if Zero Dark Thirty (a film I really love a lot) had been anything like the flag-waving, jingoistic, torture-endorsing film its detractors claim it to be, it probably would have made twice as much money. –Film website comment
The past week, Clint Eastwood’s Chris Kyle biopic American Sniper made $120 million over its 4-day opening weekend. Not only is Sniper the highest-grossing January release ever, it’s the biggest opening weekend of any film not part of a franchise—Warner Bros. pictures was expecting an opening-weekend gross of between $40 and $50 million. Not only was Sniper a huge commercial success, it’s been lauded by critics. The film’s huge success with both the “real America” contingent and coastal élites would indicate that the film is something unique—“a bona fide cultural phenomenon,” in the breathless words of CNN’s Brandon Griggs. Despite the protestations of critics like Griggs that Sniper is “a human story, not a political one,” though, there’s been a political controversy.
However, one of the first misconceptions is that American Sniper has prompted a controversy—rather, there are two. One dispute is between the left and right, over the valorization of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sniper with cryptofascist politics and a gargantuan body count. This is sometimes diminishingly lumped in with a discussion about Selma and tepidly called an issue with historical accuracy—as though making a hero of a cruel mass-murderer is analogous to a PR headache for the estate of Lyndon Johnson. The second controversy is between liberal film critics and American Sniper’s detractors. These critics, bolstering the film’s reputation against the ugly facts about the late Chris Kyle, are arguing for the film to be appreciated as a liberal war movie, rather than a right-wing one.
Against claims that Kyle was a vile individual, the film’s liberal supporters argue that it’s not an overtly jingoistic work, but a “morally ambiguous” one. Both sides are correct, in their respective, separate discussions—Chris Kyle was a reprehensible human being, but Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is informed by liberal conceptions of warmaking. The film’s tremendous huge box-office and critical success is due to Eastwood’s accomplishing a unique hybrid—the story of the ultimate right-wing war hero, with the themes and narrative signals of liberal pro-war films. The resulting intervention on the part of supportive film critics, arguing for an ahistorical and apolitical reception of American Sniper, is about shoring up liberal imperialism versus its more distasteful, unsophisticated sibling.
American Sniper’s subject, along with its mass appeal and huge box office success, might indicate that it’s a right-wing war movie—something overtly bellicose, jingoistic, and “flag-waving.” The film has definitely been a success with right-wing audiences, who’ve both turned out in droves and targeted what Sarah Palin called “Hollywood leftist” critics. Directed by a filmmaker whose last prominent work starred an empty chair at the RNC, Sniper isn’t just about any hero, but the epitome of reactionary heroism. The actual Kyle, in his own words, was an unrepentant mass-killer—someone who “loved” killing the “damn savages” that he “hated,” even finding it “fun,” and whose only wish was that he “had killed more.” Kyle saw himself as a Christian warrior in a civilizational battle against Islam, adorning himself with a tattoo of the red Crusader’s cross popular among other identitarian Christian fascists like Anders Breivik. However, not only was Kyle an enthusiastic racist murderer in reality, but in the legend he cultivated about himself. Kyle was an unrepentant bullshit artist, building himself up as the embodiment of a violent right-wing archetype—a Free Republic comment come to life.
Amongst his many lies, Kyle repeated a popular authoritarian myth about liberal treachery, claiming to have been called a baby-killer in the highly right-wing area of San Diego where the SEALs are based. He claimed to have found WMDs in Iraq. He also claimed to have acted out the sort of racialized vengeance fantasies that fuel the right-wing id: inventing stories about shooting two carjackers, and gunning down “looters” in post-Katrina New Orleans with impunity. The last point is particularly ironic since Kyle described looting Iraqi homes during the war, making him the sort of thieving petty criminal that private property-loving “stand your ground” types see as the lowest form of scum. It’s actually surprising that Kyle never claimed to have taught a lesson to an avowed atheist and ACLU-member college professor, who one day challenged God to knock him off his platform.
This is the Chris Kyle in the public record leading up the release of Eastwood’s film. He is firmly associated with the American right—and one controversy has played out along these lines. Americans of the cryptofascist political persuasion send those who denigrate him death threats. Some liberal celebrities, like Seth Rogen and Michael Moore, have made mild critical comments, which they immediately walked back under pressure from the right. However, Seth Rogen provides a valuable object lesson in what division is manifesting itself here. Among many critics with principled stands against warmongering are liberals like Rogen. Famously, Rogen propagandized on Israel’s behalf during last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, so he obviously doesn’t have a substantive issue with slaughtering Arabs. However, people like Rogen, who support warfare in the name of democratic pluralism, are actually one of the film’s natural constituencies.
Popularity with the Fox News crowd doesn’t account for a lot of Sniper’s box office returns, nor the film’s glowing reviews—as right-wing hack Rich Lowry said with the trademark brevity and wit of the National Review, “the movie Lone Survivor didn’t get any major Oscar nominations. If it had, perhaps it should have been nominated for Most Unlikely Politically Incorrect Picture of the Year.” Success with right-wing audiences usually equates to poor reviews and few accolades, while American Sniper has been widely praised and nominated for a slew of awards, including 6 Oscar nominations. Sniper’s critical reception is much closer to that of the liberal War on Terror movie Zero Dark Thirty a couple years ago. The two films share more than just affectionate portrayals of Navy SEALs. The release of both films has included the spectacle of countless liberal film critics wailing and keening over the damage unjustly done to a great film’s reputation due to a controversy over its politics; and reactionary, anti-intellectual calls to de-politicize the act of criticism. While American Sniper’s critics are correct that it lionizes a monster, its liberal supporters are correct in that Sniper, like Zero Dark Thirty, is a liberal imperialist film. Its supporters are arguing for it to be appreciated as such—churning out one idiotic think-piece after another positioning liberal imperialism as a trailblazing, centrist position.
Contemporary military/political thrillers are defined as much by their receptions as their content. Right-wing military movies tend to be things like The Marine and Act of Valor, movies starring wrestlers and real, live Navy SEALs. Liberal military/political films are made to win Oscars. However, content matters. Imperialism has a right wing and a liberal wing: where right-wing imperialism is nakedly aggressive, overtly chauvinistic, and patriotic; liberal imperialism talks about shades of gray and invokes philosophy before visiting violence on the same targets.
This binary is best embodied by the figures of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. When Bush discussed warfare, he did so with cowboy swagger that played well to his audience, talking about eradicating evildoers, “smokin’ ‘em out of their holes” and gettin’ ‘em “dead or alive.” This had deleterious effects on America’s branding, so Barack Obama was brought in to refurbish the nation’s image. Where Bush had unpretentious swagger, Obama evinced thoughtful, urbane sophistication. Liberal imperialists affect the image of anguished moral inquiry by channeling St. Augustine and Reinhold Niebuhr, engaging in “thoughtful wrestling,” and raising “profound questions about accountability and morality.” The narrative goes that when liberal imperialists kill—which they do—they feel really, really conflicted over it. One mentality is summed up by the adage “shoot ‘em all and let God sort ‘em out,” the other is “heavy is the head that wears the crown.” However, the difference is one of surface signifiers, not substance. At issue is a planetary war of subjugation—Americans can choose Pepsi or Coke.
The same differences manifest themselves in liberal war films vs. right-wing ones. The liberal pro-war story has in past iterations been called the “shoot and cry” genre, named after the affectations that portray liberal warmongers as profound moral beings, rather than mere thuggish killers. It got its name from the cycle of Israeli books, films, and TV series that depicted the slow genocide of Palestinians through its negative effect on Israel’s conscience. Works in this genre began being produced immediately following the Nakba, and aim to whitewash the Israeli settler-colonial project by showing violence as an aberrant stain on the profoundly good nation’s collective soul, rather than the bedrock on which the Israeli ethnocratic state was built and is maintained to this day.
In a review of Zero Dark Thirty, Noam Sheizaf connected Katheryn Bigelow’s bin Laden-killing opus to the established tradition of the “shoot and cry.” Calling it “the most vile and immoral war film I’ve seen in years,” Sheizaf explains that the “agonized killers” of these films don’t actually transmit any moral nuance, but rewrite evil actions as ambiguous ones. “It is not – as some more naïve viewers said – a ‘complicated’ or ‘controversial’ way of promoting ‘a debate’ on torture, but the other way around. Torture and assassinations are presented as effective though unpleasant ways of performing heroic acts.” The fact that Jessica Chastain’s Maya sheds a single tear at the end doesn’t change the fact that most viewers will support killing bin Laden, and the actions that contributed to that end.
Zero Dark Thirty was the progenitor of a subgenre I call “morally ambiguous torture films.” As I wrote in the case of those films, “moral ambiguity” is a disingenuous affectation to mask some truly ugly politics:
These films share the same ideological core, and it’s not one built on great complexity and shades of gray. The moral world these films create is one of dueling, good-vs.-evil extremes: heroes who grudgingly use torture to defeat monstrous villains. Moral ambiguity is a superficial affectation achieved by a dour visual palette, extended onscreen suffering, and a disingenuous air of ideological neutrality. Films in the “morally ambiguous” cycle obfuscate their Manichaean moral framework to remake an unambiguous evil into an ethical gray-area and interpellate subjects into their authoritarian worldview.
As the pseudonymous Internet commenter at the top of the piece said, Zero Dark Thirty possibly could’ve made more money if it had been more openly bellicose. However, ZD30 wouldn’t have gotten any Oscar nominations or topped countless best-of-2012 lists. Furthermore, the (most likely liberal) commenter fails to understand the essential difference between liberal and reactionary war movies. ZD30 is objectively pro-torture, and it’s covertly jingoistic, but it’s not “flag-waving.” Flag-waving, or rah-rah war movies are the domain of right-wingers. Liberals don’t usually chant U!-S!-A!, they wring their hands. Liberal war heroes don’t wave the flag; they stand with the stars-and-stripes as a backdrop, taciturn and with brows furrowed, as they weigh the tremendous moral responsibility of the lives they’re about to take. This is the hero’s default pose on the posters and promotional materials for both Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper.
Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper both open with invocations of 9/11, triggering lingering feelings of horror in the audience and coding what happens next as a direct response to the attacks. However, where Zero Dark Thirty’s heroine was a pseudonymous CIA case officer—and a woman, for added feminism—Chris Kyle was a proud, even zealous racist murderer. To make a film that would appeal to imperialists of all stripes, Eastwood and his screenwriter, Jason Hall, made Kyle the sort of conflicted, handwringing figure that liberal viewers can love.
The real Chris Kyle describes seeing the world in black and white, and fighting against “savage, despicable evil.” He unequivocally didn’t regret his service, and relished visiting terror on Iraqis. “In the film, Kyle is visibly troubled, finally confessing to his wife he’s ‘ready to come home,’” according to a reviewer for the Houston Press. “The cinematic Kyle’s growing unease and uncertainty in the film are at odds with the enthusiastic killer of his memoir.” Where the real Kyle was a shameless fabulist in building up his own legend, Bradley Cooper’s Kyle is humble and self-effacing—when an onlooker congratulates Kyle on his first kill, Cooper snaps “get the fuck out of here” and Eastwood holds on the shot. Even the extremely well-crafted first trailer shows Kyle begging an Iraqi child to not pick up an RPG, where the real Kyle craved opportunities to raise his kill-count.
Though the film is valorizing an unrepentant thug, it does so by portraying him as a tormented, reluctant warrior—in short, a liberal imperialist, like the current occupant of the White House. The film’s tagline is simply THE MOST LETHAL SNIPER IN U.S. HISTORY, but in a review of the film, Chris Kyle’s Navy SEAL sniper trainer Brandon Webb says that the film is more “drama” and less “trigger time with Chris” than military-minded viewers may expect. The “drama” is things like Taya Kyle responding to one of her husband’s rants about Iraqi “savages” with a melodramatic “It’s not about them, it’s about us”—see, wasn’t Chris Kyle just trying to murder the Iraqis inside himself? The “drama” is the very essence of Hollywood’s whitewash of Kyle, aimed to make his image palatable for liberal media gatekeepers—and it’s worked.
Countless critics now demand that the film not be tainted by its lionizing of Kyle, just like they argued for an amoral, apolitical reading of Zero Dark Thirty two years ago. It’s worth noting that though anti-intellectualism is typically thought of as a domain of the right, liberal imperialists deploy the same language and logic to protect their territory. In defending liberal imperialist war films, critics likewise argue against “reading politics into movie[s] that avoids politics,” just like their right-wing counterparts. They just do it by invoking liberal tropes more than reactionary ones—in this, American Sniper was wildly successful, introducing faux “moral ambiguity” to an unambiguously evil man participating in an unequivocally evil war of aggression.
According to Steven Zeitchik at the LA Times, in a piece with the typical title “American Sniper: What if both sides are missing Eastwood’s point?” (above-the-fray centrism!): “Sniper is neither the movie of Nazi propaganda nor a film of scintillating clarity. It’s a war picture of a much more interesting dimension: ambiguity.”
Similarly, Andrew O’Hehir of Salon demanded that liberals separate the film from its vile politics. By now, O’Hehir is a natural at this sort of obfuscation: his 2012 intervention in the Zero Dark Thirty debate, “the Zero Dark Thirty debate isn’t really about torture” (more above-the-fray centrism!) was one of the most confused, and confusing, entries on the liberal imperialist side of the discussion. O’Hehir writes that “the lingering trauma of violence and the difficulty of overcoming it [is] the real subject of American Sniper, no matter how many racist tweets from yahoos in Oklahoma it may have provoked.” Apparently, Muslim-bashers are misreading a film about THE MOST LETHAL SNIPER IN U.S. HISTORY™.
The worst piece is one by Jason Bailey on FlavorWire. Reproachfully titled “American Sniper is not your culture war talking point,” Bailey first joins the ranks of film critics against criticism by declaring that the debate is “a perfect reminder of why pundits and op-ed scribes should stay the hell away from movies.” Presumably, the art world is best left to writers without knowledge of recent history or strong anti-war convictions. Bailey laments that “lost in all of this flag-planting and finger-pointing and posturing is the fact that there’s a movie there — and, inconveniently for the players involved, one that’s nuanced and complex enough to resist pigeonholing by either camp. American Sniper is not some jingoistic, flag-waving celebration of killing brown people.” The story of THE MOST LETHAL SNIPER IN U.S. HISTORY™ is great art, and “great art, particularly great art about difficult subjects, colors in shades of gray.”
What these critics are doing is separating liberal imperialism from both leftish anti-war sentiment and the thuggish warmongering of right-wing imperialism, with its attendant “troglodyte Islamophobia.” The reason Zero Dark Thirty and American Sniper bring countless racists out of the woodwork, talking about murdering Arabs, is because the War on Terror, and imperialism itself, uses weaponized racism to dehumanize its targets. Liberal war movies, though they may not be overt “flag-waving celebration[s] of killing brown people,” are nonetheless celebrating the same murderous, racist project. No matter how much faux ambiguity is slathered on these films, or how much their protagonists may lament the killing they do, racists are responding to subtext that will exist in any film glorifying the war on terror. There’s a reason people go on social media and say they want to kill Muslims after a viewing of American Sniper but not after watching The LEGO Movie.
The fact that liberal imperialist war films affect an air of nuance, complexity, and ambiguity is precisely what makes them morally vile. There is nothing nuanced about US state violence. It takes a whitewash to turn a dark historical crime like America’s destruction of Iraq into a “gray area.” America’s war in Iraq wasn’t just a mistake thought up by a dumb president—it was an act of aggression that’s killed hundreds of thousands. Any film that presents it as anything else—whether with right-wing bravado or whinging liberal ambivalence—is a vile act of propaganda.
For the sake of comparison, look at the best biographical film treatment of an American sniper, Alexandre Moors’ 2013 Blue Caprice. The Beltway snipers boasted 1/10th of Kyle’s body count, but most Americans wouldn’t hesitate to call their actions heinous. The fact that the same consensus doesn’t exist around Kyle is the work of propaganda, plain and simple. Especially given that John Allen Muhammad’s dream was to recruit orphaned teens, train them as urban guerillas, and wage Harper’s Ferry-style raids against America’s white supremacist power structure, which is a substantially less evil end goal than destroying Iraq, salting their territory with depleted uranium, and taking their oil.
It would be nice if every discussion about a liberal pro-war film didn’t recapitulate the same tedious, imbecilic arguments commonly deployed by liberal film critics. Liberal imperialism isn’t some complex, centrist position, but a more disingenuous version of its right-wing brother. There’s no actual, substantive “moral ambiguity” in these films—what’s happening is that unequivocal wrong is being remade as a mere “gray area.” It’s all in keeping with the softer side of imperialism, which flatters its audience by doing violence in their names while telling them it’s the essence of sophistication. As Sheizaf says in his piece on Zero Dark Thirty, “I would rather have a right wing that is proud…than an agonized lefty.”
Sheizaf explains that “Sometime in the late 1960s, Israeli cinema stopped producing heroic war stories [and] started producing a different genre – that of the confessions,” of the “shoot and cry,” “Which, when you think about it, is kind of weird for a country that has a war every few years and needs to reinforce its own ethos.” Israel in the ‘60s, like the US today, found that in order to maintain a certain benevolent, democratic image, the “shoot and cry” was better branding. Along with chest-thumping heroes were anguished liberals, who shouldered a burden imposed on them as the fault of countless less-principled parties. Like Israel with its continuing settler-colonial project, the US has long-term goals in mind. It’s engaged in a worldwide Forever War, most publicly in an “arc of instability” stretching many thousands of miles, but unconstrained by borders or time. There’s no end in sight, which means countless more Nabila Rehmans and Abdulrahman al-Awlakis to come. In order to be seen as the Good Guy, that means America will make a lot less films about the openly racist, murder-loving Chris Kyle of real life and a lot more films about the ethically conflicted, homesick, profoundly decent Chris Kyle of Eastwood’s creation.