The Great American Shooter


J. Hoberman in The New York Review of Books blog (image Warner Bros. Pictures):

While American Sniper has drawn a large and diverse audience there is no consensus as to what the movie means. Rush Limbaugh hailed it as “an extension of the November elections” in which the Republicans captured the Senate, although the war in Iraq was hardly an issue. Jane Fonda saw it as a movie about the psychic cost of war and compared it to her 1978 film Coming Home, in which she embarked upon a therapeutic love affair with Jon Voight’s seriously wounded Vietnam veteran. The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has reported a spike in anti-Arab threats. A French journalist contacted me in early January to see if I thought the movie’s unexpected popularity was a response to the Charlie Hebdo massacre. (I told him that, on the contrary, the success struck me as symptomatic of American self-absorption.) Eastwood, who, not surprisingly, has described American Sniper as an anti-war movie, has acknowledged the influence of Sgt. York, which he saw as an eleven-year-old in the company of his father.

Sgt. York was criticized in Congress and elsewhere as pro-war and didn’t win the 1941 Oscar for Best Picture (the award, given in late February 1942, went to John Ford’s How Green Was My Valley). American Sniper, a far better movie, is unlikely to win either—no more than Ava DuVernay’s Selma, the film that, as a myth about a different kind of American heroism and a meditation on another aspect of the national past, has naturally been seen as American Sniper’s political antipode, celebrating non-violence from the inherently underdog perspective of a disenfranchised minority. Both movies are docudramas, a term first used to describe the televised historical fictions of the mid-1970s, and both have been criticized for their historical inaccuracies.

While these distortions are hardly without interest, holding films to rigorous standards of truth is itself highly unrealistic. With origins in photography, the motion picture medium encourages us to expect that, unlike plays or novels, films depicting historical episodes should be truthful. But even for documentaries, fictionalizing elements—including editing, camera placement, and imposed chronology—are almost inescapable.

More here.