Success of ‘American Sniper’ rekindles culture war over Iraq

The box office smash “American Sniper” is opening a new front in the culture wars by reigniting debate over the Iraq War. 

Clint Eastwood’s film, which garnered six Oscar nominations, has quickly turned into the most politically charged movie of the year as pundits and opinion-makers weigh in on its portrayal of Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL credited with the most kills in U.S. history, as well as the war he fought in. 

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To critics like filmmaker Michael Moore, the project glorifies random violence in service of a lost and reckless cause in Iraq.

To supporters of the film, including GOP figures like Sarah Palin, the controversy illustrates a shameful lack of support for the military and the Iraq War among “Hollywood leftists.”

The film is striking a chord at a fragile time, just weeks after terrorist attacks in Paris and a slew of new executions by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria raised questions about the threat from radical Islam.

And the controversy is promising to spill over into the wider political debate — not to mention the looming Oscar fight — by renewing old rifts between left and right, coasts and heartland. 

Actor Seth Rogen made waves when he said “American Sniper” reminded him of a Nazi propaganda film depicted in the 2009 World War II film
“Inglourious Basterds.” He walked back the comments after they prompted a backlash from country music star Craig Morgan, actor Dean Cain and others. 

Moore’s tweet that “snipers aren’t heroes” brought Republican leaders into the fray, including former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and several lawmakers who called Moore a “coward.”

“The petulant, knee-jerk backlash vs American Sniper is driven by fear of facing the idea that maybe our soldiers fought for a just cause,” tweeted Dan McLaughlin, a contributor at RedState. 

The controversy over what the film stands for appears to be growing as attention rises from publications and major TV networks, all of which are carrying stories about celebrities’ debate over “American Sniper.” There is precedent to suggest that President Obama could eventually face questions about the film. 

Aspects of the movie seem tailored to appeal to conservatives.

It is directed by Eastwood, a supporter of Mitt Romney who memorably criticized Obama by talking to an empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention.

“God, country, family” is the film’s unofficial motto, repeated several times by Kyle, a proud Texan who is shown hunting and with a Bible close at hand. 

The film tracks Kyle’s transition from minor success as a rodeo cowboy to his enlistment in the Navy and training as a SEAL. After four tours in Iraq and 160 confirmed kills as a sniper, he is known as “the legend” among his fellow troops. 

The film struck a nerve with some commentators on the left, who felt Eastwood, an opponent of the Iraq War, should have done more to challenge Kyle’s perspective, which is presented as black and white.

While Kyle is shown facing painful decisions about killing women and children, he repeatedly calls the insurgents “savages” and “evil.”

“The problem is that the film makes no attempt to tell us anything beyond Kyle’s limited comprehension of what was happening,” wrote Peter Maass for The Intercept, a publication founded by Glenn Greenwald. 

Maass criticizes the movie, which was based on Kyle’s best-selling autobiography, for giving “a grunt’s view that the people killed in Iraq were animals deserving their six-feet-under fate” without any further discussion or context.  

Yet the film avoids speaking directly to the merits of the Iraq War and has won support from figures like Jane Fonda.

Critics have given it favorable views. On the Rotten Tomatoes website, it gets favorable marks from 73 percent of critics, though this is lower than its 89 percent favorable score from audiences.

Bradley Cooper, a Democrat who stars as Kyle and helped produce the film, said the movie was not intended to be political. 

“If it’s not this movie, I hope to God another movie will come out where it will shed light on the fact of what servicemen and women have to go through, and that we need to pay attention to our vets. It doesn’t go any farther than that,” Cooper told The Daily Beast. 

The beginning of Oscar season only promises to heighten the controversy. Hollywood trade publication TheWrap reported Sunday that Academy members are starting to pay attention to criticism of the film and of Kyle himself, who wrote in his memoir that killing Iraqis was “fun.” 

With an eye on next month’s awards, proponents of “American Sniper” are wary of the precedent of “Zero Dark Thirty,” another highly acclaimed film that ultimately failed at the Oscars due to political controversy over its story. 

Like “Zero Dark Thirty,” Eastwood’s film also lacks a best director nomination, a rarity among films that go on to win Best Picture. 

Mark Harris at Grantland said the debate will go much further than that. 

“There’s going to be more discussion all along the ideological spectrum about the degree to which ‘American Sniper’ is in fact a conservative movie … in its relative lack of interest in the people Chris Kyle killed, or the country in which they were killed, or what we were doing there,” Harris wrote. 

“The degree to which [Kyle’s] life should be memorialized, as opposed to examined, is an argument the film’s success will reignite rather than resolve.”