaut said, "There's no such thing as an anti-war film," and I understand that he was deeply troubled by the thrills that are delivered when we watch combat, the visceral reaction that he had to footage that upset him on a moral level.

I feel the opposite is true; any movie about war is automatically, no matter what the filmmaker's intentions, an anti-war film. I look at films about war, and I cannot imagine how we continue to send remarkable men and women into that situation. Any of us. One of the most disturbing things about the evolution of war films as a genre is the way technology has been used to create more and more graphic and realistic on-screen depictions of horrifying loss of life and limb. David Ayer's "Fury" was problematic, but I said in the review that one of the reasons I would tell people to see it was because of how great the tank combat is. Beautifully staged, harrowing, and photographed with a great sense of kinetic energy, it's impressive stuff. But tank combat is one of those things I'm not sure I should have a visceral action-movie reaction to, because of context, not because of form. That's the damnable thing about war movies.

Talking to a friend last night, she discussed how her reaction to the movie was to the movie itself. Not to Chris Kyle. Not to the true story. Not to the book. Not to any of the various controversies around Kyle. She liked Bradley Cooper's work, and she liked the way it played as a movie. When I wrote my review, I wrote about the movie, nothing else. I didn't really get into my feelings about Chris Kyle or his book or the industry that exists around portraying him a certain way, because that's really not part of a discussion of the film itself. I'll also confess… part of me gets nervous when those subjects do finally come up because of how the conversations inevitably break down. I may have laughed at that guy on Twitter who "threatened" me, but it does raise a question about that guy's reaction and the reactions of the people who are slinging fury and hate at Rogen right now over what he said. Why do people get so much more angry and defensive about any based-on-a-true-story that involves the military, and why do they feel some special need to attack anyone who dislikes these movies for any reason?

It's not like military-themed films are the only ones that get attacked for accuracy. It's Oscar season right now, so "Selma" and "The Imitation Game" and "The Theory Of Everything" and "Foxcatcher" and "Unbroken" have all had attacks launched at them over accuracy, and to some degree, every one of those films fails the test of "truth." "American Sniper" certainly isn't the only film out right now that can be challenged on matters of accuracy, nor would I consider it the biggest offender. In fact, I think what Eastwood tried to do, working with screenwriter Jason Hall, was shave away all the stuff from Kyle's book that was either difficult to prove or proven false, sticking instead to Kyle's service tours and his home life. The movie version of Chris Kyle is a movie star at the height of his creative energy right now, throwing himself into a physical transformation and pushing himself to a really grim emotional place. It's burnished mythmaking by Eastwood. The film makes a conscious decision about what character it wants to present, and there's nothing wrong with that, per se.

I understand if someone wants to go to the theater and have that experience, especially if they're military or if they have military in their family. I think a big part of the appeal (and I hate using that word in this context) of Chris Kyle's story is the horrifying irony of the ending. It seems to me that is the key with almost all of these films is that they're built on one particular idea about this famous person or this famous moment in time. I thought "Foxcatcher" was a frustration because there's so much good work in the film, hobbled by some really strange choices about the actual storytelling. The only way to look at these films is as fiction, based on things that actually happened. They are not true. In every single one of them, you have people who heard a story, who responded to that story, and who saw a reason to tell other people that story. In doing so, they edit. They massage. They shape. They edit. They emphasize.

Does it matter how Lyndon B. Johnson is portrayed in the movie "Selma"? Yes. Absolutely. And what I see in that film is a portrait of a man who understands what he should do and who equally understands what he cannot do at that point, a man whose position evolves over the course of the film, and who eventually realizes that there is something that has to be done. "Selma" is not a biopic in the strict sense. It is a film about the way it takes community to create successful protest, and how that community works. It absolutely telescopes events and situations in order to make its dramatic points. In the end, I believe "Selma" has a fundamentally honest perspective on the events, and that's all I can ask of any of these movies, just as I find that "Foxcatcher" has a fundamentally dishonest perspective. The fact that I think "Selma" is the better made movie of the two is unrelated to that belief, though. It's just coincidence that it lines up the way it does.

Obviously, there was an audience that was ready and waiting for "American Sniper," and I am glad they had the opportunity to see a film that means so much to them. But I wish it was possible in our culture to have a conversation about these movies and how they work as films without it automatically spilling over into accusations and anger. If you feel protective of the way the military is portrayed on film, that's fine. But the anger is part of something larger, some fundamental break that has occurred in the way we talk to each other in this country, a "your team or mine" thing that I constantly struggle to stay out of. What worries me is that at a certain point, if you say that what a film is about is more important than the actual artistry of the filmmaking, then you're talking about propaganda... aren't you?

I am not a binary person with a fixed binary opinion on things, and I suspect most people are the same way. I'd love to have a conversation about the way Eastwood's own attitudes about the military have evolved over the course of his performing and directing career. I'd love to have a back-to-back look at "Heartbreak Ridge" and "American Sniper" and discuss the way they each reflect the culture's attitude towards the military at the moments they were made. I'd be happy to talk about the way "Unforgiven" has defined so much of the career that Eastwood has had since it came out, and how "Sniper" seems to cover the same basic thematic ground of what violence does to someone over the long term and how hard it can be to live with a legend that constantly pushes people to challenge you as a way of proving themselves. There are conversations I'd like to have about "Sniper," and none of them are invalidated by my feelings about Chris Kyle, or by a short joke.

Wouldn't it be better to engage these conversations rather than just sniping every single fact-based film from a distance? Wouldn't that be the best way to make sure we keep truth and art and the relationship between the two in perspective?

"American Sniper," like "Selma," is in theaters now.


American Sniper Triggers Flood of Anti-Muslim Venom, Civil Rights Group Warns
By Dominique Mosbergen
Huffington Post
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee said this week that threats against Muslims and Arabs have soared following the release of "American Sniper," a hugely popular and hugely controversial film.
Threats reported to the civil rights group have tripled since the film’s wide opening over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, the committee told The Guardian. "The last time we saw such a sharp increase was in 2010, around the Ground Zero mosque," said the group’s national legal and policy director, Abed Ayoub, referring to an Islamic center that was going to be located a few blocks from the World Trade Center site.
The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has even sent letters to "American Sniper" star Bradley Cooper and director Clint Eastwood, imploring them "to help reduce the hateful rhetoric," according to USA Today. The group wrote that it has seen "hundreds of violent messages targeting Arabs and Muslims from moviegoers of the film."
"With all these threats coming in, we wanted to be proactive," Samer Khalaf, the committee's president, told The Huffington Post in discussing his group's decision to contact Cooper and Eastwood. "When we are not proactive, people end up getting hurt. ... We don't know if somebody's serious or if somebody's joking around, so we take all these threats seriously, especially when they're talking about shooting bullets into someone's head."
Khalaf said the group has not heard back from either Cooper or Eastwood.
Eastwood’s production company, Malpaso Productions, and Cooper's rep have not responded to The Huffington Post’s requests for comment.
"American Sniper" tells the story of the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who served four tours in the Iraq War and is credited as the most lethal sniper in U.S. history. It's based on Kyle's 2012 autobiography.
"Savage, despicable evil. That's what we were fighting in Iraq," Kyle wrote. "I only wish I had killed more. Not for bragging rights, but because I believe the world is a better place without savages out there taking American lives."
"American Sniper" has been a massive box office success, raking in $90 million in the first three days of its wide release -- reportedly an all-time record for the month of January. The movie has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture and best actor.
But the film has also proved to be politically polarizing, with celebrities, politicians and critics adding their voices to the debate. The National Review's David French said the "phenomenal" movie had "created a cultural moment," while New York magazine’s David Edelstein slammed it as a "propaganda film" and a "Republican platform movie" that was "scandalously blinkered."
In a post for Electronic Intifada this week, journalist Rania Khalek noted that social media has been deluged in recent days with "American Sniper" fans posting hateful, discriminatory and sometimes violent messages directed at Arabs and Muslims.
The film "makes me wanna go shoot some f**kin Arabs," wrote one Twitter user earlier this month, punctuating his tweet with emoticons of guns. "'American Sniper' made me appreciate soldiers 100x more and hate Muslims 1000000x more," wrote another.
In its letter to Cooper, the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee warned, "The threats advocate for the murder of Arabs, one going as far as to say, 'Great f**king movie and now I really want to kill some f**king ragheads.'"
The civil rights group said in its letter that it's working with the FBI and local law enforcement officials to address the threats.
"It is imperative for us, as Americans, to act now to prevent these verbal threats from turning into violent and physical hate crimes," the group wrote.

No comments:


Related Posts with Thumbnails