Thursday, January 22, 2015

AMERICAN SNIPER (a review)

AMERICAN SNIPER is a good movie that does what good movies do, and any "controversy" around it says more about the controversizers than it does about the movie. 

Know that I hate war. 
Know that I find nothing "cool" about somebody who's really, really good at killing other people.

But so what?

AMERICAN SNIPER is a biopic. And yeah, sure, okay—the guy it's based on might have been a bit of a braggadocio, and might have even made some stuff up—but that's beside the point. The point of a fictionalized account is not to duplicate reality, but to take the raw materials of a story and say something with it. 

It seems to me that AMERICAN SNIPER is saying the following things:
  • This is the sort of person who might go and do this sort of job: a guy strongly driven by a sense of justice and a deep belief that the country for which he is performing this job is the best in the world.
  • This is what it feels like to be this sort of person, doing this sort of job.
  • Other sorts of people also do this sort of job: people who maybe don't feel quite so strongly about American supremacy, and question the morality of this kind of work.
  • This is what it's like to be in a Middle Eastern country as an occupier.
  • These are the sorts of effects that doing this sort of job can have on this sort of person. This is the personal and relational price this person might pay. 
Now, as a pinko-commie, liberal-ish person, I've got pretty strong feelings about whether we should be over there. And as a former ex-pat who grew up in another country and saw first-hand the effects of American Imperialist thought abroad, I've got pretty strong feelings about the stupidity of nationalism in any shape or form.

But that is not the point of this movie.

Movies are empathy-machines, and AMERICAN SNIPER is an empathy-machine that allows me to step into an American soldier's boots for a while and get maybe just a hint of what that feels like. I have never carried an assault rifle around the desert whilst wearing Kevlar and a big, invisible target on my back. I don't really know what that feels like, and I never will.  But after watching a movie like AMERICAN SNIPER, I feel I'm a little less likely to say ignorant jerk-things when dealing with the actual human beings who have lived through that reality. 

Side note: One of my absolute bestest childhood friends is in U.S. special forces, and has deployed repeatedly to the Middle East. He's my friend, and I love him. I care about what he's doing, and why he's doing it. I want to understand that world better, and I want him to be okay. But you don't have to know and love a special forces guy to benefit from a glimpse into another person's world, or to enjoy a well-told story. 

My suspicion is that people who find controversy in this movie are merely using it as a megaphone through which to talk about themselves.*

Any controversy that exists here is not inherent in the story, but rather in the context in which the story exists: a country (such as ours) that glorifies war, trumpets American exceptionalism, and revels in stylized violence. These are legitimate problems that should generate concern—and, one would hope, action. But I can't see any reason to pick on AMERICAN SNIPER, which seems (from my admittedly ignorant perspective) to do an admirable job of showing real, human people, dealing with an inhuman situation as best they know how.

If you'd like to see a more in-depth picture of the other side of it—of what it feels like to live through those experiences as an Afghani, for example—then there are plenty of other films that you can and probably should watch. 

But picking on AMERICAN SNIPER is just another distraction... another opportunity to create an us-them dichotomy, so we'll have someone else to look down on. And that's the sort of thinking that got us into this hell in the first place.

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*Well actually, my real suspicion is that the marketing folks behind this movie have brilliantly conjured up controversy where none really exists, because that generates publicity like nothing else. And it's working incredibly well... AMERICAN SNIPER is standing to become an extremely, extremely profitable movie.

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Also... comments / thoughts / passionate disagreements are more than welcome. Hugs.

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