Let’s be frank, the Oscars are a big joke and have been for some time. For every film that deserves the award for best picture, such as 12 Years a Slave, The Departed, or LOTR: Return of the King, you’ve got crap like The King’s Speech, Shakespeare in Love, and Dances with Wolves. This year I was surprised to see that the film American Sniper had been nominated for best picture. There is something seriously wrong with that.
Let me be up front- I have not seen this film and I don’t plan to. If you want to see a more detailed criticism of the film from someone who did watch it, I highly recommend Matt Taibbi’s review in Rolling Stone. Matt is as entertaining as anyone familiar with his writing would surely expect. As for me, I’m only going to deal with the broader topic of war films in general, or more specifically, films like this one which deal with recent, sometimes ongoing wars.
My revulsion toward these films isn’t simply a matter of lefty edginess. Military history and science is one of my passions. Real life experience, however, immunizes me from the disease which afflicts so many military historians out there- the glorification and romanticization of the military and war. Now I can deal with the schmaltzy camaraderie you see in war films about other eras like Band of Brothers or A Bridge Too Far, but seeing this kind of “brotherhood” bullshit in modern films just brings back too many memories from the army. I’m not denying the camaraderie exists; it certainly does, but while I was never deployed and never experienced combat I am intimately familiar with the real essence of the military, any military in fact- mindboggling boredom, tedium, and arbitrariness. I can stomach reasonable a reasonable amount of glamorization in conflicts like the Second World War or the American Civil War, but when it comes to recent and ongoing conflicts my tolerance level is extremely low. The only reason I watched Zero Dark Thirty, for example, is simply because I wanted to get some insight into just how the fuck that mission went down and I couldn’t be bothered to do a lot of reading on it.
Having said that, I think one of the first things that surprised me when I looked up American Sniper was that it was directed by Clint Eastwood. Eastwood, in my opinion, was behind one of the most groundbreaking projects in war filmmaking, Flags of Our Fathers and its sequel Letters from Iwo Jima. While there have been other war films which give us the other side’s POV, Eastwood gives each POV in the battle of Iwo Jima their own full-length film. I should also point out that it was quite novel of him to give us the Japanese perspective. Even Flags of Our Fathers, which gives us the American POV, challenges many standard war movie tropes. In the beginning of the film one of the veterans, speaking decades after the battle, says “Every jackass thinks he knows what war is, especially those that have never been in one.” The film let’s the audience know about war weariness in America in 1945. One character talks about how wounded men are happy to be carried away from the front. All of these are pretty controversial for a WWII film even in the US. I can’t say it’s one of my favorite war films, but Flags of our Fathers is almost like anti-schmaltz to counter Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers.
With this in mind, it’s sad to see that Eastwood has apparently made a mindless, hero-worship film like American Sniper. I really think that if he had the same courage to do what he did with Flags of our Fathers, he could have made a much better film about the Iraq or Afghanistan wars. Hollywood always seems to fail when it comes to these conflicts. In an attempt to please all audiences, they end up sending confusing, contradictory messages. They’re afraid of politicizing what is a deeply political issue. Perhaps instead of making a film about Chris Kyle, Eastwood could have made it about Pat Tillman.
Another thing that bothers me about this film is the glorification of snipers. If you ever find yourself listening to some bullshitter telling you about their non-existent military experience, nine times out of ten they’ll claim they were snipers. Now I guarantee you that for at least another couple years you’ll be meeting a lot more of these super top secret special ops snipers, all with their own personal stories which will sound suspiciously similar to some of the scenes in American Sniper. Thanks for that, Clint. That’s exactly what our society needed.
I guess the real disappointing thing about this film is that I really thought that by 2014, our country had learned something about this sort of propaganda film. If we’re able to go back and look at something like the Second World War with clear, unemotional eyes, we ought to be able to make films about Iraq and Afghanistan that are devoid of propaganda, even if they are controversial. In any case, controversy puts butts in seats. On one hand I feel that as long as a film strives to be true, it doesn’t always need to delve into the politics of the war in question, but I cannot help but wonder if that’s really possible with wars like Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. Some wars are simply more moral than others, even if the country wasn’t an angel in waging them. The Second World War was morally right, the first was not so much, especially for the US. The US was right in the Civil War, it wasn’t in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan. If Hollywood can’t account for these differences, perhaps it should take a break and avoid making movies on these subjects until it acquires that ability. They’ve certainly got plenty of superhero movies to make without turning real-life military men into comic book characters.