American Sniper: Silence and Fury

March 12, 2015
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Post by Debra Ramsay, Research Associate, Technologies of Memory Project, Glasgow University

Following is the second installment in the series of fortnightly blogs “From Nottingham and Beyond,” featuring contributions from faculty in the University of Nottingham’s Department of Culture, Film and Media and our alumni working in higher education or media industries in the U.K. and abroad. This week’s contributor, Debra Ramsey, completed her PhD in the department in 2012.

American sniper poster 2

American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2014) ends in silence.  No music plays over the last few moments of the film, or through the final credits.  When I saw the film in my local cinema just outside of London, the audience was also silent and remained in their seats for an unusually long time until slowly rising and filing for the exits.  There was remarkably little chatter as they did so.  I know that I didn’t speak until after we left the cinema, because I was trying to work out how I felt about the film.  I can’t be sure, of course, that others in the audience were similarly conflicted, but a brief survey of Twitter shows that the Staines Vue audience the night that I saw the film was not the only one to leave in silence:

Tweets1aYet the film is the center of a noisy and impassioned public debate in the U.S., a debate shaking loose opinions not only on Chris Kyle, the American Navy Seal on whose real-life experiences in the second Gulf War the film is based, and the conflict itself, but on the nature of warfare in general, the U.S. military, and even more broadly, American national identity and foreign policy.  American Sniper, according to Iraq veteran Colby Buzzell, is even more divisive than the war itself was for Americans.

In Iraq, the film also provoked controversy.  Fares Hilal, owner of the only multi-screen cinema in Baghdad, reluctantly pulled American Sniper from his screens after only a week, following complaints from Iraq’s Ministry of Culture that the film “insults” Iraqis.  Yet in an interview cited in The Washington Post, Hilal notes that “a lot of people wanted to see this film.”  Descriptions of at least one screening in which Iraqi audience members screamed “Shoot him!  He has an IED, don’t wait for permission!” as Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) hesitates before shooting a child who presents a possible threat to a U.S. patrol, and accounts of others who protested so vehemently at the same scene that they were forcibly removed from the theater provide some indication of the film’s ability to provoke contradictory responses.  U.K. audiences are in general more restrained and in my experience do not shout things at the screen, but the film polarized opinions here too.  Some argue that American Sniper is an “even-handed and thoroughly absorbing look at a morally ambiguous modern conflict,” while others see it as “dull” and lacking complexity.

What interests me about the “noise” that surrounds American Sniper internationally is what it reveals about the role of films and filmmakers in general, and of war films in particular, in today’s mediascape.  Following Seth Rogen’s tweet that the film reminded him of Stolz der Nation (Pride of the Nation), the film-within-a-film of a German sniper in Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009), the idea of American Sniper as “propaganda” surfaces frequently in discussions of the film.

Similar to Rogen, war correspondent Chris Hedges compares American Sniper to the “big-budget feature films pumped out in Germany during the Nazi era” and calls it “a piece of propaganda, a tawdry commercial for the crimes of empire.”[1]  Descriptions of the film as “dangerous propaganda,” “pro-war propaganda” responsible for “brainwashing” Americans into waging war, and “recruitment propaganda for culture-war extremists” circulate in tweets, blogs and forums, where the general consensus appears to be that the box-office figures and the film’s current status as the most-pirated film not only in the U.S. but in a hundred other countries provide evidence of the film’s effectiveness in disseminating its propaganda message.  Those who see the film in this way identify a hatred of Iraqis in particular, and of Muslims in general, as central to that message, and frequently offer up these four tweets, originally collected in a screenshot posted by Rania Khalek, as evidence:



References to Nazi propaganda are revealing, because implicit in such critiques of American Sniper is a perspective of film reminiscent of that during World War II, a time when mass media were emerging as powerful phenomena, accompanied by the belief in their persuasive power over a mass audience.  To use a metaphor from the film itself, critiques that view American Sniper as militaristic propaganda also view the audience of the film as sheep, easily swayed and led into war and hatred.  Examined carefully, these tweets do not provide compelling evidence of American Sniper’s ability to influence and shape individual opinion, but are more suggestive of how the film is appropriated by those who feel it represents their existing ideological and political perspectives.  Unlike in Nazi Germany, these audience members are free to choose from a range of ideologies and political parties represented in myriad ways across a spectrum of media, which, arguably, makes their choice of hatred and bigotry even more abhorrent.

In contrast to those who say the film is propagating a specific political perspective of the war, there are those who maintain that it is not political enough and that it creates a view of war as narrow as that seen through a sniper scope.   Eastwood’s decision to adopt Kyle’s “philosophy” and perspective on “defending the country and defending the guys who are defending the country” means that the film does not engage with the reasons for the U.S. military presence in Iraq.  For some commentators, the film avoids discussing the forces that “put Kyle and his high-powered rifle on rooftops in Iraq and asked him to shoot women and children” and instead presents an “unnecessary” distortion of the “truth.”  Whereas Eastwood and scriptwriter Jason Hall felt their responsibility lay with representing Kyle and telling his story “right,” implicit in the critiques that accuse the film of distorting history is the idea that filmmakers have a moral obligation to interrogate the causes of the Iraq war.  There is no doubt that the war in Iraq is contentious, but the issue here is whether filmmakers have a duty to engage with that controversy, and if by not doing so they somehow lead viewers (and the sheep metaphor is apt here too) astray.  Surely dictating what truths about the war should be represented is precisely what leads to propaganda in the first place?  Luckily for the sheep, the popular press around the world stepped in to deliver the “truth” in various forms: the “truth” behind whether Chris Kyle “really” was a hero or not, the things that the film gets “wrong,” and the “true story” of Kyle’s life.  No discussion has focused on the responsibilities of these outlets, or on the possibility that the truths presented here are as filtered via media as the version of the war represented in the film.

The only way to tell a “true” war story, according to Vietnam veteran Tim O’Brien, is to keep telling it.[2]  Whether you feel that American Sniper is propaganda or that it fails to engage with ideological issues (and weeks after seeing the film, I still have not made my mind up about it), there can be no doubt that it reveals film’s power to catalyze debate.  Despite the recurrent theme in critiques of the film of the audience as sheep, because of American Sniper, many people through a range of different media across the world now analyze and discuss the Iraq war.  In other words, they are telling their own war stories.  And in that retelling, with all its ugliness, its fury, its passion and its spaces of silence, perhaps we can move closer to understanding the complexity of the “truths” of the conflict.


[1] Rogen has since denied comparing the film to Nazi propaganda, and maintains that he was simply comparing two films with similar plots, not making a political point.

[2] Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried (London: Flamingo, 1991), p. 80.


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2 Responses to “ American Sniper: Silence and Fury ”

  1. sohel on March 17, 2015 at 3:26 AM

    American Sniper is very interesting topics

  2. For Tues 3/30 | Asian Pacific American Media on March 27, 2015 at 1:50 PM

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