American Sniper insidious propaganda? Think harder

By now you’ve probably heard some hullabaloo about Clint Eastwood’s new movie American Sniper. The grizzled veteran who rose to fame blowing apart greedy varmints in spaghetti westerns and famously patrolled the streets as a bad cop armed with rhetorical questions (“do ya, punk?”) has never shied away as an actor or a filmmaker from tough characters with, shall we say, firm beliefs. In fact he’s made a career out of them.

The 84-year-old actor/writer/director was obviously too old to play the lead in American Sniper (which opened in Australian cinemas at the weekend) though it’s the kind of role that would have suited his younger self to a T. Instead Bradley Cooper is Chris Kyle, a real-life Navy SEAL sharpshooter who chalked up a whopping body count in Iraq (something like 160 kills) and was naturally regarded as a war hero — at least by anybody who supported the war.

If you remember watching Eastwood’s bizarre performance at the 2012 GOP convention, in which he argued with an empty wooden chair supposedly holding an invisible Barack Obama, you’d be forgiven for thinking of him as an over-the-hill fuddy duddy who forgot to take his meds.

But according to New York magazine critic David Edelstein American Sniper proves Eastwood is shrewder than ever. Edelstein argues the film is a platform Republican movie — a spectacular and deceptive how to vote card. Seth Rogen compared it to Nazi propaganda. Bill Maher called it insultingly patriotic. Australia’s own Marc Fennell, reviewer for Triple J, described it as “the most insidious propaganda film I’ve seen in a long time.”

The majority of critics and cinemagoers acknowledge the director’s most controversial work to date is well made and well acted. Eastwood’s style suits the material, which has drawn comparisons to Kathryn Bigelow’s also controversial 2008 oxygen depriver The Hurt Locker.

He seems to instinctively know when to slow the action and when to compensate by quickening the drama (and vice versa) and it’s hard to deny the film’s technical achievements. It is certified fresh on Rotten Tomatoes and received six Academy Award nominations, including a nod in the Best Picture category.

Audiences seem to like it. They’re certainly flocking in droves: American Sniper has astounded box office pundits by smashing the record for the largest U.S. opening of all time for the month of January. It has already hauled a quarter of a billion dollars internationally.

But boy, lots of people have their knickers in knots. The depiction of the protagonist — who is asked to “put the fear of God in those fuckers” and is all too happy to oblige — has sparked a national conversation about whether Kyle is a figure deserving of respect or condemnation, and whether Americans harbor a prejudice against Middle Eastern races. Perhaps that’s a conversation they needed to have.

Critics of American Sniper‘s allegedly pernicious affect on viewers have cited a number of hate-filled tweets posted by yee-haw audiences who saw it, loved it and took to their smartphones afterwards to write racially-stereotyping bile. The implication being that perfectly level-headed people sauntered into the cinema to see that new action movie and emerged as bigoted flag-waving freaks.

It doesn’t work like that, and the debate around American Sniper says less about Eastwood’s supposed ethical bastardry than it does the extent to which the political left has entrenched itself in Hollywood. And how intolerant sections of the industry and the media are when it comes to contemplating perspectives that are not their own.

How many war films have you seen in which kind-hearted protagonists or wide-eyed supporting characters have dramatically died and the picture ends with an unmistakable message — delivered with all the subtlety of a sock full of pennies delivered to the noggin — that war is wrong, intolerable and unacceptable?

Such messages may resonate with the political instincts of me, you, or the person down the street. But does that make them any more valid – or any less “insidious” – than a film that presents war not only from the perspective of those who fight in it, but the point of view of an artist who believes what they are doing is morally justified?

If one agrees such perspectives have a place in public discourse, we also need to be prepared to be challenged; to be exposed to things outside our idealogical comfort zones.

Eastwood doesn’t wrap a commentary around American Sniper that informs us that what the characters are doing is inherently wrong (he does, for what it’s worth, claim the film is anti-war. Also, for what it’s worth, I think it’s more nuanced than some critics would have you believe).

But why should he have to? If historical accuracy is the subject in question — on this matter the film has come under scrutiny, though mostly in terms of perspective and omissions rather than factual errors — what about a preposterously inaccurate film like Argo? Was Ben Affleck’s Oscar winner insidious propaganda too?

The inference is that the left apparently have a right to make powerful polemic war films but the right apparently do not. Do we really want Hollywood to be an echo chamber that bounces around variations of the same opinions?

It’s almost as if (Shock! Horror!) there is value in cinema that encourages the public and the media to put important intellectual debates on the agenda. You won’t hear it from the naysayers, but American Sniper does that. Even though it has its moments — depicting so many U.S. flags just before the closing credits ends it on wrong note, in my opinion — it does so without pandering to the audience or telling them how they should or shouldn’t react.

Insidious? No. Thought provoking? Absolutely.

29 responses to “American Sniper insidious propaganda? Think harder

  1. I can only assume the movie is a fictional comedy/drama?

    I know its based on a real guy, the shooter, but its obviously not supposed to be based on reality.

    As a film I found it pretty average, was quite strange watching a “war film” in this genre, they are normally more realistic affairs. The crazy arab with the battery drill was hilarious and a highlight for me, there were some laugh out loud moments but overall it was average at best, probably a bit below.

    Not sure how the film has made so much money at box office. Id say if you are looking for a film of this type Tropic Thunder is probably a better bet.

  2. Yeah, I’ve seen it too. Well made? The storytelling is painfully cliche-ridden, the battle scenes pedestrian compared to other, far less well financed films and television, the ‘baby’ scene laughable… and when we get to the climactic final act, fade to black and the audience is left to read it on screen? WTF? Leaving aside this really is one big US Army recruitment ad, it is simply not that good a movie. Seriously disappointing.

  3. Have not seen the film but it sounds alot like other american films about war.
    – the other side is never fully presented. Its usually not presented at all.
    – the reason for the war is not examined
    – the moral imperative of fighting is not examined
    – the reasons for the failure of the war ( all american wars since Korea except Grenada and Panama have been failures )

    So one is always left with an empty feeling that you do not get from reading Homer or watching “Battle of Algiers.” American war films do not present an exploration of their various debacles. They present the drama of conflict for individual americans. That goes for such left-leaning works like Catch 22, right to any John Wayne war film. Not even Gone with the Wind varies from the model. There is no “War and Peace” in the american culture. The entire genre is focused on the experience of war for the unitary individual. You might make a concession to Apocalypse Now, but that that film is laughably incoherent. Any discussion of the morality of war will not be assisted by american cinema. In fact Letters from Iwa Jima might be the only film that comes close, ironically. You could almost say americans do not perceive their enemies as anything other than natural forces or incomprehensible spectres, from the way they make films about them. Existential american experience is absolutely primary. Discussion will be insipid.

  4. Well, I haven’t seen the film however I do know that some people have seen the film as a celebration of sniping. Now of course sniping is a legitimate tool of war however it’s not normally glorified as it involves in killing unsuspecting and thus defenseless people, much like shooting them in the back, another tactic that’s seen as bad form.

  5. Eastwood has made his career, or at the least his late career, out of studying morally ambiguous situations (and people) along with the ironies in those stories e.g. J. Edgar, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, Gran Torino, etc. Eastwood may be a card-carrying Republican but I’d give him enough credit that he can show a character’s humanity regardless of their motivations.

    Luke doesn’t really go over the main points of the film very well but rather talks about other critics who have talked about the film and their possible over-reactions, so, nothing in the article makes me want to pay $17 to see it in the cinema but I might pick it up on DVD/Blu Ray.

  6. Excellent even handed review. It’s a movie…and not a Michael Moore ‘doco’ than spoon feeds philosophy to people who think freedom ‘just happens’. Not validating or denying or arguing the benefits or casualties of war and aggression or attack or defence.

    I’m commending a great review of a very good movie that tells it like it ‘is or was’ by and large for that man and those people over there at that time.

  7. ‘Argo’ was only historically inaccurate to the extent that the historical events have to be simplified in order to fit with the limited narrative time of a film.

    There was something similar in ‘the Water Diviner’ which at the very beginning showed a Turkish attack on ‘Lone Pine’ at sunrise on December 20, 1915 (mainly to introduce the Turkish officer in command), and to the surprise of the attackers, the Australian trenches were empty.

    Except the attack didn’t happen. The Turks were aware that something was happening.The withdrawing Allied troops had detonated a mine under the Nek earlier, killing around 70 Turkish troops. And Allied naval ships had bombarded the Allied positions to delay the Turkish occupation of Anzac.

    The film left out what had happened and added other happenings for perfectly valid cinematic reasons.

    1. But not this movie? thats not acceptable because dammit we lefties want our vindication that the Iraq War was wrong and dammit we will use any and all slander to achieve that means

  8. “The implication being that perfectly level-headed people sauntered into the cinema to see that new action movie and emerged as bigoted flag-waving freaks.”

    The creaking sound of that long bow being drawn is hurting my ears a bit.

  9. The author of this seems to want to justify the film in the pantheon of war perspectives without actually doing any work to justify it beyond hand-waving away a vague menace of political correctness.

    Don’t get me wrong it’s a fine sentiment to decry censorious litmus test of moralising – but if you want to say it’s a worthy uncomfortable perspective perhaps you might want to actually provide an articulation of what that perspective is, and why it’s interesting, and why it can’t be dismissed in toto.

    But as far as I can tell, this film fails to grapple with the reality of the Chris Kyle – his undoubted courage and heroism, his relationship, his pathological moral certainty, and his record of braggadocio distortions. And not only is there no intermediation of the subject, the whole context of the film is a massive distortion — immediately conflating the Iraqi state with a caricatured monolithic al Qaeda to provide a cartoon backdrop for him killing evil ‘other’.

    There are legitimate grievances against this film and the torture apologism of The Hurt Locker, and the author shows he simply hasn’t thought about them with any sophistication.

    1. the whole context of the film is a massive distortion — immediately conflating the Iraqi state with a caricatured monolithic al Qaeda to provide a cartoon backdrop for him killing evil ‘other’.

      Umm you are incorrect the battle settings for this movie are Fallujah and really there is no conflation of Iraq as a whole. In this battle the US military is forced to assume most of the citizenry are the enemy. Do you know why? because the people ok (you’re not defending them but your’e not applying any critical thinking), the Al-Qaeda insurgency did not dress in uniform, which runs counter to many leftists assertions that they are simply defending their homeland, and hid amongst the civilian population which were used as shields for the most part. What are the American soldiers just suppose to lay down their arms? where more citizens will die. The people they are after in the movie are by and large militants who raped, tortured the citizenry of these towns if they co-operated with Allied forces. So every time someone shoots their mouth off as oh this is just Americans going in gun ho killing every Arab because let’s face it they’re racist, you only reveal your cowardly weak minded left wing view of understanding bad in the world and the ability to morally delude oneself because you are so blinded by this marxist ideology that sees everything as groups/collectives instead of seeing things in context and making decisions based on individual experiences.

      I am against the Iraq War as well but there simply is no moral equivalence of America was just as bad as the insurgents they battled, to tell yourself that shows a deep lack of intelligence.

      And I haven’t touched on the slanderous out of context words that the left uses to paint Kyle as a psychotic racist…

      1. Ryan, you have simply replied to sentiments and beliefs I have never made or considered that you have imagined from whole cloth.

        I allege no moral equivalence between Americans and “insurgents” – whether they be disaffected Baathist soldiers swept up in the conflict after Paul Bremer dissolved the army or extant Islamists.

        I also made no comment about Fallujah.

        I criticised the film for its failure to examine Chris’ complexities, and for glibly sliding between the context of 9/11, with its links to Afghanistan and Wahhabist Islamism, and the Iraq War where al Qaeda is suddenly singular face of the enemy – complete with its own sinister darkly dressed sniper foe which is just batshit inanity.

        This kind of simplification is grotesque and is similarly apparent when you look at the hapless way the other American soldiers are treated who aren’t snipers. They are simply plot devices for the awe-inspiring grandeur of Chris’ pathological machismo.

  10. Yeah I saw the movie two days ago, came pretty much to the same conclusions.
    Fallujah was a war crime. US troops went into the hospital and forced patients and Drs out.
    Iraq body count shows real evidence that hundreds of thousands of civilians have been killed by this bloody war that had nothing to do with 911. Americans can’t be that stupid to aclaim this movie or even Chris Kyle, or can they? I think Taranteno did this before Clint Eastwood, portraying the Nazi snipper in “Inglorious Basterds”. There was one really nice war scene, of the “apocoalipse now” flavour, when tanks and soliders and helicopter are shown in the same frame, but that is about it. C- for me…

  11. This is the worst written article I have seen under the Crikey masthead. Poorly argued, desperately polemic and childishly contrary.

  12. I attempted to read Chris Kyle’s book (I could only read in places, the writing is amateur at best), compared to the book, the movie takes a much more anti-war feel to it compared to other American films of war. The book unfortunately reads like your typical gun-ho American soldier. For example take this following sentence when Kyle recounts his recorded kills 100 and 101, “If your interested, the confirmed kills were only kills that someone else witnessed, and cases where the enemy could be confirmed dead. So if I shot someone in the stomach and he managed to crawl around where we couldn’t see him before he bled out, he didn’t count”. p.265. Basically says it all unfortunately of the thought process of paid, professional killing machines. War is not for the feint-hearted and unfortunately many thousands of American soldiers lost their lives along with many more thousands of Iraqi civilians in a war hard to understand. What was gained from the conflict ? Perhaps when Hollywood does a movie from the other side of the sniper’s rifle and gets inside the head of that character and questions the hatred of the West and America created by politicians with other agendas will we maybe understand. The war in Iraq was a bigger mistake than Vietnam, this won’t be the last of the films about the conflict, regrettably in the end of this particular soldier’s story both America and Iraq lost, and for what ?

  13. A racist propaganda film of the highest order. ‘They’re savages, baby…’ And even if it wasn’t, there is no nuance to be found. As a film it is B-grade, plain and simple. Clint returns to cowboys-and-Indians territory. Lame dialogue, one-dimensional yanky soldiers, poor production values when compared with other recent war films, zero sympathetic Iraqi characters that even Bigelow would have balked at. Simply a crap film over which I have lost all respect for Eastwood.

    1. Saw the movie last night and have to agree that it was a B grade film at best. It was like watching a video game. As I am not American I was watching it to compare to other Oscar nominated movies and it just doesn’t measure up. It was boring.

  14. Yes, I’d read all the reviews/opinions. “Based on” a true story – certain compressions and omissions and other “liberties” taken – but essentially the story of a young chap in the US finding his way into adulthood via what seems to us in Australia, simplistically, as: church, hunting and care for the gun, post-school bravado – wake-up call – and then the clincher for this story – flag-waving military service! He’s a sniper – we have a far more nuanced understanding of that nowadays – after deaths of children and women (young and old) in the streets of the former Yugoslavia – as ethnic cleansing/worse took place there – but it’s a job he’s been assigned because of his marksmanship – a protective cover for troops in the streets below. And moral decisions to be made in the split seconds available. And then there is home – wife and a family – on the increase as each time he returns for leave. The numbing to ordinary life – the PTSD indicators – that what is real is back there – every nerve alive and one’s mates the only reason for the personal commitment to that conflict – where everyone else is the enemy – whether enemy or not. And the blame to self when mates are shot and/or killed. The mate who dies – the letter he’d written beforehand read aloud at the cemetery by the mother – other’s battle-fatigues/left maimed in body and mind – trying to exist in a land where noise and flag waving is only at the send-off – tears and incomprehension at the bodies and hollowed-out men (women) who arrive back! Kyle seems to have found himself through working with such men. There is much to thank Clint Eastwood for – and Brad Cooper, too – in this portrait of Chris Kyle! I did not come away hung ho in any way at all – just saddened by the way our leaders never seem to learn a thing from history apart from wanting their own names linked with military action from which they are as far from action as can – only in there for the photo-op. But so willing to send the youth of their nation (though never their own off-spring)!

  15. “Arab” snipers killing American soldiers during a war where American’s invaded Iraq hardly amounts to murder!! What could possibly be your argument there? War sucks. Snipers and all.

  16. The Arab sniper was murdering as many Americans as he could, no doubt you can rush to his defence with your rapier sharp commentary.

  17. Saw it over the Weekend. Absolutely as Anti-War (but pro-Warrior) as it gets from the opening scene.

    Just because we understand the protagonist’s world view and respect his courage and skills doesn’t mean that is the story Eastwood is telling.

    It is gut-wrenching and there is only one certified Middle Eastern baddie. The rest are just caught up in a terrible struggle to protect their homeland

    I cried from the opening scene until the last. I agree the last doco-style scene hit a bum note.

    Not for the faint-hearted.

  18. Agree with Luke viewpoint. It’s an uneasy film to sit through. The action and feel are so palpable. Yes, there is a lot of jingoism – including from the Kyle character and lots of flags at the end. But these are so overstated that many impartial people (even right and left leaning) will be repulsed. Eastwood has not made propaganda: this is a factual film showing the reality of a war that American (and Australia etc) LOST!

  19. If our hero was an Arab murdering hundreds of Americans (Osama bin L perhaps) it’d spark more than an “intellectual debate”.


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