The phenomenon of American Sniper seems to have confounded cultural commentators here in the US, who have been flabbergasted at its record-breaking performance at the box office since it went into wide release a week ago. In the first four days, the Clint Eastwood-directed film took in over $107 million, the best opening weekend for a drama ever. Theaters still fill up to see the story of Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in US military history, who served in a controversial war and later had to find a way to return home emotionally as well as physically.
Critics of the film have done everything they can to figure out its success … except, oddly, actually see the film (emphasis mine):
Hollywood was shocked when last weekend ended and Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, a film about Chris Kyle — described everywhere as “the most lethal sniper in American military history” — not only was the top-grossing film in the country but took in over $100 million, the kind of number we ordinarily associate with superheroes or teenage girls fighting for their lives. Why did it do so well? The answer is, at least in part, politics.
I haven’t seen the film, so I don’t have any opinion about its content (though this lengthy IMDB summary explains the plot scene-by-scene if you’re interested). But let’s accept that at least some of people who went to see American Sniper over the weekend chose that film because they perceived it as a patriotic act. What we can say for sure is that professional conservatives are now very excited about American Sniper, and their analysis of it (see here or here) tends to be mostly about liberals — why they allegedly hate the movie, why they dishonor Chris Kyle, and why going to see it would be a great way for right-thinking Americans to tick them off.
This not only overestimates the interest there is in spending $10 on a ticket just to bash liberals — who needs to spend money? — but also vastly underestimates the film itself. It’s easy to conclude that American Sniper is a live-action video game like Doom, where audiences just cheer as the hero mows down cardboard-cutout bad guys … if all you do is read the title. It’s the kind of assumption that the reviewer actually ends up decrying in this weird essay about epistemic closure, of which his commentary is a particularly epic example.
That, however, is not the film that audiences are seeing in theaters around the country this week. American Sniper actually focuses mostly what makes Chris Kyle tick, not conservatives, and offers plenty of ambiguity on whether the war was a good idea at all. For Kyle, that doesn’t matter, even if it does end up mattering to several other characters in the fils=m; what matters is protecting his fellow troops. American Sniper also does not pull punches on how combat wounds veterans physically and emotionally, and the importance of taking care of them after the combat is over — and making sure that the combat was necessary in the first place. Kyle lost his life in part because of the damage that combat does to men, which the film makes painfully clear. If conservatives are flocking to this film to have their political assumptions confirmed, then there would be a lot less chatter about it than Paul Waldman sees now.
Besides, if Waldman was right, American Sniper would only appeal to American conservatives, who are not normally known as a major demographic for Hollywood. Such a jingoistic exercise would flop in the international market, especially where the Iraq War was an unpopular policy. And yet …
The Clint Eastwood-directed Iraq War saga “American Sniper” is off to a strong start at the overseas box office, having taken in more than $26 million in two weeks.
The international launch of the Bradley Cooper drama is particularly impressive, given how tough it has been for modern movies that deal with Americans at war in the Middle East to connect abroad.
To put that in perspective, “American Sniper” has already taken in more than the $24.2 million that last year’s Afghan War drama “Lone Survivor,” a breakout hit domestically, managed over its entire foreign run. …
It may have been a fortunate coincidence, but nearly all of the nations in which “American Sniper” has opened are close allies of the United States, including the U.K., New Zealand, South Korea and Taiwan. The equation will change this weekend, when it opens in several Middle East countries, including Israel, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates. Those will be trickier markets to be sure, but they’re small, and scoring in the larger markets and establishing momentum with a fast start was more important.
It’s true that these are American allies, but the UK hasn’t been enthusiastic about the Iraq War since it started. Tony Blair had to fight to keep Britain in the effort against powerful opposition to it, especially later on. The UK is also not terribly fond of American jingoism — nor for that matter is South Korea, although they may appreciate it a little more considering their precarious circumstances. The real difference here is that this film is about Kyle more than the war, and it respects the differing opinions about the metastrategy that put Kyle in Iraq in the first place. It tells a human story about the nature of combat, its costs, and the kind of men who fight for their country without regard to the politics of the war itself.
In short, there’s a lot more going on with American Sniper than just neocons having their political beliefs validated. I highly recommend that people see the film and judge it for themselves, rather than make assumptions about it and the people buying tickets to see the film. Failing that, avoid writing critical analyses of a film you haven’t bothered to watch and the audiences who have.