January 25, 2015 by Devin
So I saw American Sniper with a friend recently. I did not think it would be good, but I wanted to talk about it. It was even worse than what I thought it would be. Like many other war movies, the enemy combatants in this film are evil “savages” whose actions are all reprehensible, and even though it is a tragedy when our hero Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) has to kill little children and women, it is ultimately always the right choice. In fact, the military never actually makes a mistake in this film.
Plus, politics aside, it really is not a good movie. As an action film, it does not work because its action scenes are a mess, using arbitrary building of tension to try and make up for clearness and cohesion. As a drama it does work because its characters are thin stereotypes pushed and pushed into dramatic situations without ever developing more character or revealing anything surprising or revelatory about them. The Hurt Locker depicted PTSD in one scene better than this entire film. The only real thing it has going for it over other films, the one area where it excels more than other films, is the positioning of the hero Chris Kyle as this All-American Texas-bred hero triumphing over brown savages. I have no doubt that this aspect is why the film broke box office records.
So in other words, I definitely was not a fan of this movie. However, despite having passionate thoughts about it, when my friend afterward asked me what I thought of it, I replied, “I think you should go first.” And, like most of my friends, she had loved it. I, because I am not an ass and knew this was neither the time nor the place for this discussion, kept my mouth shut.
Now I find this a curious reaction, but not one I am unfamiliar with. Many times I have withheld criticism because of how it would be taken, but that is mainly because I think criticism is taken oddly in our culture.
Most people fear criticism for things they love. Criticism is not fun to receive. It makes imperfections and faults evident often in situations where we would rather live in ignorance. When something close to us is critiqued, we feel it, and it often stings. Here is a thing we love, and here is that thing being torn down by someone.
I think many times, we like things to be divine. We make these things idols, beyond all reproach because they are that amazing, and these idols are especially easy to make when they mix with actual gods. Take, for example, the case of TOMS. For those unaware, TOMS is a Christian shoe company that invented (or at least popularized) the buy one send one model. In other words, they sell their shoes at marked up prices, but for every pair you buy, they send a pair to some kid in Africa or other developing area.
As a business model, this is fantastic. It essentially makes people buy twice the amount of shoes that they were going to buy while also making them feel wonderful about their purchase. But as an actual force of good in the world, this model has problems. For one, TOMS’s fame exceeded its actuality, and there were many people who did not buy shoes even though they had the means because they heard white people were giving out shoes. This, in turn, hurt local shoe economies. Plus, that money could often be spent on more sustainable and longer lasting amenities that would better help communities.
But good luck telling that to many people in Christian communities. There was a time when criticizing TOMS was like criticizing the Bible; if you had a critique, it is because there was something wrong with you, not with TOMS, no matter how valid the critique was. In other words, this shoe company that exists to make money had become an idol through its appearance of good intentions.
Look, if there is a perfect, divine god that does exist, you can be sure that s/he/it does not exist as a shoe company or any company for that matter. S/he/it does not exist as a country. S/he/it is certainly not a person or even a movie. Everything on earth has places for improvement and areas where there are major faults. And pointing those out, when properly done, is not an attack.
Sure, it can often feel like an attack. Learning our idols are not actually worthy of worship is a tough lesson to learn, even if it is necessary. It is easier to believe that something is a bastion of goodness and wonderfulness rather than believe that it has faults, and thus it is easy to feel the need to shoot the messenger, in a sense, but there is a central tenet of criticism people often miss.
Criticism comes from love.
Criticism, properly done, builds rather than tears down, even if it seems mean or unnecessary. I want to see films become better than they are now. I think when it comes to representation and awareness of the world beyond these United States, they are getting better, but they still have a long way to go. So when I see a film like American Sniper that is unapologetically racist, I get worked up because I think it should be better than that.
American Sniper is a film that practically embraces its idolatry status by emphasizing God, country, and military whenever it can, connecting itself to these other idols in hopes that people will view it as divine by association. It is a lazy and cheap trick that, as Seth Rogen found out, nonetheless works. But being immune to criticism only hurts everyone involved, including the filmmakers who make these films and the soldiers whose lives are depicted in these films.
You know what happened with TOMS? They took the criticism they received and they got better. The founder and CEO Blake Mycoskie said, “There really is a lot you can learn from the critics… you can either try to debate them and fight them or you embrace them, and that’s what we’re trying to do” as he detailed how TOMS is moving more toward helping local economies and building jobs. And sure, these steps may or may not be good enough, but they are a step in the right direction that would never have happened if people were not willing to say, “Look TOMS, I love what you are trying to do, but here are the faults and imperfections with your strategy.”
That is where I am at with American Sniper right now. I am all for respecting our troops and offering them all the support they can get. They put their lives on the line. That is not a small commitment. I recognize that it is not easy and that the cost of service is lifelong, even for the soldiers who come back home.
So let’s get a film that does not make them look like racist bastards. Let’s get a film that shows how soldiers with PTSD are not crazy people who are likely to kill people. Let’s get a film that acknowledges that soldiers are actual humans with good parts and bad, and that by recognizing their humanity and faults, we are only respecting their legacy more.
I am going out of my way to say American Sniper is a terrible film because I think films can be better, and I think soldiers deserve better films.
(Plus, let’s also acknowledge that a film that inspires these reactions might have some areas where it could improve)
1. I use that term purposefully. Kyle uses that term without any sense of irony, and the film never reprimands him for it or shows why he is wrong for dehumanizing his enemy like that. In fact, the film supports it. I empathized more with the bad guys in Fury, and those bad guys were Nazis!
2. There is a fight near the end that takes place in a sandstorm where the soldiers have to deal with not being able to see five feet in front of them much less the rest of the battlefield. Due to the sloppy editing/direction throughout the film, this battle feels exactly like all the others.
3. He even carries a New Testament on his person while sniping. The film at no point makes any connection to how he is essentially mirroring the people he is killing.
4. I am not saying TOMS has not done good or that it did not actually have good intentions. I am saying the appearance of good intentions was enough for it to become an idol.
5. I am not going to pretend that there are not people out there giving criticism that stifles expression or people. I will admit that exists, but on the other hand, I think it is really easy to view all criticism as destructive because it is criticism, no matter how helpful it is. This is a serious but easy fault.
6. Seriously, the last thing soldiers need is another film that makes PTSD look like something that makes you crazy. This film, though making an attempt at showing how soldiers deal with PTSD and that trauma, still has its two most notable moments of PTSD being Kyle nearly killing his own dog and the freaky soldier who killed Kyle when Kyle was trying to help him. I would have loved it if the film focused most of its time on Kyle after the war dealing with entering back into civilization and helping others. After all, employers are less likely to hire veterans with PTSD based on fear despite the fact that veterans with PTSD are more likely to hurt themselves than anyone else, something this film should have highlighted.