Throughout our conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, Hollywood’s war movie output consisted almost exclusively of politicized, anti-war propaganda depicting our soldiers as PTSD-riddled war criminals, holding our country as morally culpable as the enemy, and pinning the very war itself on Republican administration lies, greed, and imperialism. Syriana, In the Valley of Elah, Stop-Loss, Rendition, Redacted, Lions for Lambs, Taxi to the Dark Side, Home of the Brave, Green Zone, Brothers, Body of Lies, Grace is Gone, and more – almost all box office duds – attempted to undermine the legitimacy of our side in the war effort.
Now comes American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood and based on the memoir of the same name by the late SEAL warrior Chris Kyle, whose 160 confirmed sniper kills (and almost 100 more “probables”) in the Iraq war made him a legend. With the film, the openly conservative/libertarian Hollywood icon Eastwood dared to buck the trend and make a movie that refuses to muddy the moral waters.
Liberal critics bristled. In the end-of-the-year issue of New York magazine, film critic David Edelson began his review of American Sniper with an ad hominem attack on the director for his political conservatism. Referring to Eastwood’s playful address to an empty chair representing President Obama at the 2012 Republican National Convention, Edelson wrote that “Eastwood looked as if he were slipping into doddering dementia.”
He goes on to admit that American Sniper is “a crackerjack piece of filmmaking” and that its star Bradley Cooper “is very impressive” in the lead role; but morally, he says, Eastwood “has regressed.” Because the movie doesn’t condemn what Edelson calls “the Iraq occupation,” then it must be dismissed as “scandalously blinkered” and nothing more than “a Republican platform movie.”
A.O. Scott’s review in the New York Times correctly states that American Sniper “reaffirms Mr. Eastwood’s commitment to the themes of vengeance and justice in a fallen world. In the universe of his films — a universe where the existence of evil is a given — violence is a moral necessity, albeit one that often exacts a cost from those who must wield it in the service of good.” This is a distinctly conservative world view which Scott finds ethically arguable and potentially dangerous; nonetheless, he concedes that “much of [the movie’s] considerable power derives from the clarity and sincerity of its bedrock convictions.”
But the only moral conviction that the left can accept about the Iraq war is one which condemns our role in it. Hence Scott goes on to assert that Eastwood “edits the history in which [the story] is embedded,” although he doesn’t say how. The implication is that Eastwood’s “troubling” moral perspective does not allow for the foreign policy critique that Scott requires from a Hollywood war movie. Indeed, he writes that “though George W. Bush’s name is never invoked, ‘American Sniper’ can be seen as an expression of nostalgia for his Manichaean approach to foreign policy.”
That approach is too simplistic for the left, who are uncomfortable with the notion that there are good guys and bad guys, and even more uncomfortable with the notion that Americans are the good guys. Progressives pretend that they see the world as more “nuanced,” when in fact what the left calls nuance is usually moral equivalence; for them, America at war is always in the wrong, and the people who want to kill us do so because they have legitimate “grievances.”
Scott doesn’t like the fact that Chris Kyle’s enemies “are identified only and repeatedly as Al Qaeda,” and neither does Edelson, who complains that “the people Kyle shoots always represent a ‘savage, despicable evil.’” This leads one to suspect that the critics would have preferred that Eastwood show our soldiers killing innocent Iraqis as well, not just the bad guys. “As in many jingoist war movies,” Scott writes, “the native population are portrayed as invaders of our sacred space instead of vice versa.” But we weren’t at war with the native population, of course; we were at war with the savage, despicable evil of international terrorist Saddam Hussein and of the insurgents who were terrorizing the natives.
Critics like Edelson and Scott don’t criticize the heavy-handed politics of left-leaning films or directors. They didn’t call George Clooney’s and Matt Damon’s jihadist recruitment movie Syriana “scandalously blinkered.” They didn’t dismiss Sean Penn’s Valerie Plame snoozefest Fair Game as a “Democrat platform movie.” They didn’t say that Brian de Palma – whose disgusting Redacted portrayed our soldiers as raping, murdering occupiers – had “regressed” morally.
But let a right-leaning director make a film that strives to be apolitical, and progressives – for whom everything is political – must politicize it so that they can then condemn it as jingoistic. “The politics of the Iraq war are entirely absent” in American Sniper, Scott wrote, “which is a political statement in its own right.” So he magically declares it “a propaganda film,” just as Edelson called it a “Republican platform movie.” Conservative directors are damned if they do, damned if they don’t.
In a sense, though, American Sniper IS a Republican platform movie – or at least, a conservative platform movie, because it reflects the wisdom that, in A.O. Scott’s own words, “violence is a moral necessity that often exacts a cost from those who must wield it in the service of good.” Soldiers are not political. They are at the service of our country, at the mercy of our politicians, and at the command of their superiors. Thus, to echo Tennyson, “Theirs not to reason why/Theirs but to do and die.” Conservatives recognize that and honor them for it. As much as it may aggravate the left, American Sniper is not about politics, but about an American hero at war with Islamic evil.
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