Is American Sniper a brilliant, subtle study of the trauma of war and the toll that incessant violence takes on those who participate in it? Or is American Sniper a shallow, flag-waving, war propaganda movie? These questions frame much of the debate over Clint Eastwood's recent film. Whatever side you take in this debate, one thing is indisputable: The film is attracting audiences in droves. It is also starting to attract some critical conversations over its troubling portrayal of Muslims, even though these conversations so far have not entered the mainstream.
American Sniper follows the story of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL and the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. The film portrays Kyle as a courageous but troubled war hero who struggles to reconcile his violent "day job" as a sharpshooter during four tours in Iraq with the expectations placed upon him by his wife and family back in the U.S. Kyle's identity is rooted in his sense of service to his country. He has no doubts about who the "good guys" and the "bad guys" are, and he expresses no regrets over the Iraqis he kills. Kyle may be troubled, but only by the important stuff: God, country, family. Brown people don't make the list.
The film does offer glimpses, if only a few, of a man who may be far more troubled by taking the lives of others than he is willing to admit. In one memorable scene, Kyle guns down a mother and her young son as they attempt to kill U.S. soldiers with a grenade. When Kyle's buddy pats him on the back and showers accolades on him for his impeccable marksmanship, Kyle angrily responds, "Get the fuck off of me!" He doesn't feel like celebrating. We almost get the sense in this scene that somewhere in the back of his mind, Kyle is asking himself, "Is this what I signed up for? Is this who I am?" I'll leave aside the question of whether the real-life Chris Kyle ever wrestled with these questions or anguished over the lives he ended.
Sadly, whatever complexity might be at work in Kyle or the film is lost against a sea of Orientalism and racism. The film opens with the foreboding (as opposed to the beautiful) sound of the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, and with that, the tone is set for the menacing Muslim enemy to haunt the screen. Lots of Iraqi Muslims make their way into this film, but almost every woman, man and child that we see is angry, violent and bloodthirsty. We see Muslims as Kyle seems them -- as "savages," as demonic, as unworthy of our compassion, as lacking in humanity. Their main purpose is to provide Kyle with targets to shoot.
One possible response to this criticism is that what we are seeing is one man's limited perspective. Eastwood is not asking us to adopt Kyle's perspective, nor is Eastwood explicitly endorsing this racist worldview. The filmmaker has simply chosen neutrality on the question of Kyle's bigotry.
That would be a gracious interpretation of the film, but one that I find unconvincing. Films are not neutral pieces of art. All films have a perspective, a point of view, and this one is no exception. Eastwood does not want us to adopt a neutral position toward Kyle. Eastwood wants us to connect with Kyle, to admire his courage, to appreciate his sacrifices, to reflect on his sufferings, and to cheer him on as he tries to make his way back (physically and psychologically) to his family. We are supposed to feel for Kyle and to recognize his humanity.
But the film gives us little opportunity to recognize the humanity of the Muslims who cross his path. Eastwood may want us to ponder some difficult questions, including the impact of sustained violence on one soldier's psyche, but he shows no interest in probing or problematizing the racism that animates this soldier's Manichean worldview. In making this decision, Eastwood has already taken a side on the question of Kyle's racism. Neutrality was never an option.
I know, I know. It's just a movie. But that's why I take it so seriously. Movies have the power to shape and frankly distort the way we view the world, particularly those elements of the world that fall beyond our everyday experience. Keep in mind that the only Muslims many non-Muslim Americans "know" are the ones they see on a movie screen. When you add Eastwood's film to the hundreds upon hundreds of films that rely on racist, Orientalist stereotypes, from Old Ironsides (1926) to Rules of Engagement (2000) to Zero Dark Thirty (2012), it becomes difficult for many moviegoers to see these characters as fictional caricatures. The Muslim enemy onscreen is simply assumed to be the mirror image of the Muslim enemy off-screen.
Does American Sniper deserve special condemnation for its portrayals of Muslims? No, not special condemnation, particularly when you consider Hollywood's history. But the film's troubling depiction of Muslims deserves far more critical scrutiny than many journalists, politicians, and film reviewers have been willing to give it. Eastwood is clearly not alone in taking a "neutral" stance on the film's racist stereotypes. We'll have to wait a few more weeks to see if this neutrality reaches all the way to the Academy Awards ceremony.