No wonder it made $100m last weekend: “American Sniper” is a unique hybrid of right-wing and liberal pro-war movies

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. Continue reading

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Death to Christmas, Hollywood, and Free Speech

549b79e88d470aea988645a74f2d8ed836ea0b59This week, Kim Jong-un cancelled Christmas.

Not only that, he has eliminated America’s most cherished value: Free Speech.

It may have not been the North Korean government that hacked Sony and threatened to unleash a 9/11-style attack on theaters screening The Interview. However, the US government and its good friend, Hollywood, are treating this like it’s the case. It’s lead to a holiday season spectacle that’s finally worth watching: the entertainment industry wailing and keening over the deaths of all that’s good, decent, and American in the world.

George Clooney said that “North Korea dictate[s] content” now. Sean Penn, who seems like he got tired of pretending to be a leftist sometime last year, says that this has sent an invitation to ISIS. And then there’s everyone else in Hollywood, with variations of the hackers/terrorists/Hitlers have won (thanks to Variety for the laughs):

LOL

LOL

LOL

As is often the case with invoking Free Speech, people aren’t responding to government censorship but invoking an American totem like a fetish object. It’s one of those unfortunate situations that reveals the discomforting truth about capitalism. It’s chieftains have no silly, impoverishing devotion to any nation, just to their bottom line. In reality, Sony probably saw a mid-budget misfire that they could quietly shuffle off their schedule until an embarrassing hacking scandal died down. Especially once theaters started scurrying away from controversy, as profit-driven institutions are wont to do. As a hilarious illustration of the true amoral opportunism that makes someone an oligarch, the right-wing billionaire who owns Regal cinemas and was the first exhibitor to abandon the film was named “America’s greediest executive” by Forbes in 2002. Anyone who expects a corporation to uphold values or act on principle is asking them to be something else–something out of a socialist worker’s paradise. Continue reading

Life and Afterlife of an American Hero

What does the posthumous veneration of Chris Kyle say about America?

In May 2013, Steven Spielberg announced that his next film would be an adaptation of Chris Kyle’s American Sniper: the Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper In U.S. Military History. Bradley Cooper will star as “the Devil of Ramadi,” the Navy SEAL whose 160 confirmed kills are his claim to fame. That America’s most beloved filmmaker is going to give Kyle the same reverent treatment he gave Oskar Schindler and Abraham Lincoln, starring People magazine’s “Sexiest Man of 2011,” says a lot about the place that Kyle occupies in the popular imagination. However, a long-form biographical piece by Nicholas Schmidle in the June 2013 New Yorker, as well as Kyle’s own memoir, paints a disturbing picture about Spielberg’s latest subject. If Kyle is to be celebrated as an American hero, it speaks volumes about America and what our values have become in the decade+ since the Global War on Terror began.

Chris Kyle on a rooftop in Ramadi, Iraq

Chris Kyle on a rooftop in Ramadi, Iraq

Following the attacks of September 11th, 2001, the US began the War on Terror: a war sold to the public ostensibly against a brand of totalitarian religious extremists; “Islamofascists” who had no regard for the sanctity of life, basic human decency, or democratic institutions. Then-Vice President Dick Cheney declared that in order to fight this new war, the US “would have to work the dark side.” “I’m not a fan of politics,” Kyle explains in American Sniper, “I like war.” For someone who loved to kill, Kyle was in the right place at the right time.  Continue reading