Why we're allowed to hate a movie about the military
Over the weekend, I saw a headline go by about the truly remarkable box-office earned by "American Sniper," and I made a quick joke about it on Twitter. It was a passing thought, and then I was done.
"I'm not surprised 'American Sniper' opened so well. Fantasy films are huge at the box-office these days. #yeahIsaidit"
Yes, the hashtag at the end is snide. But it's still a joke. I put it up and I moved on. Or at least, that was the plan. A few hours later, I had to shut off the notifications on my phone because they just kept coming. For the most part, lots of retweets and a few jokes back at me, but there was a percentage of those replies that were overtly hostile and angry, and several threats of/calls for violence as a result. “Said the liberal insane POS. Sad our military die for ass wipes like you. Go away, little boy” was a charming one. I was intrigued by the one who called me a racist and then said, “You think there aren’t black people in our armed forces? You think that’s a ‘fantasy’?” I like it when people get upset about things that were never remotely part of my thought process.
One guy even attempted to loop Marcus Luttrell into the conversation, which made me laugh. The idea that the author of "Lone Survivor," the real-life retired SEAL whose story was the basis of the film and book would take time out of his day to join some anonymous goofball off of Twitter on a trip to LA to physically assault me is laughable. "Hmmm… maybe I should listen to this guy with 175 Twitter followers and go punch someone over a 140 character long wisecrack."
Right now, Seth Rogen's taking his turn in the barrel because of (this sounds familiar) a comment on Twitter about "American Sniper." His comment has been RT'd over 5000 times now, and favorited almost twice as many times. And you can now Google "Seth Rogen" and "American Sniper" together and you'll get an entire page full of results. People are getting hot about Seth's comment because it gives them a chance to say the word "Nazi" and draw huge ridiculous false connections between what Seth said and a very particular insult.
Here's the thing… he's not wrong. Sure, the film at the end of "Basterds" is direct state-sponsored Nazi propaganda, while "American Sniper" is a commercial movie, released by a major studio. In both films (one of which, I should point out, doesn't technically exist), though, we see a sniper being canonized on film for the killing of the enemy, the sniper-as-hero archetype. Rogen's comparison, offered up without any further slam or attempted insult, is an accurate one.
American Sniper kind of reminds me of the movie that's showing in the third act of Inglorious Basterds.— Seth Rogen (@Sethrogen) January 18, 2015
Personally, I have always been troubled by what our pop culture depictions of war say about us, and by the attributes war gains any time you point a camera at it, fact or fiction. Truffaut said, "There's no such thing as an anti-war film," and I understand that he was deeply troubled by the thrills that are delivered when we watch combat, the visceral reaction that he had to footage that upset him on a moral level.
I feel the opposite is true; any movie about war is automatically, no matter what the filmmaker's intentions, an anti-war film. I look at films about war, and I cannot imagine how we continue to send remarkable men and women into that situation. Any of us. One of the most disturbing things about the evolution of war films as a genre is the way technology has been used to create more and more graphic and realistic on-screen depictions of horrifying loss of life and limb. David Ayer's "Fury" was problematic, but I said in the review that one of the reasons I would tell people to see it was because of how great the tank combat is. Beautifully staged, harrowing, and photographed with a great sense of kinetic energy, it's impressive stuff. But tank combat is one of those things I'm not sure I should have a visceral action-movie reaction to, because of context, not because of form. That's the damnable thing about war movies.
Talking to a friend last night, she discussed how her reaction to the movie was to the movie itself. Not to Chris Kyle. Not to the true story. Not to the book. Not to any of the various controversies around Kyle. She liked Bradley Cooper's work, and she liked the way it played as a movie. When I wrote my review, I wrote about the movie, nothing else. I didn't really get into my feelings about Chris Kyle or his book or the industry that exists around portraying him a certain way, because that's really not part of a discussion of the film itself. I'll also confess… part of me gets nervous when those subjects do finally come up because of how the conversations inevitably break down. I may have laughed at that guy on Twitter who "threatened" me, but it does raise a question about that guy's reaction and the reactions of the people who are slinging fury and hate at Rogen right now over what he said. Why do people get so much more angry and defensive about any based-on-a-true-story that involves the military, and why do they feel some special need to attack anyone who dislikes these movies for any reason?
It's not like military-themed films are the only ones that get attacked for accuracy. It's Oscar season right now, so "Selma" and "The Imitation Game" and "The Theory Of Everything" and "Foxcatcher" and "Unbroken" have all had attacks launched at them over accuracy, and to some degree, every one of those films fails the test of "truth." "American Sniper" certainly isn't the only film out right now that can be challenged on matters of accuracy, nor would I consider it the biggest offender. In fact, I think what Eastwood tried to do, working with screenwriter Jason Hall, was shave away all the stuff from Kyle's book that was either difficult to prove or proven false, sticking instead to Kyle's service tours and his home life. The movie version of Chris Kyle is a movie star at the height of his creative energy right now, throwing himself into a physical transformation and pushing himself to a really grim emotional place. It's burnished mythmaking by Eastwood. The film makes a conscious decision about what character it wants to present, and there's nothing wrong with that, per se.
I understand if someone wants to go to the theater and have that experience, especially if they're military or if they have military in their family. I think a big part of the appeal (and I hate using that word in this context) of Chris Kyle's story is the horrifying irony of the ending. It seems to me that is the key with almost all of these films is that they're built on one particular idea about this famous person or this famous moment in time. I thought "Foxcatcher" was a frustration because there's so much good work in the film, hobbled by some really strange choices about the actual storytelling. The only way to look at these films is as fiction, based on things that actually happened. They are not true. In every single one of them, you have people who heard a story, who responded to that story, and who saw a reason to tell other people that story. In doing so, they edit. They massage. They shape. They edit. They emphasize.
Does it matter how Lyndon B. Johnson is portrayed in the movie "Selma"? Yes. Absolutely. And what I see in that film is a portrait of a man who understands what he should do and who equally understands what he cannot do at that point, a man whose position evolves over the course of the film, and who eventually realizes that there is something that has to be done. "Selma" is not a biopic in the strict sense. It is a film about the way it takes community to create successful protest, and how that community works. It absolutely telescopes events and situations in order to make its dramatic points. In the end, I believe "Selma" has a fundamentally honest perspective on the events, and that's all I can ask of any of these movies, just as I find that "Foxcatcher" has a fundamentally dishonest perspective. The fact that I think "Selma" is the better made movie of the two is unrelated to that belief, though. It's just coincidence that it lines up the way it does.
Obviously, there was an audience that was ready and waiting for "American Sniper," and I am glad they had the opportunity to see a film that means so much to them. But I wish it was possible in our culture to have a conversation about these movies and how they work as films without it automatically spilling over into accusations and anger. If you feel protective of the way the military is portrayed on film, that's fine. But the anger is part of something larger, some fundamental break that has occurred in the way we talk to each other in this country, a "your team or mine" thing that I constantly struggle to stay out of. What worries me is that at a certain point, if you say that what a film is about is more important than the actual artistry of the filmmaking, then you're talking about propaganda... aren't you?
I am not a binary person with a fixed binary opinion on things, and I suspect most people are the same way. I'd love to have a conversation about the way Eastwood's own attitudes about the military have evolved over the course of his performing and directing career. I'd love to have a back-to-back look at "Heartbreak Ridge" and "American Sniper" and discuss the way they each reflect the culture's attitude towards the military at the moments they were made. I'd be happy to talk about the way "Unforgiven" has defined so much of the career that Eastwood has had since it came out, and how "Sniper" seems to cover the same basic thematic ground of what violence does to someone over the long term and how hard it can be to live with a legend that constantly pushes people to challenge you as a way of proving themselves. There are conversations I'd like to have about "Sniper," and none of them are invalidated by my feelings about Chris Kyle, or by a short joke.
Wouldn't it be better to engage these conversations rather than just sniping every single fact-based film from a distance? Wouldn't that be the best way to make sure we keep truth and art and the relationship between the two in perspective?
"American Sniper," like "Selma," is in theaters now.