Propaganda, Patriotism, and American Sniper

[An earlier version of this piece was published in my New Directions in Media Studies course blog on 1/29/15]

I recently came across an image comparing the recently-released (2014), Academy Award-nominated film American Sniper (directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper) to the Nazi propaganda film (the title of which is Stolz der Nation, or The Nation’s Pride) that plays a big role in the somewhat-less-recently-released (2009), also-Academy Award-nominated film Inglourious Basterds (directed by Quentin Tarantino and starring, amongst others, Brad Pitt).

snipers

Of course, American Sniper isn’t available online in its entirety yet, but you can watch the trailer for it, as well as the full-length version* of Stolz der Nation, below (also, if you haven’t seen Inglourious Basterds yet, I’d highly recommend watching that as well).
*note: the film’s “full length” is a little over six minutes, so it’s not a huge time commitment.

There are a number of similarities between the films. Both American Sniper and the propaganda film in Basterds (which, incidentally, is directed by Eli Roth, one of the other stars of the film whose main claim to fame comes from his prolific career as a horror film director) are about relentlessly patriotic soldiers, both of whom are championed as highly skilled snipers credited with an unprecedented number of kills. The tag lines for American Sniper (“One Bullet can tell the story,” “150 kills made history,” and “The most lethal sniper in U.S. history,”) mimic the praise we hear for Stolz der Nation over the duration Basterds (we learn that the protagonist of Stolz der Nation–Fredrick Zoller–became a Nazi war hero after he killed 250 enemy soldiers over the course of a single three-day battle). Even the titles of the films–American Sniper and Stolz der Nation (The Nation’s Pride)–mimic one another through their heavy patriotism.

To me, and to many others, these very obvious parallels between a (meta)critical recreation of propaganda (Stolz) and a Very Serious™ and highly-regarded (by some) war movie (Sniper) are cause for concern. They are both, in a word, propaganda. Of course, the moment people began bringing up these similarities on social media (Seth Rogen was one of the people to do so), there was a ton of (typically right-wing) backlash. The way that many Americans have championed not only American Sniper, but also the intense Islamophobia and militant fear of the “un-American” Other that the film espouses, speaks to a concerning lack of reflexivity in those who defend the merits of the film. This, for me, raises some interesting questions/implications about how we, not only as citizens of a country with a military, but also as media consumers and critical thinkers, ought to approach criticizing media portrayals of war and of conflict–especially when those portrayals are fictionalized versions of true events.

The concern held by many critics of such films (including American Sniper) is that any and all criticisms, either of the films themselves or of the morals/events/people they portray, will immediately spark McCarthyesque accusations of treason and America-hatred from self-professed ultra-patriots (folks of the Kid Rock and Sarah Palin variety).

Critics can’t feel free to question the morals of “patriotic” films – and often, by extension, of the filmmakers and real-life inspirations of those films – without fear of this sort of knee-jerk reaction. It’s exactly this sort of “portrayals of American patriotism are above criticism” mindset, though, that reaffirms the claim that many critics of American Sniper are trying to make–the claim that Sniper is, in fact, a piece of American propaganda which reinforces notions of xenophobia and unflinchingly condones the killing of the Other.

Here’s an excerpt from an interesting article I read on the subject:

…the canonization of Chris Kyle allows Americans to duck the morally thorny questions involving Kyle’s possible killing of innocent civilians, his dehumanization of both Muslims in general and Iraqis specifically, and his bloodthirsty attitude toward war itself. Because his supporters don’t wish to see these things (or, even worse, secretly condone them), they gloss over the inconvenient details and insist that drawing attention to them is un-American.

The similarities between the films are certainly striking, and drawing this comparison manages, if it does nothing else, highlight the fraught relationship and, occasionally, the palpably antagonistic rift between those who are willing to subscribe without question to the brand of blind patriotism lauded by American Sniper and films like it, and those who are keen to criticize–or at least to take with a pretty sizable grain of salt–such films and their messages.

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