In my 22 years, I have never once been able to create any hullabaloo. That ruckus of attention and commotion—I could never do it. But in the short 24 days that American Sniper has been in theaters, it has been able to create a lot of hullabaloo. It doesn’t really seem fair.
If you’re not already familiar with the film (which seems unlikely, given its amount of hullabaloo), it is about a war hero from the United States’ recent escapades in Iraq, Chris Kyle. Killed in 2013 after being honorably discharged, Kyle was a US Navy Seal and sniper with an unparalleled 160 confirmed kills. Because of feats like this, he eventually became known as the “Legend” among marines.
While certainly his legacy is impressive, the reaction it has invoked in audiences has not been. I think foremost of a few tweets (displayed below) that have received some media attention. I would hope just by reading them we can all agree that something is wrong, though I guess that is part of the reason for this post. I think also of some personal examples—posts I’ve seen on Facebook, conversations I’ve had with friends and acquaintances. People have repeatedly demonstrated to me their hatred. I have not been very impressed with the public’s response to this movie.
And that’s not to say that it is completely the audience’s fault; the movie has its own flaws. The film is based on the well-accepted American Monomyth. It is the idea that when a problem occurs in society, the only way to fix it is for a solitary individual—a hero—to enter in and violently defeat the forces of evil. We’ve seen it a million times from Spider-Man to the “Spaghetti” Westerns; it is the myth of our culture that is often assumed in us. And American Sniper is founded on that myth. It is a foundation that I think is rocky, at best. Though it is engrained in us, surely there is some familiarity in the idea that violence is not the answer. In addition, the movie is founded on the personal ethics of Chris Kyle. Though we never receive a monologue from him, his ideology is assumed throughout—which is, once again, questionable at best.
Still, I think most of the blame can be shifted from the movie itself. In American Sniper, Eastwood is recreating in modern clothing what he is familiar with: a Western. The Western genre is notoriously built upon the poor ethical assumption that violence is the key, but Eastwood—while not rejecting that assumption—has of recent been handling it with more tact and responsibility (e.g. his Revisionist Westerns). And again, while there is still a lot wrong in this movie, Eastwood hints at the pain felt on all sides by violence and even uses local Iraqis in a virtuous way.
If there is any movie that has caused more commotion in recent events than American Sniper, it is probably The Interview. Because of the plot (two journalists being instructed to kill the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un) the movie was naturally considered offensive by the N. Korean government and thus led to a back-and-forth between America and N. Korea—including delayed releases, threats, a systems hack, and blackouts.
Now, I haven’t even seen this movie, but the rumpus around it was enough to garner anyone’s attention. I think the brief synopsis and the trailers I’ve seen are enough to label the movie “tasteless.” That is not a judgement to be passed lightly; I have fairly thick skin when it comes to comedies. But when a live-action movie is made about killing a real, presently-living person, who is the leader of a country, I think it is fair to label it tasteless. Yet, somehow, The Interview went on to be Sony’s most successful digital release ever. People really flocked to see that tasteless movie.
I have no doubt the movie is funny—I read a synopsis of it and laughed just reading about it. The problem, though, is one of principle. Not only did few people abstain from watching it, but many deliberately made the effort to see it precisely because it was so disrespectful. It was not a coincidence that the movie was still able to do all right despite its theatrical handicap; it was because Americans were allured by its offensive content.
Both of these movies, American Sniper and The Interview, reveal something about our country and its culture of movie-going. And that something is not particularly flattering.
It shows us that we are patriotic—a virtue, sure—but it also shows us that we are nationalistic, selfish, proud, vain, unfeeling, unsympathetic, bigoted, sectarian, discriminatory, and hateful. Hateful, the infamous archenemy of love. I admit, seeing either of those movies doesn’t make you all those things. American Sniper was a well-crafted piece of cinema with heavy genre-overtones, and The Interview was quite likely an especially funny flick. But, the numbers don’t lie—the sales, the tweets, and the news stories don’t lie. A lot of people are watching these movies for the wrong reasons and getting the wrong ideas. Hollywood surely will not change what it releases, but I surely hope we will change what we view.