By Brett Yates
A popular Fox News meme is the notion that the American entertainment industry (to which Fox News itself, as a serious journalistic enterprise, of course does not belong) is outrageously, disgustingly liberal in its politics. This may reflect a certain truth—a truth about artists, not about the CEOs of the multimedia conglomerates that determine the bulk of the content on our TVs and in our cinemas (which is to say: an irrelevant, misleading truth)—but primarily it’s a tactic that emphasizes the faraway “otherness” of glamorous stars like George Clooney and Lady Gaga, who happen to be liberal, in order to affirm that our nation’s red states constitute the “real America.” This flatters the Fox News viewership—a demographic so debased as to take pride in its authentic ordinariness (the condescending, debilitating complement to its oppressors)—and functions as a tool of recruitment for the Republicans, who frame the Democratic Party as the party for famous people precisely because the vast majority of voters are not famous.
For Fox News, I have two words: “American Sniper.” Here is a war movie, directed by the old guy who so memorably berated an invisible Barack Obama at the 2012 Republican national convention, that not only broke box office records but gathered six award nominations from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, that supposedly liberal body—four more Oscar nods than “Selma,” the drama about Martin Luther King’s march for civil rights in Alabama, received.
“American Sniper” is an extremely conservative movie. Declining to provide any historical context for the military maneuvers that it dramatizes, the movie relies on its audience to regard the killing of Iraqis by an American soldier as an inherently heroic act. The film’s ostensible goals—to create a character study of a talented man who committed his life to an emotionally traumatizing profession and, additionally, to depict the immediate reality of the modern battlefield—are “apolitical” in the most political sense. The character, the sniper Chris Kyle, has provoked divergent opinions from left- and right-leaning media sources. The story’s studious refusal to acknowledge (whether directly or merely by tone) both the political impetus for America’s war in Iraq and its political consequences is what allows the film to function as pure hagiography. Strictly limiting the film to the strategically fictionalized experience of its protagonist allows viewers to bask without disruption in the character’s simplified, Bush-era worldview, in which Arabs are “evil” and “savage,” U.S. military interventions serve only to protect our freedoms back home, and an American war in the Middle East is actually winnable in the traditional sense.
Politics aside, “American Sniper” is (in my opinion) not a good movie. Perfunctorily directed by a taciturn 84-year-old who doesn’t have the time or patience for any namby-pamby stylistic flourishes, it treats every moment that is not a battle scene with a kind of dull contempt, as evidenced by the film’s infamous “fake baby”—an obvious doll that stands in for the Kyles’ infant son. The female lead occupies a one-note role, never transcending her function as a symbol of the wholesome domesticity to which soldiers like Kyle bravely struggle, both on the battlefield and within their wounded souls, to return.
“Selma,” by contrast, features lively and alert direction; every scene is vivid and detailed. It’s not only emotionally stirring (for a liberal, at least) but probably the most visually beautiful period piece of the year—without any stuffy “period piece” atmosphere. So why, in “liberal Hollywood,” did it receive fewer Academy Award nominations than “American Sniper”?
My own feeling is that the liberalism of the Academy is overstated. Looking back on the last five Best Pictures—the winners of that supreme category whose purpose is as much to declare Hollywood’s moral values to the world as to celebrate excellent cinema—I find that only one of them was truly a liberal endeavor: “12 Years a Slave,” which sought to contradict, brutally, the Southern myth that slavery was a gentle, benevolent institution. This was preceded by “Argo,” which patriotically diminished Canada’s role in the CIA’s clever heist and portrayed Iranians (whose grievances against the U.S. were briefly but not fully articulated by the film’s prologue, and otherwise not dramatized at all) collectively as an angry, irrational, fearsome mob. “The Artist” was fluffy and non-political, and in a sense so was “The King’s Speech,” apart from its sympathy toward British monarchs and its refusal to acknowledge their essential uselessness (which struck me as conservative). “The Hurt Locker” was better than “American Sniper,” but in dramatizing its theory of warfare as a dangerous psychological addiction, it presented battle (again, in an “apolitical” context—in which all the important characters just happened to be Americans) as the ultimate extreme sport: an adrenaline rush to which nothing in civilian life could compare.
Further back, AMPAS voters have rewarded conservative classics such as “Gone with the Wind” (which proclaimed the moral superiority of the Confederacy), “The Best Years of Our Lives” (in which a straw man received a crowd-pleasing punch in the face for voicing anti-war sentiments), and “On the Waterfront” (which, in addition to its portrait of union corruption, functioned as an apologia for director Elia Kazan’s complicity in the HUAC’s Communist witch-hunts)—right alongside progressive junk like “In the Heat of the Night” and “Gentleman’s Agreement,” which railed against racism and anti-Semitism.
My suspicion is that Academy members mostly vote Democrat but harbor powerful conservative instincts (hence their success within the American film industry, whose aesthetic conservatism is nowhere more present than in liberal “message movies”). They likely are also pretty bad at deciphering a movie’s politics unless it’s really obvious—I bet they get it wrong half the time. What’s important is what tugs at the heartstrings: not only injustice, but also tradition and country and the plight of the individual, regardless of the system (just or unjust) in which he (or she) participates.