American Sniper, back in the crosshairs of controversy

American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s 2014 biopic on marksman Chris Kyle, has once again become the center of national controversy. Last week, the Muslim Students Association (MSA) at the University of Maryland protested a showing of it on campus. Complaining that the film was racist, the student group issued a statement, saying:

American Sniper only perpetuates the spread of Islamophobia and is offensive to many Muslims around the world for good reason. This movie dehumanizes Muslim individuals, promotes the idea of senseless mass murder, and portrays negative and inaccurate stereotypes.

This is only the most recent of many other complaints. Though the filmmakers have claimed that the film isn’t political, American Sniper has become a Rorschach test for ideological loyalties — liberals decry its racism and conservatives champion its nationalism. Much discussion has been given to the question of if or how exactly the film is offensive to Muslims. From a cinematic perspective, however, it seems clear from where the issues originate: screenwriter Jason Hall’s decision to appropriate one of Hollywood’s most controversial and troubled genres: the Western.

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Problems with genre: A Middle Eastern “Western”

Before talking more directly about how Muslims are portrayed in American Sniper, it’s important to understand how the film fits into a larger pattern of “wild west” appropriation that’s colored much of the U.S.’s post-WWII history. In his book, The Western and U.S. History, film historian Stanley Corkin says that the Western has been a means by which Americans can contextualize their conflicts and history within a mythic framework. In particular, we can see this in the post-9/11 media discourse surrounding the Bush White House and America’s role in the global “War on Terror.” Many mainstream media outlets like The EconomistThe Los Angeles Times, The Boston Globe  and The New York Times appropriated this trope at times, all referring to the chaotic, violent and lawless desert territories as a new kind of “wild west.” Common themes within the genre, specifically it’s Manichean good vs. evil framework, were liberally deployed as a means of “selling” the wars in the Middle East:

Academic Karen Dodwell describes President Bush’s public relations strategy as a portrayal of himself as John Wayne reincarnated:

Like a sheriff of the Old West who clearly delineates the difference between good and evil, Bush as a straight-shooting cowboy declared the aims of the U.S. were good and those of Iraq under Saddam Hussein were evil.

In American Sniper, it appears that we see the most recent iteration of this nationalist fairy tale. However, many critics and academics have defended Eastwood’s film, proffering that Sniper is actually some kind of bold “revisionist” Western, which silently critiques the character it appears to endorse. Leading the pack in this camp is academic Alex Trimble Young, who claims that:

American Sniper offers up its familiar western narrative not as a triumphalist myth but as a disturbing object for contemplation and critique.

Given Eastwood’s long track record of crafting thoughtful dramas, this would seem a compelling argument. Yet if Sniper is another one of Clint’s ruminations on the psychological effects of physical violence, it differs from the auteur’s better films in its two-dimensional depiction of the “enemy.” Its sloppy and stereotype-ridden portrayal of Muslims is the source of the film’s xenophobia, and the reason the film has caused such controversy.

Bad Guys v. Good Guys

In American Sniper there are no “good” Muslims. In the film’s 2 1/2 hour course, we never see an Iraqi who isn’t on a mission to murder Americans. Women, children, and friendly street vendors all jump on the jihad bandwagon. By vetting Iraqis of socio-political context, the filmmakers reduce them, by definition, to caricatures. There is no attempt to portray the vast sectarian and ethnic differences that people the territory, nor is any real attempt made to give voice to their culture, history, or motives. The film’s lead villain, “Mustafa,” might as well be Jafar from Aladdin for all the dimensionality he is allowed: a sneering, child-murdering, ex-Olympic acrobat Sheik with a power drill. He is nothing more than an amalgamation of old-fashioned orientalist stereotypes, mixed with a pinch of post-9/11 al-Qaeda villainism, and just a dash of action movie cliché.

American Sniper, via Creative Commons

American Sniper, via Creative Commons

Critics like Trimble Young would argue that we’re seeing the Iraqis from Kyle’s perspective, and that the film is consciously commenting on his bigotry. I think he’s wrong. I think that the film, through its total disinterest in humanizing the “enemy,” quite unintentionally drags itself into a quagmire of unfortunate cultural depictions.

This might not be such an issue had the filmmakers gone to some lengths to throw into question the character of the story’s “heroes,” but they don’t. No, the SEALs of Sniper are pretty much the finest Am-urican good ol’ boys you could find: fraternal, empathetic and jocular. Like a bunch of B-movie vaqueros, they’re all basically great guys whose only goal is to protect each other and their beloved country.

This dichotomy of American good guy versus Muslim bad guy has larger implications than simple racial stereotypes. When put within the broader context of the Western genre, the film’s portrayal of Muslims betrays a deeper and more longstanding trend of American chauvinism.

Savages on the “new” frontier

The appeal of the Western is its championing of mankind over nature. Important to this idea, is the notion of westward expansion: the process of imposing civilization on the chaos of the untamed frontier. In the frontier are the natives, who — as historian Richard Slotkin writes — were “the special demonic personification of the American wilderness” to the early U.S. settlers. Considered “savages” and “brutes,” their intractable violence and “animalism” was explained by a certain cultural logic, which prescribed that:

Savagery referred to a state of social development below civilization and, in some calculations, below an intermediate step, barbarism…[which would] vanish from the face of the earth as civilization, in accordance with the universal law of progress, displaced savagery.

The war between cowboys and Indians — in many ways the U.S.’s first and most brutal war — has become a template by which Americans view themselves in conflict with races that seem backward, underdeveloped and “savage.” Before the “Westernization” of the Middle East, for instance, Vietnam and its indigents were mythicized along similar lines. Film critic J. Hoberman says that “in the national dream life, Indochina was an extension of the western frontier and Americans were once again settlers…on a mission of protection and progress.” Academic David Espey, writing on the subtext of media rhetoric surrounding America’s pacification process, observes:

American soldiers in Vietnam routinely called enemy territory “Indian Country.” In her study of the Vietnam War, Fire in the Lake, Frances Fitzgerald argues that the term “Indian Country” was more than just a joke or a figure of speech: “It put the Vietnam War into a definite mythological and historical perspective: the Americans were once again embarked upon a heroic. . . conquest of an inferior race.”

Sniper clearly echoes this cultural logic in its portrayal of Muslims: like the natives to the settlers, and the Vietnamese in the Indochinese wars, they are reduced to props in a kind of cosmic battle between the forces of civilization and the forces of nature — what Stanley Corkin calls our “constant dramatization of the relationships between a definable national identity and contiguous unsettled lands.” Transforming the trope of westward expansion into western expansion, American Sniper romanticizes the destabilization and occupation of Middle Eastern nations and transforms it into a noble endeavor — a process by which America attempts to bring law and order to an otherwise wild and untenable third world.

If the filmmakers set out to faithfully depict Chris Kyle’s manner of thinking, I suppose they have succeeded. By his own admission, he ascribes to this outlook, as he has:

…described killing as “fun”, something he “loved”; he was unwavering in his belief that everyone he shot was a “bad guy”. “I hate the damn savages,” he wrote. “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis.”

It is undeniable that this racist and jingoistic attitude has resonated with many of the film’s viewers. Just look at some of these Twitter reactions by conservative audiences (redactions mine):

The Muslim Student’s Association at the University of Maryland were right to protest American Sniper. The movie is xenophobic, nationalistic and has clearly incited hatred against Muslim Americans. While I don’t believe in censoring art of any kind, it is important to acknowledge the embedded program of American chauvinism in Eastwood’s film. Tweets like the one below perfectly echo the tenets of this chauvinism, of the need to crush an inferior race plagued by quote-unquote “oppressive barbaric regression”:

These comments clearly recapitulate the tenets of the traditional “Western” narrative, a genre that has shown little love for “barbarians.”

Lucas Ropek is a journalist based in Massachusetts. He worked for the Working Families Party in NYC on issues of income inequality and worker rights. His interests include U.S. foreign policy, pop-culture, and freedom fries.

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