by Gene Howington
The definition of success in propaganda is a bit like pulling off a successful magic trick. It works best if no one realizes exactly how they’re being manipulated. At its pinnacle of perfection, no one even suspects they are being manipulated at all. So is “American Sniper” successful propaganda? The answer is both yes and no. We’ll examine why, but first, let us consider the film as cinema art. Does it work as a film? That answer is also a big heap of yes and no. But that, like the answer to the question before it, it not meant to imply ambivalence. It is a statement of mixed outcome.
“American Sniper” technically works as a film. It is well shot. The acting is competent and although I didn’t see “Oscar” writ large upon it, the truly standout performance was by British actress Sienna Miller and not Bradley Cooper. Cooper was actually a bit distracting at first. The purposeful underbite he was using (to what end? make him more square jawed?) looks not only forced but painful. The main character’s story has arc, albeit shallow. Structurally, it is a bit disjoint. Starting with a single flashback that was clearly meant to focus on Kyle’s first kill as some kind of personal crux came across as mechanical and stiff, the story also suffered from a pace that seemed a beat off time. Perhaps “slow” isn’t an entirely accurate description, but “uneven” certainly fits the bill. As a technical piece, it is fair to describe the film as flawed, but functional. It is not Eastwood’s finest hour behind the camera as a technician.
Many of the reviews I have read have a common word or variation of it that is relevant to that analysis: “simplistic”. It was the word ringing though my head before I even left the theater. That word is important because it is at the root of what “American Sniper” is as propaganda. It paints simple pictures.
There is reason though to cut Eastwood a little – a tiny minuscule amount – of slack on this point and it requires a small digression.
As a student of film, one gets to learn a bit about how the sausage is made. The compromises of screenwriting can often cause gross simplifications from otherwise nuanced source material. A fine example of this is the classic Richard Matheson novel “I Am Legend“. It has been made into a film four times** and not once has it captured the essence of the novel on film. Each attempt is such a gross simplification of the novel, it misses the target of Matheson’s brilliant source material. Just so, these compromises can also keep a source no matter how initially sophisticated from a more interpretative telling. This is often the case where a studio executive has shut down an idea for being “too sophisticated” or “too arty” or “too complicated”. The example that comes to mind was when Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky shopped around his version of Frank Herbert’s brilliant novel “Dune“*** in the 1970’s. Many in the studio system thought it was brilliant, but too risky, surreal, and even absurd to actually make not to mention really expensive. It was though, without question, a sophisticated and complex interpretation of an already sophisticated and complex novel resulting in the studios killing it on the vine. Simplification is a risk of making that sausage Hollywood makes.
That does not mitigate things for Eastwood in this instance though. His simplification harkens back to jingoistic war films like 1968’s “The Green Berets“. In case you haven’t seen this odious swill, “The Green Berets” ss basically a 1950’s western that replaced “injuns” with “charlie”, has little resemblance to the 1965 book by Robin Moore that was its source material, and has a certified Pentagon approved script which naturally left no room for any ambiguity about the morality or ethics of a given war let alone war in general. Just so long as it was America stomping on whomever, preferably some non-white, non-Christian population.
The simplification in “American Sniper” starts with Kyle’s father. He describes the world to his son’s in a very simplistic macho way at the dinner table. He tells the boys there are three kinds of people in the world: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs (whom he describes as “blessed by aggression” with a temperament to “watch out over others”). He follows this little homily up by threatening to beat his kids if they became wolves and proclaiming they didn’t raise any sheep in their family. Utterly backwoods charming as that is, it is probably one of two times any analysis of causal actions and human nature was given and the other (which will we’ll get to in a bit) was just as superficial and could fairly be called “glib”. It is also as shallow as a saucer. Worse still, the film goes on to draw a blatantly false connection between 9/11 and the invasion of Iraq. The rest of the film’s analysis consists of Kyle calling Iraqis “savages” and never once questioning why U.S. troops were there or why the Iraqis might see Americans as invaders rather than liberators or protectors. It’s a black and white picture: God, country and family first so long as that God is from the New Testament, the country is the U.S. and family is whomever Kyle selects as family.
The few times any doubt or regret is mentioned, it is by other soldiers who are portrayed as somehow inferior to Kyle’s flag-wrapped, Bible toting SEAL sniper. When fellow soldiers express doubt, Kyle dismisses it – often with anger and never with analysis. Of particular note is a scene where Kyle encounters his brother in passing. The younger brother, portrayed from the start as a “sheep”, seems clearly shaken by his experiences and ready to go home. The older Kyle assures the “weaker” brother that both he and their father are proud of the youngest sibling. His brother responds “Fuck this place.” For which he earns an angry “What did you say?” from his savage killing sniper brother. Later, one of Kyle’s platoon buddies who had expressed doubt dies on a mission that is primarily for Kyle about revenge for the death of a third platoon member. When the dead man’s mother reads her son’s poignant letter home received shortly before his death expressing his personal doubts about the war, Kyle’s wife tries to talk to him about it after the funeral. Kyle states in no uncertain terms in a dismissive tone that it was doubt and hesitation that killed that man. It was actually a shooter from a building across the street that killed that soldier who was, despite the doubts he carried, doing his job and fulfilling his duty to his brothers-in-arms when unlucky enough to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. His moral compass or doubt didn’t have any correlation to let alone causal connection to his death. It is also of note that Kyle’s wife never questions the war or her husband’s actions except in the context of she feels the military is more important to her husband than their marriage and lamenting raising children on her own. Even when Kyle’s story arc goes down and he’s decided to return to his family, it isn’t about his questioning the war or his actions – quite explicitly he is untroubled by his actions. He returns because he is tired after a long slog at getting revenge against “the savage” who killed one friend and wounded another. This is a simple picture in black and white, with not a shade of gray let alone a trace of color. “American Sniper” paints such a simplistic moral and ethical picture so far divorced from the nuanced vivid colorful picture Eastwood painted in “Unforgiven” that it is difficult to imagine that they came from the same director.
As mentioned elsewhere in the Propaganda Series, there are a set of common tools used by propagandists many of which consist of carefully applied logical fallacies used to generate a façade of superficial logical appearing statements to conceal falsities and/or obscure motive(s) of the speaker that may be contrary to the image they present or message they openly convey. Let us consider some of the fallacies and misleading presentations this film commits.
Thought-terminating cliché – Often a commonly used phrase, sometimes passing as folk wisdom, used to quell cognitive dissonance, conceal lack of thought, change the subject, etc., that is used to attempt to end the debate with a cliché instead of a conclusive logical point and/or evidence. This is found in the simplistic worldview of Kyle’s father he passes along to the children. It is ultimately an appeal to authority – when an assertion is deemed true because of the position or authority of the person asserting it. In this case, the authority appealed to is God Himself. Which in itself is a form of reification – a fallacy of ambiguity found when an abstraction (abstract belief or hypothetical construct) is treated as if it were a concrete, real event or physical entity. In other words, it is the error of treating as a “real thing” something which is not a real thing, but merely an idea. For example, arguments that treat good and/or evil as if they were tangible (and usually absolute) properties of the universe instead of concepts defined within the parameters of social context. “God, country, family” is an absolute fact as presented and no deviance from this credo is acceptable.
Guilt by association, in this case demonstrated as deployment of the abusive fallacy, a subtype of “ad hominem” when it turns into name-calling rather than arguing about the originally proposed argument, it can also be a form of transfer. This in turn creates a false equivalence. This is evidenced by the perpetual use of the terms “savages” to refer to the Iraqis. Even in the one scene where they find an Iraqi friendly to the U.S. forces but reluctant to help them out of fear for his family, he is personally interrogated by Kyle who flat out threatens him if he doesn’t help. He does help Kyle, but pays for it with his own life and the life of his son at the hands of, you guessed it, the savages. No differentiation is made between jihadists and other Arabs who do not support them or their violent methods.
Loaded language is also found in the use of the term “savages”. No Iraqi encountered is ever treated as anything but a savage hostile and someone just a little less than human. This is also a form of dehumanization, a common tactic in propaganda, touching upon both the form of hasty generalization (when a broad conclusion is based on a small sample) and the fallacy of composition (assuming that something true of part of a whole must also be true of the whole).
False causal analysis is at the heart of the blatant lie perpetrated in portraying that the Iraqis or their government were involved in the attack on 9/11, a use of the fallacy of the single cause (causal oversimplification) – when it is assumed that there is one, simple cause of an outcome when in reality it may have been caused by a number of only jointly sufficient causes. This plays into post hoc ergo propter hoc, better known as correlation is not causation (X happened then Y happened; therefore X caused Y). There is a correlation between the invasion of Iraq and 9/11, but it is not a causal relationship other than the Bush Administration lied about the reason for invading a sovereign nation that had not attacked us to justify his (nominally illegal) actions.
Further analysis might yield more such examples, but that is sufficient for the point of this exercise.
Let us return to the definition of success in deploying propaganda. The definition of success in propaganda is a bit like pulling off a successful magic trick. It works best if no one realizes exactly how they’re being manipulated. At its pinnacle of perfection, no one even suspects they are being manipulated at all. Does “American Sniper” succeed by this definition of success? The answer appears to be a resounding “no”. The clearly biased political view presented by the film has not gone unnoticed and has actually generated quite a bit of critical analysis and backlash, due in no small part to the simplistic hamfisted approach to the story. While this has generated box office, it serves to undermine its clear purpose which is glorification of war. But what of the the so-called culture war? In that sense, “American Sniper” can be viewed as a bit successful as propaganda. This is evidenced by stories with headlines like “‘American Sniper’ Triggers Flood Of Anti-Muslim Venom, Civil Rights Group Warns” and “Civil rights group: Eastwood, Cooper need to help stop anti-Arab speech inspired by ‘American Sniper’“. While Warner Bros. issued a statement for the movie studio “denounce[ing] any violent, anti-Muslim rhetoric, including that which has been attributed to viewers of American Sniper. Hate and bigotry have no place in the important dialogue that this picture has generated about the veteran experience”, neither Eastwood nor the film’s star Bradley Cooper have weighed in on the matter.
“American Sniper” is propaganda. While it does lie outright about the causal connection between Iraq and 9/11, it did not engage in the wholesale historical revisionism of “Zero Dark Thirty”. Its success as propaganda? Is debatable. Blood simple premises often lead to simply bloody conclusions, even if built on a complex scaffold of propaganda technique.
What do you think?
Source(s): IMDB, Huffington Post, Washington Post, USA Today, Wikipedia