February 6, 2015
Is American Sniper a pro-war or an anti-war movie? Is it a liberal or conservative movie? What does the US box office popularity of American Sniper tell us about American attitudes towards the war in Iraq? Towards veterans? Is it a racist movie in its depictions of Iraqi citizens? The surprising financial success of the Clint Eastwood-directed movie based on the co-written autobiography of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle and starring Bradley Cooper has started a media conversation and debate about the meaning of this success.
On CNN.com, Brandon Griggs breaks it down into what he says are the five reasons the movie is a hit: audiences are ready to be “entertained” by the Iraq war; its main character gives audiences an old-fashioned hero to root for; its trailer was really effective; it turns a political story into a “human” one; and it stars the likeable Mr. Cooper. At Rolling Stone, however, reporter Matt Taibbi, who has covered the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan extensively, had a very different point of view. Calling the movie “almost too dumb to criticize,” he took Griggs specifically to task for claiming that American Sniper was a “human” rather than a “political” story. He raises a question that can apply to all movies (and plays and novels, for that matter) about the morality of turning a story about war into entertainment. Where Taibbi and Griggs seem to agree, however, is that the popularity of American Sniper means something about America: “It’s the fact that the movie is popular, and actually makes sense to so many people, that’s the problem,” Taibbi argues.
Both of these reactions to American Sniper, as well as the question of what it all means, illustrate one of the main ideas in Screen Ages: that in thinking about the history, meaning, and significance of any movie, we should keep in mind that we are really talking about the history, meaning, and significance of the varied and diverse screen experiences of the audiences who have watched and are watching this movie. The short hand version of this approach is that the reason that Griggs and Taibbi disagree about American Sniper is because in many ways they saw different movies. When Taibbi worries about the fact that American Sniper “actually makes sense to so many people,” he is really worried about a kind of sense it might make, a particular kind of screen experience that some audience members might have that he worries about: that the War in Iraq was a completely justified response to the 9/11 attacks and that snipers like Kyle are the reason that the United States is not overrun with Iraqi terrorists, a sense Taibbi argues is not only inaccurate but even politically dangerous.
Part of the difficulty of figuring out who is right or wrong in this argument is that when you take an experiential approach to studying movies, it’s hard to talk about a movie as a single unified event, as something that can be labeled as “right” or “left,” “safe” or “dangerous.” Instead, every visual narrative (and every literary narrative) is a collection of different experiences occurring at different moments of time, each eliciting different emotional and interpretive responses from us as viewers and readers. In American Sniper, for example (and don’t worry; there are no spoilers ahead), we experience scenes set on the battlefield involving destruction and death; scenes set in San Diego showing the courtship of Chris Kyle and his wife Taya; Kyle and his brother joking in a truck as they drive home from a rodeo; the birth of Chris and Taya’s child. These very different juxtaposed scenes are all part of the “same” movie, and of course the details of those juxtapositions—when they occur, how scenes might refer to one another, how our reactions from an immediately previous scene affect our reactions to the next scene—are crucial but intensely complicated aspects of our overall screen experience.
Does this all mean that since every individual viewer has a different particular viewing experience from every other individual viewer, we can’t really say anything conclusive about American Sniper? Not at all. As unique viewers, we are at the same time also part of a particular mix of values, attitudes, beliefs, and narrative experiences that we share with others in our culture. In the term used by the literary theorist Stanley Fish, we all belong to multiple interpretive communities that influence how we see and interpret the world, including the books we read and the movies we see. And we can still come to consensus about certain details of the movie. For example, American Sniper references the Western as much as the genre of war movies. Chris Kyle grew up in Texas and initially aspired to be a literal cowboy, a rodeo rider complete with Stetson hat and cowboy boots. It’s not great stretch, then, to say that the movie encourages us to see Kyle the SEAL sniper as a cowboy, the war in Iraq another version of the classic movie Western (and the genre most associated with Clint Eastwood as a writer and director).
But what is a “cowboy”? To make sense of that term, we draw on the interpretive communities in which we were raised to not only understand “cowboy” as a particular kind of job but also as a whole range of attitudes, values, and cultural histories, some positive, some negative, some both at the same time. How each of us reacts to the idea of the cowboy, to the idea of the “Western,” will help determine our experience of American Sniper, the way the movie “makes sense” to us. As we see in Screen Ages, certain movies create such intense, diverse, and politically relevant viewing experiences that they become touch points for their own time and for subsequent generations. In Chapter Five, for example, we look at The Searchers, John Ford’s 1956 Western starring John Wayne, the most iconic Western star of all time, who plays a obsessed hero bent on killing both the Indians who murdered most of his brother’s family and his surviving niece who was taken prisoner.
Does the movie reinforce the racist implications of Westerns as justifying the displacement of native peoples on the basis of wiping out “savages” (a word repeatedly used in American Sniper as well), or does the homicidal rage of Wayne’s character of Ethan Edwards turn the movie into a revisionist Western, one that challenges the myths of westward expansion and Manifest Destiny? And if we experience the movie largely one way or the other, do we think that’s because of the intention of the moviemakers or because of our own deeply held attitudes and beliefs? The study of movie history does not provide definitive answers to those questions, but it can deepen our awareness and understanding of the different factors at play in how our cinematic narratives activate our cultural attitudes and beliefs, as well as where those attitudes and beliefs come from.