American Propaganda and American Sniper

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The Oscars were last month. Though the nominees this year were more white and male than usual, one of a handful of moments gave me a sliver of hope that maybe the Academy isn’t as bigoted as it seems. American Sniper, the top grossing film in the category for Best Picture, lost! Which is great news since people and celebrities, like Seth Rogen, are calling it the equivalent of Nazi propaganda.

I went into American Sniper thinking it would be an egregious movie that is the embodiment of Islamophobia and a vast misunderstanding of the war and the white American hero. But as I watched the movie I thought, “This isn’t so bad.” Then I remembered that’s how propaganda works! In the first minutes of the film the possible execution of a child is juxtaposed against the hunting and killing of a deer. This concept of seeing the terrorist as animals is ingrained in the viewer, as the main character — Chris Kyle — and his fellow soldiers — or “brothers” — repeatedly call the opposition savages. The idea of “us versus them” is thrust upon the audience while experiencing imagines from the heat of battle. Death of women and children are seen as small blips in the causalities of war compared to the death of a fellow American soldier. The majority of roles given to people of color on the screen are Islamic terrorists. There is one black soldier who quickly delivers his two lines and then falls into the background.

As a person of color, watching this film left me disgusted. My stomach was filled with rage over the fact that: 1) I had to watch this film to further validate my already existing argument against it, 2) the film was over two hours, which is two hours of homework I could have been doing, 3) that I almost fell for propaganda, and 4) it has received more critical acclaim and box office money then the far more impressive and uplifting film Selma.

I watched Selma a few months ago at a movie theater that was playing both Selma and American Sniper. As my roommate and I stood in line to get our tickets, a white heterosexual couple was getting tickets for American Sniper. It makes me wonder, who is the target for American Sniper? Is it for the American public to feel righteous in our misguided decision to liberate the Middle East or for a more specific group? The film doesn’t even begin to address the issues of why we went to war in the first place, which is the downfall of replicating one man’s story. People will argue that American Sniper shows an honest depiction of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). I would have rather watched a two-hour film about Chris Kyle’s struggle to acclimate to civilian life after the stress of war. Instead, I watched a two hour circle jerk about the heroics of a man who killed hundreds of people in war and wrote in his autobiography, “I loved what I did. I still do. If circumstances were different — if my family didn’t need me — I’d be back in a heartbeat. I’m not lying or exaggerating to say it was fun.” Bradley Cooper portrays Chris Kyle as a survivor who struggles with each kill he makes. Which brings up the argument how much of this is actor portrayal and how much of it is actually Chris Kyle’s experience?

At the end of the movie, Chris Kyle is seen as a martyr. He’s killed by one of his fellow veterans, which truly makes this story tragic. Instead of this movie creating a dialogue around the legitimate struggle for veterans and the effects of PTSD, it paints a false picture of the war and spawns tweets from its viewers, such as, “NGL teared up at the end of American Sniper. Great fucking movie and now I really want to kill some fucking ragheads.” People can argue that tweets such as these are extreme and I agree they are. But the fact is, while watching American Sniper I had thoughts that I might have been wrong about this movie. Well folks, if it looks, speaks and acts like a heroic tale and ignores essential facts, then that’s propaganda.

Mychal Shanks is a fourth-year film and digital media student.