An All-American narrative that fails on many fronts: Why Hollywood can do better

I watched ‘American Sniper’ last night, to see what the fuss is all about. The first thing that struck me is  that the narrative of the film is so simple minded: us versus them, that it could only appeal to the uber-patriotic, All-American gun-trotting rednecks. Yes, this is about a war and also about the life of a soldier who loved his country (nothing wrong with that), but what the film does commit, in terms of egregious omission is to leave out the context of the war itself. That is the biggest flaw of the film. If this film is meant to be a bio-epic, meant to uncritically worship a war-hero, it has succeeded well, but if it has attempted anything slightly more than that, then it has failed miserably. And we are poorer, for it.

First things first: I love Clint Eastwood (as an actor and a director).Second: I have no problem with patriotism, as long as it is a ‘thinking’ kind of patriotism, one which has space for criticism for one’s country. Blind patriotism for any country, even if it is the ‘greatest country in the world’ is just that – blind – and often open to abuse by others, especially those who have authority over us. Extreme nationalism has often led to the worst kind of crimes in recent memory – from Nazi genocides to genocides in Bosnia, Kosovo, India/Pakistan and Sri Lanka.

Where the film fails is in its uncritical and almost banal portrayal of the Iraq war as a ‘normal’ war. There is no nuance in the film, whatsoever and I am not surprised Clint Eastwood is behind the film. I love Westerns and if he was trying to re-create one, it wasn’t a good idea and it has turned out to be rather banal. The narrative of us versus them is so clichéd, that it is boring. There are absolutely no efforts to humanize the enemy and that is the most disturbing part of the film. It is too simple a narrative for a very complex set of events, which was initiated by a lie – anyone remember the WMD scare? By now, most rational human beings acknowledge that the Iraq war was an absolute disaster on all fronts – geopolitically, economically and politically, for Americans and those who were at the receiving end of the war too – namely, the Iraqi people. ISIS is but a side-effect of this war, just to put things in perspective.

I don’t intend to review the film here, but think that a barebones outline is important, for those who haven’t watched it or don’t plan on doing so. The movie is about Chris Kyle, a sharp-shooter from Texas. He is the most talented shooter in the US Seals and is sent on missions to Iraq to hunt down the ‘bad guys’. And given his acumen at shooting targets, he gets to be one of the top snipers. Or infact, THE top sniper in the U.S. armed forces. The first half talks about his coming into his own, after failed attempts at becoming a cowboy and he ends up joining the Seals, to serve his country. This is also where he meets his future wife, gets married and is deployed to Iraq, almost immediately after his wedding. The second half of the film shows a stressed Kyle, who wants to ‘go home’ and be with his wife and kids. It shows the numbing impact that all the killing and mayhem has on a human being and the effects of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, only that Kyle doesn’t seem to recognize it, or even acknowledge that he killed (some) innocent people, who were caught in the cross-fire. To Kyle’s simple mind, all Iraqis are enemies or allies of enemies. In a scene, where a civilian Iraqi invites Kyle and his buddies to dinner turns out to be a snitch. So much for showing Iraqi hospitality. Perhaps this happened in real life, but nevertheless, my only beef is that there is absolutely no good Iraqi in the film and that was a disturbing and nagging thought in my mind, as I watched the film.

The bigger question that this movie is raising and one that needs to be raised, is who do we eulogize as heroes? While war is a terribly complex phenomenon, where soldiers are often told to follow orders or face consequences, there are also those who choose to shoot, kill and participate in these wars, many of which are unjust. Granted, that not all soldiers are critical thinkers and don’t devour Adorno or Horkhimer and ponder about the meaning of it all, I would presume that some would question the validity of such a war and its basis in fact. This aspect of the war is almost completely ignored. So is the context of the war itself, which I think it critical to understanding the actions of the people involved. While earlier wars like the Vietnam forced conscientious objectors such as Muhammad Ali to stay away from the battle field, recent wars have perhaps have had the opposite effect, namely, to get young, unsuspecting and often naïve youth to sign up for a war that is not just unjust, but perhaps one that has caused the most devastation in the last 20 years.american-sniper-poster-fb1

If this film was meant to create a hero out of someone who killed about 160 people and had absolutely no regrets about taking human lives, including that of little children, then it has done a fine job. On the other hand, it fails miserably in portraying the complexity of the Iraqi lives. Civilians, combatants and everyone are clubbed together into a simple narrative. The enemy. Surprisingly, we don’t meet a single ‘good Iraqi’.

If I could meet Chris Kyle, that is the only question I would ask him: Did you come across any Iraqi who was NOT your enemy. The answer to that would reveal a lot about the character of a man, who many are worshiping today.

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