There are a lot of places I could have gone in talking about American Sniper. And a lot of those seem like they require some degree of political confession because of the way this film has so thoroughly become part of some sort of culture war dichotomy. The question is, can somebody criticize the film without any sort of bias about the way it presents itself politically (and Eastwood’s handling of the backstory does situate the film as political, though the later parts of the film complicate, though never refute, this setup). But then again, this makes for really uninteresting film criticism in the same way that only reading the film as pro or anti any sort of politics is tiring and deficient. Instead, I want to look at what I thought about while I was watching the film: there needs to be more Veteran voices in Hollywood.
My main area of interest in film is race, particularly film history and it’s relationship to Native American culture and identity. There’s a long history there of representation and misrepresentation and the easiest remedy to problems of misrepresentation is to have Native Americans tell their own stories. But I also have experience with Veterans. In High School and College I volunteered at a local Veteran’s hospital for several years, both in the psych department and later in the media and PR departments. I have family and close friends who have served. And watching American Sniper, a few times I had the uncomfortable feeling I often have watching films about Native Americans. Some time that feeling could be translated to a kind of sacrilege; that I’m viewing something taken too far out of context. Or other times it feels like, “I’m not sure if they’d tell it this way.”
Similar to the Western and it’s depiction of Native Americans, the War film has been a longstanding staple of Hollywood. But these films are, almost without exception, written by and directed by people who have not served in the military. One of the deficiencies of the Hollywood Indian is that it’s done out of laziness and in shorthand; Native Americans become props, plot devices, and representations of other fictional characters rather than references to real histories or culture. And I would not be surprised if the war film does the same thing. If servicemen and women are too often used as types, often based on characters from older war films, and used more as devices rather than complex human beings. The results could also be similarly dangerous. Federal Native American policy has been directly influenced by popular cultural understandings of Native Americans. Likewise, Veterans issues could also be directly tied to how we view them in cinema. The reason that representation is so crucial for Native Americans is that we make up 1% of the population. Many Americans may not know a Native American who complicates the stereotypes they encounter. Similarly, .5% of Americans have served in the military. Americans may vote on issues that effect veterans without knowing one directly. As a note, there is also overlap in these two groups: Native Americans serve in the armed forces by a higher percentage than any other group.
As just a fan of movies, my interest in diversity isn’t so much from some egalitarian notion of fairness but more from the feeling that I’ve already seen so many stories told one way, about a group of people by people who do not belong to that group. Diverse voices will have new takes on old stories, tell new stories that I’ve never seen before and that others from different cultures and backgrounds perhaps couldn’t imagine. The same is true with veterans. American Sniper‘s homefront scenes felt important. But I couldn’t help but wondering if this is like a Dances With Wolves moment; a sympathetic, well-meaning film by an outsider that just scratches the surface of realities and more interesting stories. Another interest of mine is film and mental illness. As someone with an anxiety disorder, I am also often worried by how films gloss over or misconstrue mental illness, or how my realities are not matched by film’s attempts to depict those realities. Likewise, while American Sniper is notable for dealing with Kyle’s PTSD, am I seeing, hearing, and experiencing a faithful or well-intentioned depiction of PTSD or a screenwriter’s understanding of PTSD from other movies and TV shows?
We are all limited by our spheres of experience. I’m sure that most of the time stereotypes show up not because of some ill-intentioned producer or screenwriter, but out of limited experience or imagination, and voids in experience and imagination will be filled in by defaults. So, while American Sniper may have been based on the memoirs of an Iraq veteran, it was still filtered through 3 screenwriters. And while Eastwood has, in the past, done a good job with films about veterans (Flags of Our Fathers is a stand-out film in that regard), it would seem that somebody who has military experience would have vastly different insights and perspectives than someone who hasn’t. That difference of experience is perhaps even more acute than it is in cultural instances, because it is based on direct experience rather than history or cultural transmission (storytelling is also crucial therapy. I would cross-reference here to Freud’s “Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through”).
There are some resources out there. I was happy to see that there is a GI film Festival, and there is a VA Arts Festival. But I wonder what more could be done to help veterans make their own films? While it may have important things to say about the Veteran experience, American Sniper has been taken up as ideological prop. In my experience, the greatest challenge to any ideology, to any easy stereotyping, is experience. Films from real veterans would provide that experience in a way that would challenge ideological attempts to co-opt their experiences and perhaps helps us identify some truths that will help us care with our Veterans now and make better decisions about the use of our armed forces in the future.