One of the easiest ways to tell a reader that something is bad, not good, or maybe just not worth seeing is to say that it’s inauthentic, dishonest, or misleading, or that it otherwise mangles reality—better yet, the historical record. This is something critics do all the time, because it’s simple and effective and unchallenging, and like a lot of seemingly simple things, it represents a really complex maneuvering of values. Crying fraud (or some variation thereof) means drawing a line between the type of bogusness you’re willing to tolerate—such as the innate bogusness of movies and narratives—and the type of bogusness you won’t. This kind of line can’t be defended for very long without falling into essentialism, and it therefore tends to be drawn on a case-by-case, movie-by-movie basis; more often than not, it’s a way to express a gut-level dislike for something in terms most everyone can relate to, because no one likes being lied to, except when they do.
Confused yet? The problem with using history as a metric—besides the fact that it requires cherry-picking which falsehoods you’re cool with—is that it involves approaching movies based on how well they stick to a set of rules, rather than what they’re doing. All of this is complicated by the fact that taking apart how movies do or don’t follow rules—formal, realistic, etc.—is one of the best ways to figure out just exactly what it is that they are doing. Which is a long way of saying that while these kinds of historical-biographical-realistic metrics can be genuinely useful critical tools, they aren’t the same thing as criticism.
This gets exponentially more complicated when you start talking about movies—especially American movies—in terms of politics, because relationships to and interpretations of history are important identifying marks in American political life. Maybe it’s because America had a government before it had much of a history or culture it could credibly claim as its own. There is nothing unique about using history to comment on the politics of the present, but there is something special about the relationship between American partisan politics and the practice of writing and re-writing history. Having a personal politics in America means having a personal history of the United States. Accusations of historical bogusness are more often than not a way to frame accusations of political or ideological bogusness.
From my thoroughly non-scientific perspective as a critic and a person who watches an awful lot of movies, I’d say that America has produced more films about the foundational myths of its political culture—about the Civil War, slavery, the lawless West, immigrants coming through Ellis Island—than any other national cinema. American cultural commentary operates under special rules wherein questions of historicity are considered a valid form of politically minded criticism. Basically, when Americans talk about politics in movies, they tend to go extra-textual, because: 1) most overtly political American films are also period pieces; 2) disagreement about what is and isn’t a historical truth is a cornerstone of American political discourse; and 3) it’s easy, because politically minded people tend to enter a film having made up their minds about the events it depicts, since having a position on American history is part of what it means to be politically minded in America. Whew.
American Sniper is bogus as biography and somewhat muddled as geopolitics, but it is not a bad movie. As far as its director, Clint Eastwood, is concerned, it is an anti-war film, because it dramatizes the psychological toll that war takes on soldiers—because it shows its protagonist, Chris Kyle, struggling to adjust to the rhythms of civilian life and returning back for three more tours in Iraq, and because it ends with him being murdered off-screen by a fellow veteran struggling from post-traumatic stress. It is also a tight, tensely staged modern-day war movie of the type that people tend to project their jingoism and xenophobia on to. In short, it’s too much of one thing to be the other. Like a lot of fiction, it’s full of dead ends, holes, and doubts.
Except it’s not fiction—or maybe it is, and that’s the problem. Kyle, you see, was a real person. Sort of. He was from Odessa, Texas, a land-locked town named, somewhat perversely, for a Russian-speaking port city in Ukraine. He was a Navy SEAL and served four tours in the Iraq War. He is said to have been the deadliest sniper in American military history. He was murdered in 2013 at a resort shooting range outside of Glen Rose, Texas. He lied a lot about his life, and these lies tended to be politically loaded.
American Sniper stars Bradley Cooper, who is barely recognizable, and the character he plays bears only a passing resemblance to Kyle. He is shy, borderline-apolitical, and uncomfortable with his own legend. American Sniper does not depict Kyle writing a best-selling memoir or hawking it on talk shows, styling himself as a right-wing culture wars hero, telling tall tales about shooting Hurricane Katrina looters or about beating Jesse Ventura in a fight at a funeral. There is maybe a kind of irony in the fact that, by ignoring Kyle’s lies, American Sniper has found itself accused of lying. (“Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is one of the most mendacious movies of 2014” goes one typical headline.)
True, the movie is bogus and made-up and inauthentic, but it’s only misleading if one presumes that the sole purpose of American Sniper is to lead the viewer to Kyle. In other words, one has to presume that Kyle’s life story is meant to be the endpoint, rather than a vehicle for telling a story about something else. But—and this is one of those cases where historicity becomes a useful critical gauge for what a movie is actually doing—the degree to which screenwriter Jason Hall fiddles with the facts of Kyle’s life makes it pretty obvious that an accurate depiction of the putative historical-journalistic record is not what American Sniper is trying for. What it’s trying for, in ways that are at times corny and at times subtle, is yet another variation on a story Eastwood seems to really enjoy telling, which is a story about a man—typically a conservative man, often scarred by some kind of fighting—who does some bad things in order to make a better world, of the kind where men like him would be rendered obsolete. These men are sometimes monsters—like J. Edgar’s J. Edgar Hoover, also a real-life figure—and they are approached with a mixture of ambivalence and sympathy. I tend to think of them as Eastwood’s Last Men.
American Sniper is not trying to be apolitical—heck, even its depoliticization of Kyle is in and of itself political, because it plays into a larger narrative about the core values of American society. The movie’s internal imagery—rodeos, pick-up trucks, deer hunting—is handpicked for Americana. Even Kyle’s post-traumatic breakdowns are linked to that very specific, truck-commercial-ready middle-American identity. He freaks out at a backyard barbecue; clams up in the waiting room of a suburban auto body shop; expresses discomfort through the way he wears his baseball cap, frayed brim pushed down over his eyes. As far as American Sniper is concerned, Kyle is the default, factory-setting mode of American life. The big word here is American; one thing the movie isn’t very good at—or doesn’t really try—is presenting Kyle as exceptional. Which, of course, is the opposite of how the quote-unquote real Kyle presented himself.
Many of this year’s Best Picture nominees—of which American Sniper is one—have been publicly accused of historical-biographical bogusness, because that’s the easiest way we know how to describe or challenge the politics or ideologies of movies like Selma or The Imitation Game. The accusations against American Sniper have been the most widely circulated, in part because American Sniper is far and away the most widely seen of this year’s Best Picture nominees. It has made a record-setting amount of money. It is also problematic in ways that are sometimes compelling. And it is a film about a man who killed a lot of Iraqi men, women, and, yes, children, and all of these people appear as threats, because those are the terms on which soldiers typically interact with the people they shoot. There is an element of psychological rot to the movie’s depiction of Kyle, but maybe not enough. I’ve heard it said by colleagues that American Sniper is the kind of movie that was going to get made anyway, and it’s best that it got made by someone as ambivalent about the business of war as Eastwood.
Movies tend to construct their own political meaning, even when they’re not trying to. There aren’t really any apolitical films—not narrative ones anyway. There are only movies that are too politically incoherent to make heads or tails of. At this point, you may be asking where all of this is going—whether there is some kind of cogent, thesis-type point or moral to all of this stuff about movies and politics and history. There isn’t—at least not in those terms—because, when we talk about movies in political terms, what we’re talking about, for the most part, are incoherent or semi-coherent texts. This leaves the viewer with a few options, the most difficult of which is accepting that movies can be self-contradicting and inconsistent and ideologically hard to pin down, and that politics in movies—especially Hollywood movies, made for a broad audience—is not a true-false sort of binary, but a complicated series of maybes and howevers.