Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” featuring Bradley Cooper tells a dramatized version of the story of Chris Kyle, who served in Iraq and is, reported to be, the most successful sniper in American history. The film is a proven major success at the box office, netting over $100 million in its first weekend, and over $250 million as of Feb. 2. In addition to its box office prestige, the film has generated an enormous amount of discussion, with critics of all political stripes diving into what has quickly become a national conversation.
Many critics on the left argue that the movie glorifies war, making it difficult for Americans to understand the consequences of deploying servicemen and servicewomen into combat. Writing for New York Magazine, David Edelstein argued that Eastwood “makes the moral stakes almost nonexistent. 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.”
Others on the left couch their arguments in deeper critiques about the nature of American involvement abroad, such as Matt Taibbi, who wrote in Rolling Stone that “the really dangerous part of this film is that it turns into a referendum on the character of a single soldier. It's an unwinnable argument in either direction. We end up talking about Chris Kyle and his dilemmas, and not about the Rumsfelds and Cheneys and other officials up the chain who put Kyle and his high-powered rifle on rooftops in Iraq and asked him to shoot women and children.”
In my survey of some of what is being written by those on the political right, many responses strike me as obviously reactive, resorting to familiar critiques of a “liberal agenda.”
In “It’s the Patriotism, Stupid. What Liberal Critics Don’t Get About 'American Sniper,'” Pete Hegseth, himself a veteran contributing to Fox News, said: “Nonetheless, outspoken liberals will continue to cast judgment, saying that they support the warrior but not the war. But they contradict themselves even on that point. The left sees warriors—men like Chris Kyle—as bloodthirsty and ignorant Americans from fly-over country who cling to God and guns in blind support of our military. They dislike both the war and the warrior.”
Without referencing any specific comments or criticisms, Hegseth pointed to figures including Michael Moore, Seth Rogen, “and other Hollywood leftists.” Sarah Palin also chimed in on Facebook: “Hollywood leftists: while caressing shiny plastic trophies you exchange among one another while spitting on the graves of freedom fighters who allow you to do what you do, just realize the rest of America knows you’re not fit to shine Chris Kyle’s combat boots. May the epic 'American Sniper' bring nothing but blessings to Taya and the children of this true American hero.” (Taya is Chris Kyle’s wife.)
Here, I am not attempting to write a movie review of “American Sniper.” Nor am I attempting to even formulate a comment on the film’s content. I am instead arguing that the reactions to the film on both the left and the right speak to a much larger issue concerning political dialogue, or political screaming matches, in the United States. It is my hope that by analyzing the discursive choices of critics on both sides, the reader will come to better understand why political paralysis has taken such a deep hold in both informal debates and the way in which policy is (not) made.
The main issue at hand is the way in which critics (in the case of “American Sniper”) and politicians and policymakers (more generally) speak and, even more problematically, moralize without any regard for individual agency, referencing or speaking for or against causes in which it becomes easy to forget that real people are even involved. We ought to remember that employment of empty rhetoric has real consequences.
This is not to say that there is no way to have a constructive national dialogue. Using “American Sniper" as a case study in the way in which Americans debate and contest political and moral issues, there have been several attempts to understand the dramatized narrative in the movie by speaking with actual American soldiers.
Writing for Salon, Garett Reppenhagen, who fought as a sniper in the war in Iraq, wrote: “For the past 10 days, 'American Sniper' has rallied crowds and broken box office records, but if you want to understand the war, the film is like peering into a sniper scope — it offers a very limited view.” In Variety, Paul Rieckhoff, also an Iraq veteran, wrote: “Now, it’s not the most complex film. Not the deepest film. Not even the most provocative. But in terms of storytelling, action, emotion, production and performance, attention to detail and especially the frighteningly accurate soundscape, there’s been nothing else close that’s been made since my platoon entered the war in Iraq in 2003. It’s a cinematic bull’s-eye.”
While one must remain wary about the manipulation of soldiers’ narratives to serve ideological ends (while not ignoring the fact that the soldiers might have their own political goals), the inclusion of actual soldiers’ voices in our national discourse is an important first step in order to truly understand how policy choices – going to war included – affect real human lives.
Referencing both Rieckhoff’s piece and another take on the film written by an Iraq veteran named Alex Horton for The Guardian, Matt Gallagher wrote for The Daily Beast that “both pieces (and others) have been propped up by a litany of talking heads and agendas, as evidence of 'WHAT VETERANS REALLY THINK.' Who’s right, who’s wrong? Personally, I don’t care—I just think it’s great that vets are playing a prominent role in an important cultural debate, rather than being used as nameless, voiceless props. That’s progress, to my mind.”
I wholeheartedly agree with Gallagher’s argument, as I find it essential that people who will need to face the consequences of policy choices be included in discussions about those choices in the first place.
It should, I believe, seem ludicrous that one would attempt to have such as discussion without such inclusion, and yet, it seems as though ignoring the concerns and needs of Americans has become common practice in many circles, including Congress. In the case of launching war, it is critically important to remember, as Alex Horton reminds us, that fewer than one percent of all Americans have actually served in the two most recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. He continued, “The average person has likely never met a modern combat veteran.”
This analysis can be extended much further, too. How many poor and uninsured Americans were consulted by the media and by policymakers during the overhaul of healthcare? Aside from a few brought out before the media in order to serve political needs, most cannot likely recall much inclusion in that national discussion. In a similar way, many of the left enjoy throwing around empty terms like “warmonger” and “hawk”; while these phrases might prove successful at producing powerful emotional responses, they create political “third rails” that make it impossible for different interests to even take seats at the table.
I am making an appeal for a more inclusive and thoughtful national discourse, which will therefore be more productive. When opinions are formed and decisions are made without the input of those most affected, the divide between Americans and those with power becomes even greater. Not only does this phenomenon explain Congress’ dismal approval ratings, for example, but the disinterest of politicians and policymakers in the affairs of the wide majority of Americans also increases the risk of removing the incentive to participate in politics. One need not look further than low-voter turnouts for evidence of the shift away from participatory politics.
“American Sniper” produced a national conversation that demonstrates deeper issues within the American political system. We must demand more from those who make important decisions about the lives of Americans – expanding access to the conversation about those issues is the first step in that change. If we want to truly honor American people, and especially those who defend us with their lives, they must be listened to in the first place.
Contact reporter Ryan McEvoy at firstname.lastname@example.org