The controversy which has greeted US military epic “American Sniper” shows no signs of dissipating. The blockbuster movie, directed by Clint Eastwood and based on the story of Chris Kyle, the deadliest military sniper in US history, has become the focus of a global debate on what constitutes propaganda in cinema.
On one side you have an audience who are keenly drawn into the story of the everyman – just one of thousands of veterans who suffered for their country. On the other, you have a group of actors, writers, and filmmakers roundly condemning the piece for its jingoistic take on the Iraq conflict.
I think that they’re both wrong.
For a start, there is no such thing as a ‘positive’ war film – even “American Sniper,” with its Wild West depiction of soldiers and infidels knows this. It might roll around in its own dirty bathwater with a bit too much pleasure, but the film doesn’t try to pretend that Chris Kyle returned unscathed.
The vital component which the film is missing, and which only a handful of US military epics have managed to capture, is the truth that there is no such thing as ‘anti-war’ or ‘pro-war’ when you are out there in the mud and the mire, or the sand and the rubble. The reasons for being there all fall away when the bullets are real, and there is no turning back.
This was perfectly realised in “Saving Private Ryan,” a movie which manages to be proud, but not arrogant. It achieves this not by pulling focus outwards, and defining the military experience with a kill count, but by zeroing in on the helplessness of it. As Capt. John Miller portrayed by Tom Hanks, transcends the sticky morality of war, because the right or wrong nature of war does not concern him – as it did not, could not, concern the millions who fell during WWII, and the thousands who have since fallen in Iraq.
It might well have been patriotic fervour which brought them there, but I’m willing to bet that it isn’t what sustains them. I hope that it’s thoughts of family, lovers, best friends, takeaway pizza, hot showers, long kisses, and the often vain hope that these things might make a return before too long.
In movies like “Good Morning Vietnam” and “Fort Bliss,” the camera lens stays narrow, because there is no other way to comprehend the truth of life on the front line than to make it human. These films don’t have to be pro-war or anti-war to laugh at zany disc jockeys, fumbling rookies, or frustrated soldiers letting off steam, a la “Jarhead.”
For any war film with integrity, including “American Sniper,” the human warmth element is essential.
The realisation that dirty jokes, unbreakable friendships, karaoke, dancing, tomfoolery, and horseplay don’t just disappear in a war zone is vital. It is only by the soldiers holding on tightly to the warmest pieces of humanity that when they experience the worst of human nature, they may still wish to return it. And as members of the audience, we are taken along for the ride and get to pass judgement safely from the cushions of our couches.