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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The Work of Revelations: Snowden, the Torture Report, and the Diminishing Returns of Info-Spectacles

“An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come,” wrote Victor Hugo. Isn’t that ultimately the message of Les Misérables? In contrast to the revolutionaries hopelessly slaughtered en masse at the barricades, it’s Jean Valjean’s unimpeachable righteousness alone that ultimately drives his longtime tormentor to suicide. I dreamed a dream…

Rather than just being the domain of French Romantics and office motivational posters, the notion that information alone has transformative power is the cornerstone of establishment left thinking. It stems from liberal enlightenment ideals that configure history as a linear progression—embodied in the apocryphal quote about the moral arc of the universe. It goes one way, and that’s forwards towards progress. This coincides happily with the preponderance of lawyers in the ranks of mainstream human rights and civil liberties groups, for whom information is the sine qua non of preparing briefs and mounting cases.

There’s a more controversial theory that information isn’t inherently good. Even revelatory information—stuff the powerful don’t want you to know—ostensibly in the service of a progressive goal, can be used for right-wing ends if it obscures or moderates a more radical prescription. If information is getting used to co-opt a more radical course of action, then that project is reactionary.

For its part, progressive e-magazine TruthDig doesn’t want people messing with this line of thinking in the case of the Senate Torture report: “When the truth is spoken by politicians…skeptics are right to suspect it’s not merely the truth. It is always tailored to redound to some benefit to the speaker. But there are moments in history when that doesn’t matter.”

We’re being told it’s one such moment now. The Senate Intelligence Committee has released a heavily redacted, heavily abridged “Executive Summary” of its 6,000 page report on CIA torture. Adding to the report’s mystique is the fact that the White House and CIA wanted to suppress the information contained within, with the CIA even hacking the computers of Senate staffers compiling the report. The torture report seems like the most illicit kind of revelatory information, so it’s created an enormous amount of commentary and condemnation.

However, with the exceptions of some specific ghoulish details, most of the information was already known. The most horrific facts—that the CIA raped prisoners, that torture was used to fabricate justifications for the War in Iraq, that human beings were tortured to death, that almost a quarter of torture cases were the result of mistaken identity—had all been reported on within the last decade.

There’s a disconnect between the content of the torture report and the narrative that now surrounds the event itself. When TruthDig called for putting skepticism aside, it was in a piece hailing Senators Dianne Feinstein and John McCain as their progressive heroes of the week. Feinstein’s fingerprints are on many of the US’s worst abuses of this century, and McCain is one of the most bloodthirsty figures in the US government, and by extension the planet. Given that these newly minted progressive heroes are some of the worst imperialists, and the torture report’s aura doesn’t reflect reality, this seems like exactly the right moment for those meddlesome skeptics to be asking questions.

The journalists and public figures who promote the torture report present it as transformative information, but it’s shaping up to be a spectacle that sets the left back yet again. The report has followed many parallels with the last time this happened, the spectacle surrounding Ed Snowden’s leaks to Glenn Greenwald et al. The Snowden drama provided a useful template for how dissent is going to be managed, channeled, and moderated going forward. The way the NSA leaks were handled has provided the elites a scalable model for taking the release of even revelatory information and using it to come out on top and consolidate their power.

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Fortunately, last October Pierre Omidyar’s First Look Media had an acrimonious public divorce with once-hire Matt Taibbi. If Taibbi had been someone with less social capital, then the failure of Racket might’ve just been a momentary hiccup for the internet’s hottest journalistic “insurgency.” As it stands, the fact that people want to be in Taibbi’s orbit has opened up a lot of space for analysis of Omidyar’s would-be media empire, where the establishment consensus was once airtight. It’s certainly vindicated what Taibbi said about journalists being akin to an easily spooked herd of deer, who only get around to asking the right questions “eventually. But far after the fact.”

When the leaks began, they painted a complete picture of a monster whose contours had only previously been hinted at. Stories about warrantless wiretapping and the size of “Top Secret America” had won their authors Pulitzers and hinted that the US government was spying on all of us. There were reports of a secret government data-storage facility of gargantuan proportions being built in Utah. Stories had periodically cropped up in unexpected places about the government’s ability to record and store all our communications. However, now the public knew the truth definitively. There was excitement, talk of change, reform, maybe even something more drastic. Soon, the whistleblower went public. More stories came out, about more countries. Continue reading

Tortured Conscience: the Rise of the “Morally Ambiguous” Torture Film

Americans in Times Square celebrate the assassination of Osama bin Laden with a traditional ritual: the chanting of U-S-A! U-S-A!. Courtesy Josh Pesavento Flickr.

Americans in Times Square celebrate the assassination of Osama bin Laden with a traditional cultural ritual: the chanting of U-S-A! U-S-A!. Courtesy Josh Pesavento Flickr.

We sleep safely in our beds because rough men stand ready in the night to visit violence on those who would harm us.” –Unknown

“Some men are created evil” Big Bad Wolves Tagline

Contiguous with our “golden age of television” is a cycle of works, in both TV and film, whose protagonists’ “moral ambiguity” is a selling point. From Jay Gatsby and Walter White to Louis CK and Hannah Horvath, moral ambiguity marks a work as mature, complex, and thought-provoking—worthy of being called great art. The last few years have also seen the rise of a new genre with deep political ramifications: the “morally ambiguous” torture film.

The most recent entry in the genre is Big Bad Wolves, an Israeli film that Rex Reed called “a sensation” and Quentin Tarantino called “the best film of the year.” The film deals with a group of men who kidnap and torture a suspected child-murderer, and is visually and thematically dark. Among positive reviews (the film enjoys a 78% on Rotten Tomatoes), the film is widely praised for its “moral ambiguity.” The film has been called a “morally ambiguous fairy tale,” whose “haunting meditation on the morality and efficacy of torture…only increases the moral ambiguity,” according to The Hollywood Reporter. Thematically and ideologically, the film shares the most DNA with another dark revenge-thriller from 2013, Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners. Prisoners also deals with a missing girl, whose father then kidnaps and tortures the suspected abductor. Villeneuve’s film was similarly hailed as another “morally ambiguous” film, sophisticated enough to “navigate a maze of moral ambiguity.” “Prisoners puts all other morally ambiguous movies to shame,” in the words of one breathless reviewer.

Both Big Bad Wolves and Prisoners follow the first “morally ambiguous” torture film: 2012’s Zero Dark Thirty. When it was released, Katherine Bigelow’s film about the manhunt and murder of Osama bin Laden rightly generated a lot of controversy around its depiction of torture. However, for as many people who called the film out for its torture apologia, there were many who praised the film for its “moral ambiguity,” erecting the strawman that to not depict torture would constitute a whitewash. In a Time magazine interview, Bigelow defended the film as “a deeply moral movie that questions the use of force.” Where Zero Dark Thirty generated controversy, Prisoners and Big Bad Wolves have generated unreserved praise. Mother Jones celebrated Prisoners as a welcome corrective to Zero Dark Thirty, calling it “the strongest anti-torture argument that has come out of the movies in years.”

The idea that these films are “morally ambiguous” is central to their reception. It tells viewers that, rather than functioning as torture apologia, there’s a nuance at their core that prompts deep ethical probing. However, viewers tend to side with the character through whom they see the world. Dodge paid for Walter White to drive their cars for a reason, and Jay Gatsby’s parties look pretty fun. Quentin Tarantino’s sensibility draws heavily from the simplistic worlds of comic books and exploitation films—If Big Bad Wolves gets the Tarantino seal-of-approval, the ethical complexity of this genre is probably being oversold. The man’s most morally ambiguous choice is giving the world of cinema its most congenial Nazi—he’s not exactly St. Augustine.

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” pro-torture cycle obfuscate their Manichaean moral framework to remake an unambiguous evil into an ethical gray-area and interpellate subjects into their authoritarian worldview.

Torture Creep

Today, more Americans support torture than believe in evolution. In a piece on Zero Dark Thirty’s “torturer-as-feminist-icon” narrative, Matt Cornell breaks down the shift in public attitudes:

In August of 2012, the Hoover Institution’s Amy Zegart conducted a poll on American attitudes toward torture, and found that Americans had become more supportive of the use of torture in the previous half decade. Zegart reported that: “[between 2007 and 2012,] 41 percent said they would be willing to use torture — a gain of 14 points — while 34 percent would not, a decline of 19 points.” Among the reasons for this shift in consensus, she cited the possible influence of spy movies and TV shows, which have increasingly depicted torture as heroic. According to her poll, so-called “spy TV watchers” were more likely to support a range of abusive tactics.

Zegart’s findings were predicted in 2008 by a Parent’s Television Council report which observed a significant spike in the depiction of torture on prime time television—and more critically a shift in which characters were using torture. Increasingly, it was the “good guys” carrying out the torture.

2012 was a decade after the Bush administration legalized torture and four years into the administration of Barack Obama, who didn’t consider torture a “grave [or] intentional breach” of Presidential powers and consequently immunized torturers. This isn’t to frame America’s current acceptance of torture in liberal declinist terms. From the torture inflicted on black slaves to torture as a tactic to crush the Philippine insurgency to the CIA’s KUBARK manual to the torture lessons at the School of the Americas, torture is as American as an apple with a razorblade in it. Recently, legalizing and immunizing torture has signaled to the culture industry that torture is now something “the good guys” do, too. However, torture is best depicted with a bit of handwringing, and a ghastly villain to justify it. Continue reading

Film Review: “The Act of Killing”

Joshua Oppenheimer’s The Act of Killing is a film that Werner Herzog called “unprecedented in the history of cinema.” It is remarkable because its subjects are men with the blood of thousands on their hands, invited to re-imagine their crimes onscreen. The three, Anwar Congo, Adi Zulkadry and Herman Koto, do so gleefully. Aping the styles of film noir thrillers, westerns, and musicals; the group recreates war crimes they committed in 1965-66, following Suharto’s coup in Indonesia. The unique nature of the film is partially visual: the setpieces they stage are often dreamlike, in stark contrast with the horrors being recreated. More shocking than the surreal imagery, though, is the way that the killers boast with impunity about their acts. They move about their milieu and speak about their crimes freely, and this is what makes The Act of Killing such a shocking film. A society’s embrace of war inverts the moral order: it makes criminals into heroes, it renders victims nonexistent, and it supplants reality with propaganda, lies and mythology. The decision to let war criminals to go unpunished makes this inversion permanent and systemic. The Act of Killing is unique because it illustrates these realities by rendering the abstract visceral.

bigfish

First as tragedy, then as elaborate Hollywood-style production.

Continue reading