Last night, in a typically loathsome and infuriating appearance on The Daily Show, Mike Huckabee laid out, for all us dense coastal elite liberal types, the problem with our worldview. “There’s a real clash of cultures and there’s a disconnect between people who live in the ‘bubbles’ of New York, Washington, and Hollywood, versus the people who live in the land of the ‘Bubbas,’” he explained, which Stewart interpreted as a contention that “people who live on the coasts are not ‘real.’” It was, in a nutshell, Huckabee (and the book he was there to promote) attempting to jump-start that reliably contentious pseudo-political issue, the culture war. And, Huckabee insisted, the fault lies with the people in the “bubbles,” because “those of us who live in ‘Bubba-ville,’ we get the people in the bubbles — because television shows and movies are all about the people in the bubbles.” Yet according to the paper of record, “Bubba-ville” got its very own motion picture this weekend, and a controversy to go with it — all of which would be much more convenient if the film in question actually were the simplistic flag-waver that it’s being labeled as, on both sides of the political/cultural divide.
The film in question is American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of the memoir by Chris Kyle, “the deadliest sniper in US military history.” After a very successful limited opening on Christmas Day, Sniper went wide over the weekend and did bananas business — a record-breaking $105 million over the four-day holiday weekend. Them’s Marvel numbers, as Box Office Mojo points out, and when that many people see a movie in one weekend, they’re going to have things to say about it. Seth Rogen waded in first, tweeting that Sniper “reminds me of the [Nazi propaganda] movie that’s showing in the third act of Inglorious Basterds”; Michael Moore followed suit, announcing, “My uncle [was] killed by snipers in WW2. We were taught snipers were cowards.” Both walked their comments back — Rogen (who seems an odd source for political misinterpretation in mainstream cinema, all things considered) later tweeted, “if you were having a slow news day, you’re welcome for me giving you the opportunity to blow something completely out of proportion,” while Moore went on Facebook to insist, “I didn’t say a word about American Sniper in my tweets” (uh huh) and to praise Sniper’s acting, editing, and moments of anti-war sentiment.
But these are shots fired, and battle lines were drawn before Rogen and Moore stepped into the fray. At The Guardian, Lindy West details “retaliation from the rightwing twittersphere” against writers questioning the film, and those reactions are chilling. And over the weekend, as the general public — the residents of what Huckabee (kind of reductively, right?) calls “Bubba-ville” — checked out American Sniper, enough “America, fuck yeah, kill the ragheads” tweets followed suit to prompt a bit of a meme. Though, if we’re being honest, it seemed like everyone was just sharing the same jpeg of these same four random assholes:
Now, did a chunk of American Sniper’s weekend audience — and perhaps a healthy one — view the film through that vile, xenophobic lens? Sure. And those people are hateful and simple-minded. You know who else is? People who lump those viewers together with the same myopia. Huckabee is wrong about pretty much everything, but he did have this to say on The Daily Show: “A lot of people who are very well-educated… believe that the people who live out in this part of the world where I live, in flyover country, those red states, think ‘those people are nuts.’” You can call that cultural paranoia, or you can keep it in mind when you read something like this:
Unlike that much-shared pro-Sniper image, these aren’t the words of a Twitter rando with 415, 229, 422, or three followers, respectively. Ryan Adams has over 3500 followers on Twitter, and a gig editing the well-respected (I mean, it’s an Oscar blog, but still) film site Awards Daily — where he has a bit of a history of sneering contempt for “flyover country.” And thus it should be noted that while it’s morally repugnant to presume Middle Eastern people in general and Muslims in particular as terrorist vermin, there’s also no humanitarian prize for those who presume that all Americans who support a film you dislike feel that way.
But there’s some kind of American Sniper Derangement Syndrome happening here, and everyone’s acting like they’ve lost their damn minds. In the same weekend they ran not one, but two “Selma isn’t historically accurate!” op-eds — way to be two weeks late to the non-story there, Grey Lady — the New York Times’ Brooks Barnes made this assertion, regarding Sniper’s bang-up opening: “While America’s coastal intelligentsia busied itself with chatter over little-seen art dramas like Boyhood and Birdman, everyday Americans showed up en masse for a patriotic, pro-family picture that played more like a summer superhero blockbuster than an R-rated war drama with six Oscar nominations.” There’s too much ignorant bullshit in that sentence to take apart, from the irony of the New York Times sneering at “coastal intelligentsia” (pot, kettle, etc.) to the idea that Sniper is the only “patriotic” movie out there (somebody tell Barnes about this tiny flick called Selma) to the notion that Boyhood somehow isn’t “pro-family” to the insane assertion that Sniper is (gather up the kids for the power drill scene!).
But lost in all of this flag-planting and finger-pointing and posturing is the fact that there’s a movie there — and, inconveniently for the players involved, one that’s nuanced and complex enough to resist pigeonholing by either camp. Contrary to what either Adams or “@harshnewyorker” might tell you, American Sniper is not some jingoistic, flag-waving celebration of killing brown people (for that, I’d direct you to Lone Survivor, another movie that opened around this time last year). Indeed, the first time an onlooker celebrates one of Kyle’s kills, he snaps, “Get the fuck out of here,” and Eastwood holds on that difficult moment. The movie, over and over, is about that moment, and the director revisits it, in various forms, throughout the film’s two-plus hours. As several others have noted, the film is all of a piece with the central theme of Eastwood’s masterpiece, Unforgiven (“It’s a helluva thing, killin’ a man”), and in line with the thoughtful reflection of his WWII film, Flags of Our Fathers — a film that inspired him to immediately make a (better) follow-up picture, Letters from Iwo Jima, that considered that conflict from the other side. This is not a filmmaker who takes war lightly, and neither does his film.
Which, again, is not to say that some of those who see it — whether from a pro- or anti-war perspective — won’t miss those nuances, or will walk in immune to them. But at risk of putting too fine a point on it, we can’t give a fuck about them; the day creators cease crafting difficult or provocative art because they fear the reactions and interpretations of the dimmest people in the audience is the day we may as well close up shop. In The Guardian, West goes so far as to grant, “American Sniper is a morally ambiguous, emotionally complex film” that has “been flattened into a symbol to serve the interests of an ideology that, arguably, runs counter to the ethos of the film itself.”
So is the solution to protect the art? Nope. She instead details the Twittersphere attacks on its critics and decides there is “no room” for the idea “that many truths can be true at once”; in other words, “Oh, I understand what he’s doing in this film, because I’m smart enough to get it, but what about the ignorant people? What will they think?” Oh, and she also takes the Selma tack and attacks the film’s accuracy and fealty to Kyle’s book — criticizing the movie that Eastwood chose not to make, rather than the one he did.
But West sounds like Pauline Kael compared to the absolute dumbest of the dumb American Sniper reaction essays: Dennis Jett’s already notorious piece at The New Republic, which apparently went through pitching, writing, edits, and publication even though it includes the phrase, “I have not seen American Sniper. But if the trailer is any indication…” Yes, Mr. Jett condemns the picture without even bothering to see it, instead spinning 630 words out of its trailer and West’s criticisms. But wait, it gets better: The Wrap reports that this TNR piece by a schmuck who hasn’t seen the movie is now weighing heavily on Oscar voters who also haven’t seen the movie:
“He seems like he may be a sociopath,” one Academy member told The Wrap, adding he had not yet seen the film but had read the article, which is being passed around.
So we’ve got some kind of an Ignorance Inception on our hands here. But this furor, on the heels of not only the Selma “controversy” but the Zero Dark Thirty hubbub a couple of years back (one prompted by, look at that, a Guardian piece written by someone who hadn’t seen the movie), is a perfect reminder of why pundits and op-ed scribes should stay the hell away from movies: because great art, particularly great art about difficult subjects, colors in shades of gray, and punditry is about black or white, good or bad, picking a side and digging in. And that’s where Eastwood is difficult, because you can’t peg him and walk away; yes he’s a Republican, but a pro-environment, pro-choice, pro-marriage equality, pro-gun control Republican, and yes, he did that stupid shit with the chair at the RNC, but he also made an Oscar-winning movie about the right to die (in the year of Terri Schiavo, no less).
Yet the most troubling aspect of these back-to-back controversies over serious movies by serious filmmakers is where they’re coming from. (If you’d like to know how upside down we are, here’s a sentence I never thought I’d type: Glenn Beck is — partially — right.) The Sniper and Selma slams come not from notoriously anti-art conservatives, forever trying to shut down the NEA and censor museums and blame gun violence on movies and video games, but from ostensibly progressive voices like Jezebel veteran West, Clinton ambassador Jett, MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, and the assortment of LBJ sycophants who slammed Selma. We’re supposed to be the pro-art people… right?