The boxoffice big winner of the moment is a movie about a military man who kills people from a distance, unseen by his victims. He enjoys his “job” because he hates them, imagining an entire nation his enemy: “savages” who kill his buddies, and are collectively guilty, deserving assassination.
This point of view is not new in the psychology of men in war. Remarque examined it in WWI in All Quiet On The Western Front; Tolstoy, before him in War and Peace; Mailer, after, in The Naked and The Dead. In Vietnam, I heard hardassed combat grunts say, “Kill ‘em all; let God sort ‘em out”.
American movie audiences have long loved violent heroes who, in morally iffy circumstances, cut through insoluble complexities of relentless evil by ending them in more or less justifiable murder.
In the more intelligent, ethical versions, these heroes are good men, trying to do the right thing until they run out of options and have to kill. It ends for them, not in triumph or exaltation, but in an emotional downdraft that looks much like regret or remorse. Gary Cooper grimly leaves the town that betrayed him; Shane, called back by a heartbroken boy, knows that boy’s world is forever spoiled for him by what he had to do, and rides away.
In the simple-minded, morally ugly varieties, the dynamic remains the same but the nature of the hero is completely altered. The key change, obvious but unclear to, or intentionally ignored by, the ethically obtuse, is that the hero’s character is vicious. All that matters is that revenge and retribution are ferocious and absolute. In other words, in an infantile mutilation of the idea of the classic hero’s journey, the whole game turns here on brutal, sadistic and complete destruction of “evildoers”. (A phrase of our erstwhile imbecile President, not used otherwise since the days of Cotton Mather.)
The kind of film-making that uses this latter formula–simplistic, cartoonish, and vacuous–is far more appealing to people of lower intelligence and undiscriminating taste, which is to say, the majority of moviegoers. The list of examples is long but Dirty Harry movies clearly define the category.
Clint Eastwood–film’s Sociopath Emeritus–chose in American Sniper the perfect vehicle to manifest his intelligence, his politics and his character.
Perfect because what it displays–besides a retailing of baldly ridiculous ideas long universally discredited, and a politics rooted in deep, indomitable ignorance and a form of stupidity that prides itself on denial of irrefutable reality–is the sleazy depravity of a mind that can craft a mawkish, fawning tribute to a diseased serial killer from a biography in which the killer himself spells out in appalling detail his own disgusting sickness.
So much has been written about this paean to a subhuman monster– much of it on whether or not it is moral and heroic to murder people wholesale for flag and country–that the only truly important thing about its success has not been articulated. That is the grossly ugly fact that such a huge number of Americans jubilantly support this morally dirty film and its message.
Of course, an audience that embraces films featuring all kinds of vicious, repulsive, sadistic murderers–cannibals, necrophiles, zombies, vampires- -can be expected to flock to any flic that promises to satisfy its craving, and promotion for American Sniper puts it right in their wheelhouse.
What is profoundly disturbing culturally but should not be surprising is that, unlike goofy trash about chainsaw maniacs, anthropophagous esthetes, and midnight bloodsuckers, American Sniper glorifies a real self-confessed serial murderer, and its supporters don’t care. It makes no distinction, that is, between imbecile fantasy and appalling truth. The fact that the “hero” and much of his story was real only enhances his glamour in their eyes.
What gives the film its fierce attractive power for them is that the relentless propaganda of “the Global War on Terror” has imbued them with the same hateful, furious, kneejerk, Nazi-style “patriotism” that Kyle embodied.
As long as the tag-team of our “news” media and the Hollywood War Porn industry continues, the fan base for U.S. military ubermensch horror films will grow. As Germany learned in the deadly 1930s, there is nothing quite so dangerous to a nation’s liberty as a furious, stupid, violence-addicted, enemy-fixated underclass. The monster that a culture creates and keeps in its basement can sometimes break its chains, to rend and dismember it.
Paul Edwards is a writer and film-maker in Montana. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org