American Sniper has emerged as a major hit. It is the best-grossing film of 2014, perhaps even the highest grossing war movie ever. Serious reviews suggest it may be the greatest American war movie of all time. It rates a solid 72% from Rotten Tomatoes. But as the hype dies down, we can better see it in the wider context of other war films. It is actually quite conventional and shows the viewer little that we have not seen before.
But American Sniper is the Iraq War movie that war supporters have been pining for. To use Walter Russell Mead's famous categories of US opinion regarding foreign policy, this is a 'Jacksonian' portrait of the war: US soldiers doing the right thing, bringing a tough, righteous violence on those who deserve it. Consider how conventional the film's portrait actually is according to its two most celebrated aspects:
1. The protagonist suffers personally from the impact of combat exposure
This seems to be the film's strongest selling point, and it is indeed clear that in real life, sniper Chris Kyle (the film's protagonist) and his family found the experience harrowing. But this is hardly an insight, cinematic or otherwise, anymore.
'Soldier's heart' (the old term for what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD) is so well-known to Western publics at this point that it should act as a break on the use of military force. In film, PTSD is a trope going all the way back to All Quiet on the Western Front. It has been said that any good war film must inevitably be an anti-war film, and showing the brutalising effects of combat, for however noble the cause, has been a constant theme. No serious American director, no matter how patriotic, has made a war movie as ridiculous as John Wayne's Sands of Iwo Jima or Green Berets since then.
Nor, curiously, does the film actually show Kyle suffering all that much compared to others (Stop-Loss deals with this issue more directly). He even says to his post-rotation psychiatrist that he is prepared to stand before God and account for every bullet he fired, an astonishing statement suggesting Kyle was little afflicted by the confusion and guilt common to PTSD sufferers. In fact, the film even flirts with portraying Kyle as more comfortable in combat than at home, an issue raised long ago by Ernest Juenger and toyed with again in The Hurt Locker.
Showing an American soldier enjoying combat, as Platoon and Casualties of War did, would have been truly cinematically disruptive, as America would prefer to see its soldiers as reluctant warriors. And in the end, Eastwood sticks with this morally conventional and less controversial portrait.
2. The combat sequences are ultra-realistic
Surely, but this too is not new. Many Global War on Terror (GWoT) films have gritty, brutal combat sequences that are difficult to watch, with choreography and production supervised by combat veterans, ex-special operators, and so on. Generation Kill, by far the best visual Iraq War portrait so far, was based on book by an embedded journalist and supervised by members of the platoon. Similarly, Lone Survivor was based on the direct experience of a US SEAL in Afghanistan, and in filming Zero Dark Thirty, Kathryn Bigelow was notoriously rumoured to have gained unique access from the White House.
And this is just in the past few years. Vietnam veterans praised Platoon and Full Metal Jacket in their time, and the infamous drill sergeant of Full Metal Jacket was in fact played by a real drill sergeant. Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and The Pacific all received similar accolades from World War II veterans.
Beyond these two conventional elements, the film has no exceptional selling points. The acting, production values, direction, and so on are fine; Eastwood is clearly talented. But this is not a genre-defining masterpiece like Apocalypse Now or Saving Private Ryan. So what accounts for its huge popularity? I suggest the deep craving of Americans, not just conservatives, to finally see a portrait of this horribly mistaken war that fits our self-image.
Probably the best evidence of this is Fox News' relentless coverage (read: lionisation) of the film over the last three months. This is very much the movie about Iraq that Iraq War supporters have wanted to see for years. Most GWoT films to date have been ambiguous or downers, and while Americans will in time make critical films about Iraq, just as we have about Vietnam, it is likely too soon after 9/11 right now for films like Stop-Loss or Rendition.
So for the 'Jacksonian' set, Eastwood at last lifts the political gloom and gives them what they want. Eastwood has an established reputation of both conservative politics and tough-guy masculinity. Chris Kyle, both in life and the film, clearly believed in the mission and the war. The film shows 9/11 and then shortly cuts to the Iraq War, suggesting a link. That Saddam Hussein was not involved is unmentioned. The villain wears all black, and Kyle kills him in a dramatic slow-mo shot worthy of Call of Duty. Kyle calls the Iraqis 'savages.' All the unpleasant controversies are pleasantly avoided: no mention of pre-war intelligence failures; no hint of the mismanagement and incompetence of the occupation; no discussion of Abu Ghraib or America's heavy-handed search tactics, especially in the early days; no examination of Iraqi nationalism or suggestion that resistance to US occupation had any legitimacy whatsoever. It's all straight-up American hero stuff to balm neocons' frayed sense of American exceptionalism.
One day, with some distance from the war, the searching, honest Apocalypse Now of GWoT films will come. But it is likely too soon. In the interim, try Generation Kill.