I was raised on Eastwood. The westerns, almost exclusively. A picture of my childhood will forever be me and my old man in the living room—he, kicked back in his recliner and me, on my belly on the carpet—watching Clint take out the trash. You don’t shake that kind of thing. It gets into your bones.
By the time I was better able to grasp the concepts behind what was happening on the screen, I was ready for something more. Something that would expand upon human nature, not whittle it down to black and white, to the wicked and the righteous. Then one afternoon a buddy and I locked ourselves in his brother’s bedroom and sat down to watch a movie called Dirty Harry. It’s not an understatement to say I walked out of that room fundamentally altered.
As I matured and my taste for cinema broadened, Eastwood himself was transitioning from simple Hollywood movie star to lauded award-winning auteur. But by the time I’d begun to study film as an art form, I realized I was less of a fan of Eastwood’s storytelling than I was of the camerawork of his go-to cinematographer Tom Stern. That man has a dazzling eye.
So I really had no reason to be sipping an IPA at a theater bar a couple nights back while waiting for a 9:30 showing of American Sniper. At least, not one I was aware of. It takes something special to get me to a theater these days, and the last Eastwood film I’d even bothered to watch was Million Dollar Baby. I only knew that I needed to see it for myself. I’d heard, I’d read, I’d concluded it was all probably true. But I wouldn’t know until I saw.
I won’t go into detail. I’m not a film critic and that’s not what this is about. But as for my take on the movie itself I’ll say this: everything I’d heard, everything I’d read, everything I’d concluded was probably dead on about the film…was absolutely dead on.
American Sniper is atrocious.
It’s an unabashed, sanctimonious, and overtly patronizing glorification of war. It tells us that we’re the good guys—because, you know, ‘Merica—and that they’re the bad guys—because, you know, terrorism—and that whatever victory requires is justified.
In a very real sense America Sniper is an old school western, or at least as simplistic as one. At its core, it’s a revenge flick buoyed by a love story. All actions are stimulated by emotion, all outcomes are seen a mile out. There’s nothing within its runtime that comes even close to resembling a surprise—not even who lives and dies—and if you decide to go searching for politics, you’d better pack a ham sandwich and a flashlight.
But I knew all that going in. That’s not what’d brought me to the theater. In truth, until the movie was closing I still wasn’t sure what I was doing there. But then, as the credits started to roll, it struck me. Quite literally, in fact. Because what struck me was the impulse to leave. I wanted to stand up, walk to my car, and leave the whole experience in my rearview. But I couldn’t—because no one else was.
I’ve been to movies before where clips play with the credits. It’s usually an epilogue-type thing, where the audience catches a glimpse of what happened to the characters once the official story ended. People stay and watch because it adds something to the narrative. This wasn’t that.
This was stock footage of a funeral procession. Soldiers, salutes, crying civilians and flags (for the love of your particular god, the flags…). It was clear these “bonus” clips added nothing to the film, and it was just as clear that everyone in attendance was, like me, hesitant to be the first to stand and leave after being gifted with such a grand opportunity to exercise one’s national pride.
We were trapped.
I realized then why I was there. I was there because I wanted to see the effect. If all the smart people I follow were right and American Sniper was every bit the piece of propaganda they purported it to be, then I wanted to see the effect it had on people. I wanted to see if it worked.
I got my answer—maybe—when the clips stopped playing. When the screen was just scrolling words to soft trumpets, the audience, as one, finally began to rise. And as they moved toward the exit they were doing something I’ve never, ever witnessed in all my trips to the theater…
They were whispering.
I sat there, stupefied, for a minute solid. That’s how long it took for the spell to wear off. Gradually, as the theater slowly emptied, the chatter rose. But for a minute solid it was nothing but whispers.
So I had my answer. Did the propaganda work? Seemed pretty clear from my view. Maybe.
Because I heard something as I was leaving. A snippet of conversation from a couple of guys somewhere behind me. It wasn’t much, but it was enough to set me to wondering on the drive home. It was enough to make me curious about the discussions taking place in other cars, leaving other theaters, in other towns.
One guy said to the other: “I felt stupid whispering. Why were we whispering?”