LOS ANGELES — To many viewers on the political right, Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” is a patriotic film that celebrates a war hero and doesn’t shy away from the truth about the terrorist threat.
To some on the left, it glorifies an unjust war while paying homage to an unapologetic killer with a simplistic, good-versus-evil view of the world.
Which is closer to the truth? Neither, say the movie’s makers.
In recent interviews, Eastwood, screenwriter Jason Hall and star Bradley Cooper have said they are dismayed by attempts to ascribe political meanings to what they see as primarily a portrait of real-life Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle and the Iraq War’s impact on him.
The movie “certainly has nothing to do with any (political) parties or anything,” Eastwood told the Toronto Star. “These fellows who are professional soldiers, Navy personnel or what have you, go in for a certain reason … and there’s no political aspect there other than the fact that a lot of things happen in war zones.”
“For me, and for Clint, this movie was always a character study about what the plight is for a soldier …” Cooper told the Daily Beast. “But I can’t control how people are gonna use this movie as a tool, or what they pick and choose (to argue).”
No, he can’t.
Ever since “American Sniper” broke box-office records with a stunning $107 million last weekend, everyone seems to have an opinion about it.
Pundits, veterans and Internet critics on all sides of the political spectrum have spent the past week poring over the film’s 132 minutes, and the memoir by Kyle on which it’s based, in search of fodder for political arguments.
“There is nothing even close to moral equivalence in ‘American Sniper,’ only the truth: that there is no equivalence between the (Iraqi) barbarians who target the innocent and the American heroes who target those who target the innocent,” wrote John Nolte on Breitbart.com, a right-wing website which calls the movie a “pro-war-on-terror masterpiece.”
“Eastwood … makes the moral stakes almost nonexistent,” countered David Edelstein of New York magazine. “The people Kyle shoots always represent a “savage, despicable evil,” and the physical and mental cost to other Americans just comes with the territory. It’s a Republican platform movie.”
Many others, from Michael Moore and Seth Rogen (on the left) to Sarah Palin and Kid Rock (on the right), have since piled on. A few people even took to Twitter to say the film made them want to kill Arabs and Muslims.
All the controversy is no doubt drawing more people to the movie. But “American Sniper’s” makers say many of these viewers are missing the point.
“People see the movie poster, and it’s got a guy and the American flag, and they know Clint Eastwood — the Dirty Harry guy and the Republican convention guy — directed it. So they think it’s some jingoistic thing,” screenwriter Hall told Time.com.
“I would challenge that in a big way,” he added. “Chris was a man who believed in something and who therefore was useful to a government that needed him to go to war. It cost him his physical health, his mental health and almost cost him his family.”
“Sniper” isn’t the first artistic work to find itself claimed by both sides in our cultural and political wars.
In 1984, Bruce Springsteen’s song “Born in the U.S.A.,” written from the point of view of a contemptuous Vietnam veteran in a dead-end world, found itself celebrated for its rousing chorus.
During that year’s presidential campaign, no less a figure than Ronald Reagan praised the New Jersey rocker for his “message of hope.”
Springsteen, a defiant supporter of the underdog, wasn’t amused.
“I think people have a need to feel good about the country they live in,” he said in an interview at the time. “But what’s happening, I think, is that that need — which is a good thing — is getting manipulated and exploited.”
Then there was Oliver Stone’s “Wall Street,” a film inspired by Stone’s father, an upstanding broker much like the movie’s Lou Mannheim, played by Hal Holbrook. But the character from the movie who became celebrated was Gordon Gekko (played by the Oscar-winning Michael Douglas), an unscrupulous shark who famously declared, “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good.”
Gekko became a model for a generation of aspiring Masters of the Universe.
Even today, people hoping for the big kill keep Gekko’s quotes handy, aphorisms to live by.
Finally, there’s “This Land Is Your Land,” Woody Guthrie’s famed folk song, remembered by generations of schoolchildren as a paean to America’s glory. It’s that, to be sure — Guthrie really does celebrate “golden valleys” and “diamond deserts” — but the song was also a reaction to a song Guthrie loathed: Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America,” particularly as sung by Kate Smith.
Guthrie made no secret of his loyalties in one rarely sung verse. “In the shadow of the steeple I saw my people, / By the relief office I seen my people / As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking / Is this land made for you and me?”
‘The toll is man’
Yes, “American Sniper” encourages audiences to root for Kyle and his fellow soldiers as they respond in horror to 9/11, face dangerous insurgents who try to bomb them and track down one especially lethal enemy sniper. And yes, it ends with real-life 2013 footage of thousands of Americans lining highways, waving flags, as Kyle’s funeral procession goes by.
But in subtle ways, the movie’s message, and morality, is not so black and white.
One scene shows Cooper, as Kyle, expressing dismay that his first kill as a sniper is not of an enemy soldier but of a young boy holding a bomb. Another scene shows a grieving mother at the funeral of her son, an Iraq veteran, reading aloud a letter from him questioning the point of the war.
By the time he returns from his fourth tour in Iraq, Kyle has clearly lost his appetite for warfare. He is alienated and withdrawn from his wife.
And as in his Oscar-winning “Unforgiven,” Hall and Eastwood — who has said he opposed the invasion of Iraq — seem less interested in glorifying the act of killing than in exploring the psychic toll it takes on the men who do it.
“The cost is man, the toll is man, and it’s this man and every other soldier that fights,” Hall told Variety. “If we understand that, maybe we won’t be so hasty into jumping into war.”
If there’s a message in “American Sniper,” it may be that Americans could do a better job of understanding what our veterans go through, and of taking care of them when they return.
Then again, maybe the message of “American Sniper” is whatever you want it to be.
“It is one man’s war — not the nation’s,” wrote Scott Beauchamp, an Iraq veteran (and no stranger to controversy himself), in Mic. “While (other war) films have loud, overt messages that allow us to confront the issues head on, ‘American Sniper’ is sort of an empty cipher, waiting for us to project already existent emotions onto the screen.”AlertMe