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American Sniper: Opposing Scopes

From The Hurt Locker to Zero Dark Thirty, military combat films have become increasingly controversial in the media. But has political correctness gone too far or can these films divorce politics from art? Staff writers Adora Svitak and Jordan Ash offer contesting views of the Oscar-nominated movie American Sniper.

In Clint Eastwood’s Good vs. Evil Narrative, American Sniper Misses Target, by Adora Svitak

“I have a strong sense of justice. It’s pretty much black-and-white. I don’t see too much gray,” wrote Chris Kyle, a sniper in the Iraq war with 160 confirmed kills. While many ideas are often lost in memoir-to-movie transitions, Clint Eastwood’s version of American Sniper pays uncritical homage to Kyle’s racist and dangerously simplistic way of looking at the world, presenting a good vs. evil narrative with stock characters better suited to a 1950’s Western than a movie about our modern-day involvement in the Middle East. Though it seems like just another gritty war movie on the surface, it conveys messages that can affect foreign policy decisions. Movies have an impact beyond their runtimes; they influence how people around the world view our role in the global community. American Sniper is no exception. In a time where American hegemony, Islamophobia, and a war on terror have justified systematic violations of human rights and highly destabilizing Western interventions, if viewers walk out of theaters with the idea that American Sniper reflects a global reality, then they will be unlikely to understand the root causes–or root solutions–of many problems in our country’s relationship with nations in the Middle East.

A movie like American Sniper cannot ever be an apolitical art piece, and in these cases one’s role as conscious citizen ought to override perpetuating dangerous oversimplifications of a recent conflict for personal profit. Commentators have identified the movie’s lack of specific reference to any politicians or policies as evidence of the film’s apolitical nature. Clint Eastwood declared “The biggest anti-war statement any film” can make is depicting “the fact of what [war] does to the family and the people who have to go back into civilian life,” seemingly describing his own movie as an antiwar film. However, presenting the war in terms of good vs. evil is an inherently political act. Implying that an evil side exists is an implicit call to action, a moral pull on our nation’s conscience—if we’re really the good guys, don’t we practice bystander intervention? Don’t we fight evil wherever it exists? By making it good guys vs. bad guys, the film appears more pro-Iraq War than antiwar. LA Times writer Lorraine Ali critiqued the movie for its dehumanization of Iraqi characters into “grizzled monsters who torture children with drills, swarthy insurgents who proliferate like cockroaches, bumbling, hapless victims who can barely string a sentence together let alone protect themselves… By the time our on-screen hero refers to the Iraqis as “savages,” the film has already made that point about 10 times over.”

The use of blatantly trite, stock characterizations for all the Iraqi figures highlight their roles as either savage villain or savage victim, which in either case would only be remediated through a heroic Western intervention. This characterization perpetuates popular but ignorant Islamophobic views, which lends itself to blind support for the War on Terror. What such overly simplistic and dichotomous representations of an entire populace ignore are the stories of real Iraqis; there is little room for the educated dissenter, local translator facing challenges to personal safety for siding with the Americans, or normal, everyday families without guns in their basements, whose electricity is now more ornery than in pre-fall of Saddam Hussein days. And those are precisely the kinds of characters we need because they might make viewers question not if Chris Kyle should shoot his next target, but rather if he should be in Iraq at all. The movie renders the humanity of the Iraqis invisible, and disregards the United States’ sizable contribution to historical and political problems in the Middle East. In this sense American Sniper offers blind support for American military action in the Middle East, operating as more political propaganda than artistic vision.

This is neither abstract conjecture nor melodramatic liberalism.  Tweets by some audience members in the wake of the movie include lines like “now I really want to kill some f****** ragheads” and “Nice to see a movie where the Arabs are portrayed for who they really are—vermin scum intent on destroying us.” While it’s tempting to say that those are isolated incidents, these are troubling responses to a film where the lionized main character is not even presented with his full Islamophobic attitudes. Though thankfully cut from the movie, in Kyle’s memoir he reminisces that “Their high-pitched screams, coupled with sprints in the opposite direction, had me doubled over. Cheap thrills in Iraq were priceless.” This was a real person with utter contempt for the Iraqis, who in his free time chased Iraqi civilians with cars,  true—and poignant—portraits of human nature are to be found in the grey areas, a space Chris Kyle and his one-sided arch-enemies cannot inhabit.

 Friendly Fire: A Defense of American Sniper, by Jordan Ash

This relativist retreat is manifest in several unfavorable criticisms of the film American Sniper. Often the critics claim that the portrayal of “good” American soldiers fighting “evil” radical Muslim terrorists amounts to little more than political propaganda. They think that because our soldiers are portrayed in a positive light, we (or at least a significant portion of us) will suddenly become fanatical right wing war-mongering Islamophobes. Nothing could be further from the truth.

In fact, American Sniper transcends party politics. The lack of any reference to political figures or parties is an indication of the filmmaker’s non-partisan intentions.  But it would be wrong to claim the film is entirely void of politics.  The subject of war and of those who are sent to fight them is inherently and unavoidably political.   However, what makes this film unique in it’s agenda is that it is entirely devoted to the experience of our military men and women. The soldiers in the movie represented a wide spectrum of complex beliefs, feelings and perceptions. American Sniper should be judged and criticized according to that experience, not upon vague suspicions of some hidden conservative plot.

Much of the concern is in regard to the scene in which the main character Chris Kyle shoots a child.  In this scene, Kyle first sights a man suspiciously talking on his cell phone just as some troops are making their way towards him. The man suddenly disappears just as his wife and young son walk out onto the street.  The mother is seen handing her son a grenade before she sends him running directly at the American troops. Kyle first shoots the child, and then the mother who, without a moment of grief or hesitation, runs over attempting to finish the job of killing.  Kyle pulls the trigger, but the burden of responsibility is not on his. The blood is on the hands of parents like those depicted in the film who turn their own children into shields and weapons in the name of a twisted ideology.

In order to understand why this troubling scene had to be put in the film, it must be framed within the context of the whole movie.  One must place this tragic instance of a child’s killing beside the actions of a local terrorist-enforcer known as The Butcher, a character directly based on the real-life Abu Deraa.  The Butcher is shown dragging a child from his home and brutally murdering him in front of his family.  Both Kyle and The Butcher kill children; the difference between Chris Kyle and The Butcher is that The Butcher willingly and enthusiastically murders an innocent child in the most gut-wrenching manner without hesitation or remorse. The Butcher is representative of terrorists, whose simple yet significant objective is to strike fear through ruthless brutality. On the other hand, Kyle is forced to kill in order to save others; he acts for the greater good.  Moreover, he is clearly troubled by having to do so. In these scenes, the complex intentions and attitudes held by our soldiers as represented by the film’s Kyle are in complete opposition to those of terrorists like The Butcher.

It has been noted that time on-screen is mainly divided between the experience of soldiers fighting terrorists in Iraq and the soldiers adjusting to life back home with their families. There is relatively little attention given to the average non-combatant Iraqi. This absence has led some critics to accuse the filmmakers of belittling the plight of the average Iraqi. Here the critics are again remaining at the surface. In their haste to pass judgment, they once again miss the purpose of the film.  Although the Iraqis have undoubtedly experienced the profound horrors of war, this film is primarily meant to deliver the experiences of the American soldier. The film takes the American public beyond mere headlines and 30-second news clips by faithfully maintaining a critical focus on the experiences of our soldiers while still honoring those experiences. In the Iraq War, this experience mainly involved fighting an international organization dedicated to acts of violence and terror. The fight was not with the Iraqi people as a whole. Yet critics worry that as a result of these portrayals, an ever-impressionable American public won’t have the critical ability to differentiate between peace-loving non-extremist Muslims from those that go around strapping explosives to their chests in the name of God.

I give the overwhelming majority of the American public more credit than the critics allow. It’s true that there will be those with uncritical minds who associate the type of Muslim extremist they see on-screen with the majority of peace-loving Muslims. There are disgustingly ignorant people in America, just as there are in all nations. But it is cowardly to criticize a film because some hate-filled idiots re-tweeted their racist thoughts after seeing the movie.  Our American values are not in fact self-maintaining nor are they self-perpetuating.  They must be guarded against the same ignorance and hatred that has wrongly (and inevitably) been associated with American Sniper.

However, this wrong association isn’t entirely without reason.  Many of the critics base their quick judgments of the film on the controversial real-life “American Sniper”, Chris Kyle. The real Kyle writes about stealing from Iraqis and scaring them for “cheap thrills.” Not all of the real Kyle’s questionable views and activities are completely removed from the film’s adaptation. The film Kyle’s refers to Iraqis as “savages” and he sarcastically says he “doesn’t know what a Koran is.” While these statements can hardly be considered racist, the offense taken is understandable. Still, those who criticize the movie based on this offense are again missing the point. These statements aren’t made to offend or to perpetuate hatred.  They show that soldiers are far from infallible. Soldiers of every type feel anger, frustration, and grief.  They are complex human beings who we can at some level sympathize with and thus be influenced by.

This influence terrifies the critics.  They worry that because of Kyle’s prolific killing and controversial statements, we will be spurred towards blind hatred. They fear the depiction of the “good” American soldier battling the “evil” terrorist will lead to support for belligerent foreign policy, one that will ultimately isolate and endanger us.

I worry that the critics don’t have faith in the American public.  I worry that they think we don’t have the intelligence or ability to differentiate between a terrorist who murders in cold blood from the average Iraqi citizens just trying to survive in the crossfire.  I fear that some will undermine the experiences of those good men and women who are sent to fight these wars by placing them within the “gray,” within a realm of negation wherein there can exist no morals or values, only relativism.

Those following the relativist line don’t fully consider its ramifications. The “gray” implies no right or wrong, no good or evil. This retreat into the “gray” has the consequence of morally equivocating our soldiers with the terrorists they fight. Removing the “good” from our soldiers and ignoring the “evil” of the terrorists they fight is a severe simplification.  What could be more simplistic than reducing the complexity of an American soldier’s experience to that of a fanatical Muslim extremist?  One would never argue that The Butcher was justified in cold-blood murder, just as one could not say Kyle was wrong for saving the lives of his troops.

This movie is not a portrayal of Iraq or of the Iraqi people.  This movie has nothing to do with whether the war was right or wrong. It is not even about the terrorists. It is about the often forgotten or muted American soldier.  The soldier did not make this war, he or she did not ask for it. Yet the soldiers are an inseparable part of it, they experience it in a more profound way than we ever could and they deserve a voice. This voice, as the film shows, is one that speak truly and genuinely of good.  It is a voice that speaks of sacrifice, of selflessness, of bravery. It is one that speaks loudly and clearly against the shriek of evil: that of The Butcher, the extremist Islamist terrorist, or any other threat to our values and freedoms. Our soldiers deserve a voice that isn’t muffled in the static “gray.”  The voice of the soldier expressed clearly through the film is the one that is definitively right.  It is the only one we can hope to use in drowning out the assaults they experience abroad,  as well as the ones they find waiting at home. We have a responsibility to carefully listen to that voice, to suspend all preexisting politically “correct” judgments, and to hear it for the good it represents along with the evil it seeks to erase.

Featured image source: Wenner Media