Two films about recent American history feature in the Oscars run up this year. There’s Selma, a heroic retelling of the civil rights movement. And then American Sniper, about US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, one of the most lethal snipers in American history.
American Sniper has broken multiple box office records and is the most lucrative war movie ever – a film that some consider to be offensive conservative propaganda for an unnecessary and costly war.
The two movies represent the supposed best and worst of America. The hard-won triumph of the nation’s progress towards a free liberal-democratic society versus the mindless jingoism of its most dangerous imperialism.
Pretty different topics, but looking closer, these films share a deeper bond: the willingness of individuals to sacrifice their life for a higher cause. Remarkable in a society and age that appears obsessed with self-interest and individualism, these are films that extol the value of joining a collective movement for achieving social change.
This common theme masks a tragic difference. Comparing the experiences of civil rights protesters and Iraqi veterans, a sadder historical truth emerges from the screen. It is striking how much contemporary politics has dangerously distorted the moral impulse to do good for quite immoral ends.
A moral difference
Selma has been lauded for its realistic and moving portrayal of a key event in the struggle to ensure black voting. Critics have praised it for showing with chilling force the violence and fraught politics that those in the movement had to endure and overcome to attain so a monumental victory.
The only criticism in fact has come from those who contend that then president, Lyndon B Johnson, is unfairly portrayed for his role in bringing about this historic moment. These allegations have largely been debunked as at best over-reaction and at worst a reactionary smear with quite racist overtones. The justice of this civil rights cause is, unsurprisingly, uncontroversial – the debate is largely over who should be celebrated for its achievement.
The critiques of American Sniper run much deeper. Firstly, there’s the widespread questioning of its historical accuracy. This questioning extends to the protagonist – the late Chris Kyle – as the book in which the film is based on seems to contain a number of unverifiable stories, one of which recently resulted in a million dollar settlement against his estate for libel.
The film has also been decried for celebrating an Iraqi war that in the view of many was ill-advised and possibly criminal. Its heroic depiction of the Navy Seal sniper is disparaged for being a repeat of the misplaced “us-versus-them” morality that initially popularly legitimised this invasion. The film has inspired a sharp rise in hate speech against Muslims. One prominent critic charged:
Sniper is a movie whose politics are so ludicrous and idiotic that under normal circumstances it would be beneath criticism. The only thing that forces us to take it seriously is the extraordinary fact that an almost exactly similar worldview consumed the walnut-sized mind of the president who got us into the war in question.
To die for?
But these simplistic dismissals of American Sniper miss its underlying complexity. It is a subtle and at times profound film about the ways idealism can be simultaneously noble and pathological. For this reason, any “black or white” analysis of its ethics, politics or cinematic quality would be unjust.
Like Selma, it is much more than a personalised retelling of recent US history. Both films are fictionalised depictions of the difficult decisions and sacrifices that come with dedicating your life to a moral cause.
Selma reveals civil right luminaries as not just heroes but real people, confronting hard choices about how to balance their obligations to those they love and the higher ideals they have sworn themselves to serve. American Sniper, similarly, shows in touching and often sad detail the toll that going to Iraq, killing “terrorists” and protecting one’s country can have on a person’s family and mental health.
Even more telling, the protagonists of both movies have their coming murders hanging over them. Putting aside the contrasting the moralities of these crusades, these films ask audiences to personally consider how much they would be willing to give up to create a better world.
A (dangerously) inspiring message
In their own ways and for their own times, both films celebrate the ability of individuals to be a potential force for social good. They are, in this respect, antidotes to the pervasive political and social cynicism that seemingly marks this era.
In the case of Martin Luther King this needs no explanation. He and his fellow organisers led a decade-long movement for racial equality that still inspires and remains resonant up to the present. In American Sniper, Kyle joins the military after watching the 1998 US embassy bombings in Africa. These events are shown as giving his life genuine moral purpose and direction. While its depiction may have been fictionalised, a deeper truth shines through. The chance to fight terrorism was for Kyle a chance to fill the emptiness of his existence with something nobler.
It is in this common sense of inspiration that the true tragedy of American Sniper, and with it our own times, becomes so clear. Both Selma and American Sniper touch on the desire for individuals to be part of “something greater than ourselves”. But the worth of the moral causes they are committed to are far from comparable.
Ironically, in an age where individualism reigns supreme, many individuals see themselves as powerless to transform their lives and society. Underpinning the popularity of self-help books and “consumer ethics” is a profound sense of personal disempowerment.
But the characters in Selma and American Sniper show that personal empowerment may still be possible and that one person in a movement with many can affect the course of history. What makes the former so beautiful and the latter so ultimately sad is how the good intentions of both lead in such profoundly opposite directions.
Society needs to be very aware and careful of which moral causes we promote and to what ends, because noble desires are manipulated for geopolitical games involving the loss of hundreds of thousands of innocent lives. And so those who criticise American Sniper should also recognise that its proponents are not simply defending the War on Terror or American righteousness. On some level they are clinging to the spirit of Selma, refusing to surrender to cynicism – instead holding to the belief that within all of us lives the possibility to contribute to the achievement of justice.
The true offence of American Sniper is that it reflects, whether knowingly or not, how the moral calling for racial justice in the 20th century has morphed into the empty but fatal gesture of the War on Terror in the 21st century – it has been a tragic road from Selma to American Sniper.