American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s film about the most lethal sniper in US military history has been stirring up controversy. People are fighting in the blogosphere about whether it’s a patriotic masterpiece of tension, or a tale of a misguided, vengeance-fueled man whose courage prevents us from questioning what he did with it.
But I think the controversy is missing the point. There’s a far deeper question we should be asking.
“It’s only a film, lads,” said my friend Keith to a group of our buddies, feverishly debating the merits of Quentin Tarantino’s debut film Reservoir Dogs, twenty years and more ago now. Their reaction to his suggestion seemed to prove that, to them, what they had just seen was rather more than just a movie. A whole cultural generation appeared to be created by the arrival of Tarantino’s films; just as Casablanca in 1942 had given voice to romantic yearning to both escape from war’s horror and believe we could do something about it; just as Star Wars 35 years later had both funded and restricted the imagination of children of all ages.
Films are never just films. No creative work is just the text itself. Think about your favorite movie, and you’re liable to remember the feelings that the movie inspired as much as the film itself.Rain Man gave me compassion for fraught family relationships and people living with radical differences; Field of Dreams encouraged me to pursue the inner voice even when surrounding circumstances seemed impossible; Magnolia reminded me that we are all in the same boat, and that to heal ourselves, we need both help from good external maps, and to nurture the navigator within. These are very personal choices, and I could list a hundred others (and if this online conversation continues long enough, I will); but the films that touch my heart also happen to be the ones in which great craft is brought to bear. The photography in Andrei Rublev (the Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky’s astonishing tale of the 15th century ikon writer, and my choice for the greatest film ever made), the use of sound in the Three Colors Trilogy(Polish masterpieces about coincidence and love), the use of words in 2014’s The Immigrant make them works of art. It’s their hearts that makes them great ones.
Which brings us back to American Sniper. Authentic, life-affirming spirituality does not deny the existence of violence, though it does surely work to transcend the negative effects of violence, and to reduce the amount of violence in the world. It does this by helping human beings, one by one, and in community, to face our own shadows: our fears and wounds, the way we project evil onto ‘enemies’, the temptation to the quick gratification of smacking down our opponents without considering the long-term health of people and the planet. Authentic, life-affirming spirituality invites us to tell the truth about violence – which means sometimes facing painful realities, but also means getting things in proportion. It is being widely argued that we currently live in the least violent time in human history, and that the empowerment of women, the expansion of democracy, the reimagination of empathy, and the revolutions in human rights are continuing as part of our spiritual evolution. Today’s real and painful headlines do not refute the trendlines: the world is becoming safer because courageous people are resisting oppression, and transcending it with a new way of being. My concern about American Sniper is that it celebrates violence as a way of achieving greatness.
Authentic, life-affirming spirituality takes the perspective that the purpose of art is to help us live better. In that light, the meaning of American Sniper is a debatable proposition. For it is important – vital, even – to tell stories of the effects of war on warriors; so the way this film touches on PTSD for veterans is welcome. But it is just as vital to tell the truth about the wars in the first place. An authentic work of art – one whose purpose is to help us live better – would not champion killing. It would tell the truth about the horror of what happens when human beings make selfishness and revenge their political tactic; it would reveal the cycle of violence that can only be ended when one or both parties refuse to participate in it anymore; it would be willing to look at its own mistakes, and work to understand them, so that it might be less likely for such things to happen again. American Sniper, despite its brilliant performances, extraordinary editing, and apparently good faith intent, emerges from a consciousness that isn’t yet ready to do those things. See Selma instead.