It’s not about them! It’s about us!”
In that exchange between the protagonist, Chris Kyle, a man who holds the dubious distinction of being the most lethal sniper in American military history, and his wife, lies the central conceit of “American Sniper”, nominated in half a dozen categories for this weekend’s Academy Awards despite being little more than a racist, self-involved apology for jingoism and military occupation dressed up as a B-movie.
You might ask why I would even subject myself to this abuse. Masochism? A deep-seated love of self-flagellation? Fair questions, all.
Truth be told, I knew enough to duck this dud following its theatrical release. A near-miss happened at my local barber shop in Harlem, where one of the regular patrons, a bootleg DVD peddler by trade, popped the film into the high-perched TV set.
Quick to veto
Some of the other regulars there as well as many of the barbers were quick to voice their veto. A number of them are former members of the Fruit of Islam, the Nation of Islam’s security branch, and all of them are black men in the United States, which is to say that they had almost to a man learned through bitter experience to apply a healthy amount of critical distance and distrust when it came to the garbage that all too often passes for art or entertainment in this country. The DVD was yanked out, and was promptly replaced by the latest kung fu flick to hit our shores.
But my luck ran out earlier this month at the US Naval Station at Guantanamo Bay, of all places.
I was there for a week of meetings with imprisoned clients, and “American Sniper” was showing on a large outdoor screen on the base, a place called the Downtown Lyceum. It was a complimentary screening for the troops.
Two of my companions suggested we go – it would be interesting to see the film in a military setting, they said. I went along, dreading a roaring, cheering crowd excited by scenes of on-screen carnage I would find offensive.
My fears proved unfounded. The young military audience’s reaction could perhaps best be characterised as a collective, tepid “meh”. It was an entirely appropriate response – one that I shared – given the shallow film-making in question, plagued by poorly written and acted dialogue, simplistic, Manichean themes, and predictable plot twists.
Likely to cause real harm
But, there was something else at play for me, far more deeply upsetting than the common frustration of having just wasted precious time watching trash. It was that this film was downright hateful and, boosted by its popularity (over a quarter of a billion dollars in revenue), likely to cause real harm.
The film follows Kyle, a Navy SEAL, played by Bradley Cooper, as he shoots his way through US-occupied Iraq, wasting people by the dozen without even pausing to contemplate whether Iraqis might have good cause to resist a foreign occupying force. They are simply “savages”, hell-bent on evildoing.
They are simply 'savages', hell-bent on evildoing. It bears emphasis that the term 'savages' doesn't merely reflect the subjective perception of Kyle and his comrades-in-arms - almost every Iraqi who appears on screen confirms that verdict.
It bears emphasis that the term “savages” doesn’t merely reflect the subjective perception of Kyle and his comrades-in-arms – almost every Iraqi who appears on screen confirms that verdict.
First, there’s the veiled mother who thrusts a grenade into the hands of her 10-year-old son before pushing him to throw it at oncoming American troops. But wouldn’t basic parental instinct make that sort of scenario implausible in the real world, even if the mother happens to be an insurgent herself? Not in this movie, “cause they’re all ‘savages’!”
Kyle shoots the child, then dispatches the mother after she, in turn, attempts to pick up the grenade, seemingly more upset about her son’s failure than his death.
The family man
Then there’s the family man, the attentive father who helps his son with homework, the gracious host who, finding his home occupied by a platoon of Americans, nonetheless invites them to share a holiday meal at his table. But even that modest appearance of civilisation cannot be trusted! That man’s home is in fact a weapons cache. He promptly meets his maker in a hail of American bullets.
Finally, an innocuous-looking Iraqi child, sits curbside, playing innocently, as a man comes around a nearby corner, points a rocket launcher at US troops, and collapses in a puff of blood, mowed down by “legend” Kyle’s ace shooting. The child approaches the corpse, then, for no reason other than, apparently, genetic predisposition, picks up the weapon and points it at the same US troops.
Kyle, a noble warrior after all, prays for the kid to drop the weapon, as he prepares to fire his own once more at a child. Thankfully (for the viewers), the child can’t seem to balance the heavy rocket launcher so he drops it and runs away with his life.
You’ll note that I’m not even talking about the conventional villains who, of course, have their fair share of screen time in the film – the adult armed militants; an enemy sniper named Mustafa, a Syrian, whose theme music is appropriately ominous; or The Butcher, a militant commander who enjoys executing children and adults alike using a handheld power drill.
The “savages” described earlier whom Kyle eliminated are normal, everyday Iraqis, driven, it appears, by an irresistible and inexplicable urge to do harm to well-meaning American soldiers.
A less-informed viewer would be excused for walking away from the film believing that all Iraqis – indeed, all Muslims – are irredeemable beasts. The occupation was not only justified – heck, we should have nuked the whole lot of them!
Nowhere to be seen on this reel are the countless civilian victims of American military occupation (its infallible snipers included). Nor is any screen time given to an honest framing of that conflict, launched as it was on false premises of hidden weapons of mass destruction and supposed al-Qaeda ties, and pursued against the legitimate resistance of some segments of Iraqi society.
Why not, you ask? Because they’re all “savages” but, more importantly, because this is about us, not them. And that may well be the most obscene aspect of this monstrosity of a film; they are savages, sure, and they fully deserve the death that Kyle metes out to them, but the real tragedy is that, by forcing us to kill them, we are becoming less pure, less noble.
In this way, the blood-drenched member of an uninvited, foreign occupying power is sublimated into a victim himself, the only worthy recipient of the audience’s empathy. His Iraqi victims and their ilk, on the other hand, are worthless and bear the blame, to boot, for the noble warrior’s fall from grace.
As a filmgoing experience, “American Sniper” ranks lower than a meal of broken glass. As an attempt to capture a moment in the American experience, it is not only an abject failure, but a simply unholy cocktail of vile prejudice and historical revisionism. It should not be rewarded with an Oscar.
Ramzi Kassem is associate professor of law at the City University of New York School of Law.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.