The American Sniper Situation: The Not-So-Secret Inclinations of Public Taste

American SniperI’ve been asked to contribute to an anthology of essays on American Sniper and have been working on my contribution the past few weeks. The project’s given me a chance to reread many of the reviews published upon the memoir’s and then the movie’s releases, and below I offer a list of some of the most pertinent ones. One subject of discussion has been whether Clint Eastwood’s movie version of American Sniper is faithful to Kyle’s memoir and if either the movie or the book fully and accurately relate the totality of Kyle’s life and service. Other reviews ask what is so “American” about Kyle and his brand of sniper-heroics. Still others question whether the movie glamorizes war generally or justifies specifically war in Iraq and glorifies the contributions of Navy SEALs to the American military effort. Some reviews take issue with the movie’s portrait of Iraqi civilians and combatants, while a final set discusses the memoir’s and film’s depiction of the potentially traumatic effects of combat and deployment.

Taken together, the memoir, the film, the reviews, and everything and everyone pertaining to their production and distribution, to include the thoughts of the real-life men and women portrayed, to include Kyle’s victims, constitute what Israeli photography critic Ariella Azoulay would call an interpretive “situation”: analysis of an artistically- and technologically-shaped representation of a real-world person or event that incorporates everything that has been said and could be said about both, in order to elicit the most detailed and just understanding of the moral, political, and aesthetic stakes involved. A tall order indeed–too tall for me here, but no doubt the American Sniper situation allows us to gain traction on at least two pertinent questions about the millennial wars:

What does it take for young Americans to kill in combat, what is it like to kill in combat, and what is it like to live afterwards?

What stories about war connect with audiences and why?

I’m writing my anthology contribution on the first question, so will hold my thoughts here, but am happy to take a swing at the question about American Sniper‘s astounding popularity. I think a lot of something Edgar Allan Poe wrote about Nathaniel Hawthorne in 1848. Speaking of Hawthorne’s short story collections in the years prior to writing The Scarlett Letter, Poe wrote, “But the simple truth is, that a writer who aims at impressing the people is always wrong when he fails in forcing that people to receive the impression. How far Mr. Hawthorne has addressed the people at all is, of course, not a question for me to decide. His books afford strong internal evidence of having been written to himself and his particular friends alone.”

That’s a fascinating statement. It suggests that if writers (and moviemakers) want to be popular, they have only themselves to blame if they aren’t. The subjects, themes, and styles that people like, Poe implies, are right there for the taking for he or she who will. I wonder how true that is? And if American Sniper‘s success means that contemporary war-story-tellers have finally hit the sweet spot of war-story popularity, I wonder what that bodes for war writing and war movie-making to come? As another critic of Poe’s time, Alexis de Tocqueville, put it when writing about American theater in Democracy in America (1835), “Authors soon discover the secret inclinations of public taste,” which suggests that the public’s inclinations don’t remain secret for very long. Chris Kyle’s co-authors were lawyer Scott McEwan and veteran writer of military thrillers Jim DeFelice, so we know he had experienced help shaping the material of his life so that it resonated with audiences. An even more telling statement comes from one of Kyle’s editors, Peter Hubbard, who is described in a New York Times article by Julie Bosman as saying that “he was determined to publish [American Sniper] for a general-interest reader, the kind of person who would pick up a big blockbuster thriller. ‘I didn’t want it to be characterized as a genre military book,’ he said. ‘It functions as a great action and adventure story.’” As is well-documted in many reviews below, Clint Eastwood and his screenwriter Jason Hall substantially altered Kyle’s memoir in ways that clearly tapped “the secret inclinations of public taste.” From an ethical-aesthetic perspective, the question is whether they did so according to their own sense of artistic integrity, cravenly, or both. You know what would be interesting? Another movie version of American Sniper, made by a filmmaker/screenwriter team with radically different ideas about Kyle and his memoir than had Eastwood and Hall. If that happened, we would definitely have a “situation” to consider.

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An American Sniper Critical Compendium

Julie Bosman. “A Wave of Military Memoirs With You-Are-There Appeal.”  New York Times 18 March 2012.

Nicholas Schmidle. “In the Crosshairs.” The New Yorker 3 June 2013.

Brian Van Reet.  “A Problematic Genre: ‘The Kill Memoir.'” New York Times 16 July 2013.

David James. American Sniper and the Hero Myth.”  Wrath Bearing Tree 17 December 2014.

David Denby. “Living History: Selma and American Sniper.”  The New Yorker 22 December 2014.

Alex Horton. American Sniper Feeds America’s Hero Compex, and It Isn’t the Truth About War.” The Guardian 24 December 2014.

Michael Cummings and Erin Cummings. “The Surprising History of American Sniper‘s ‘Wolves, Sheep, and Sheepdogs’ Speech.” Slate 21 January 2015.

Dana Stevens. “The Battle Over American Sniper.” Slate 21 January 2015.

“Confused About How You Are Supposed to Think About American Sniper? Here Are Twenty Thinkpieces That Can Help You Put Things in Perspective.” Clickhole 22 January 2015.

Brian Turner. “I Served in Iraq and American Sniper Gets It Right. But It’s Still Not the War Film We Need.” The Vulture 22 January 2015.

Adrian Bonenburger. “There Are No War Heroes: A Veteran’s Review of American Sniper.”  The Concourse 23 January 2015.

Colby Buzzell. Chris Kyle and the Iraq War Are More Complex than American Sniper–or Criticism of It.” The Guardian 23 January 2015.

Courtney Duckworth. “How Accurate is American Sniper?” Slate 23 January 2015.

Roy Scranton. “The Trauma Hero: From Wilfred Owen to Redeployment and American Sniper.” Los Angeles Review of Books 25 January 2015.

Cara Buckley. American Sniper Fuels a War on the Homefront.” New York Times 28 January 2015.

Susannah George. “Here’s What Moviegoers in Baghdad Think About American Sniper.” Global Post 28 January 2015.

Joe Davis. “A Former Marine’s Review of American Sniper.” Time 9 February 2015.

If you have suggestions for additions to this list, please let me know.

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3 Comments on “The American Sniper Situation: The Not-So-Secret Inclinations of Public Taste”

  1. Brent Scales Says:

    Excellent list. I would also like to see Alex Horton’s piece that appeared in The Guardian. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2014/dec/24/american-sniper-real-life-movies-hollywood

  2. Peter Molin Says:

    Mariana Grohowski, whom many know for her work in the veterans-in-the-classroom field, gave me permission to repost the following from an email to me: “Though not specific to American Sniper, have you read Martin Barker’s book Toxic Genre on Iraq war cinema? It’s fantastic and it offers a compelling background (also brief) on the “war hero” in cinema (chapter 4: from doughboys to grunts). When I watch AS and think about Chris Kyle as a character, I see him as our generation’s version of John Wayne …” I didn’t know about Toxic Genre, published in 2011, but now can’t wait to get my hands on it. The essay comparing American Sniper to The Green Berets is waiting to be written. In the meantime, I’m working on a post exploring the etymology of the word “grunts,” which has a Vietnam War feel to it for me–I much prefer “Joe” to refer to the junior enlisted soldiers who have fought our millennial wars. Thanks for all the ideas and inspiration, Mariana!


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