A week after the Academy announcements and American Sniper has made nearly $200m domestic. The snubbed Selma has made only $35m in a similar period of release albeit with significantly less theaters in wide release. There’s no question that the awards buzz around Sniper coupled with an excellent trailer/marketing campaign put a lot of butts in the seat. However, Selma has a close to 100% Fresh rating, and it was still nominated for Best Picture. Why haven’t more people gone to see Selma, and why is Sniper, also a non-fiction prestige piece, so much more succesful? Perhaps it has something to do with the way Hollywood and thus American culture looks at revisionist history.
There’s a scene in American Sniper that shows Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) and his wife (Sienna Miller) watching the tragedy of September 11th, 2001 unfold on television. Almost immediately thereafter we fast-forward in narrative to the Iraq War. In his controversial piece on American war films as fairy tales & folk lore, Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi noted that this narrative seemed to suggest the two were related. Of course, any student of recent history or those of us paying attention know that they are not related at all.
We invaded Iraq under false pretenses. Whatever your opinion of Chris Kyle, he was not fighting for our freedoms the way some would like to suggest. He was merely a pawn in a modern day game of thrones, one delicately orchestrated by Cheney and his private contractor agenda. While Bin Laden escaped to Pakistan after 9/11, unscathed for nearly a decade until his death, nearly 5,000 American troops died in a distraction war. Anyone who supports the troops and sought revenge for 9/11 should be deeply disturbed by that.
Instead, Sniper skips over all the controversies of the Iraq War and instead focuses on Kyle and his record number of “savages” killed. Savages of course being the token word used by Kyle in his book telling the tale of his record number of kills. Most disturbingly, that when one sniper began to approach his number, he magically found a way to outdo him, racking up several more. Did fate really seem to give him that opportunity, or was Kyle so engrossed in this psychopathic competition that he chose to kill innocents too? Nobody denies that his job was hard, I won’t agree with Michael Moore that snipers are cowards. I will agree with the criticism that this film seems to glorify and portray sympathetically a person who by all DSM V definitions is a psychopath. Nobody enjoys killing, even where it is part of their job; anyone who would kill with a smile on their face is a psychopath.
So the criticism lamented at Sniper is that it takes a simplistic look at the Iraq War to the point of moral hazard and historical revision. Furthermore it makes a hero out of a very controversial figure. Yet, America has reacted with jingoist fervor, calling it one of the best films of the year. Taibbi and others have been criticized as anti-American, pussies, liberal America haters and many other insults for daring to criticize the dangerous revisionist look at the topic front and center of the film. It is almost as if we are back in 2003 debating what the world and many here at home have come to call a wrongful war in violation of international law.
Meanwhile, nobody seems to talk about Selma and how it actually tries to correct revisionist history. We are taught here in America growing up that Lyndon B. Johnson was an ally of the civil rights movement with the passage of the 1965 Civil Rights Act. What we don’t learn is that the decision to pass this bill was not an overnight consideration. What makes Selma so good is that it undoes this sympathetic look at LBJ and others by showcasing how hard it really was to convince white men in power that Black lives mattered. It had to come to daily showcases of violence to the point where White America became outraged to get DC to act. This isn’t an anti-LBJ film as some smear campaigns want to suggest, it is an honest look at a man who struggled to come to terms with what he knew was right but in the face of political realities could not come to act on soon enough. Furthermore, Selma shows how DC was also monitoring King and his movement through the FBI. These orders came from Hoover, Johnson and others from the Dixiecrat South.
No, it’s not nice to imagine that our president was unsympathetic of racial issues until political inconvenience made him act. However it is the truth. 1965 was a time of racial upheaval in America, where it was more normal to hold racial prejudices than to not hold them. In 2015, the smear campaigns have tried to paint Selma as historical revision from a Black point of view, and I believe that has kept people out of theaters.
Whereas American Sniper makes it’s revisionist look at recent history the center-point of it’s successful campaign, Selma accused of the same historical revisions has kept people away. Of course any historical scholar will tell you that Selma is more historically accurate with its subject than Sniper is. That’s telling because on the one hand, Selma takes an unflattering view of history, correcting our nations revisionist telling of the LBJ-MLK story, American Sniper takes a fairy tale look at an unflattering point of our history by essentially revising it through a jingoist lens.
From an early age we are taught to pledge allegiance to America, to uphold the ideas and values of American exceptionalism. We constantly compare our nation favorably to the way things are done in other nations, and take a sympathetic and often revisionist view to our nation’s deeply dark and troubled history. No country is free from historical turmoil. Yet it seems that here in America we like to portray ourselves as holier art than thou. The rest of the world sees this and point to our numerous hypocrisies from our ideas about Democracy to citizens privacy, civil and human rights.
The way we choose to look at our nation through the lens of exceptionalism and ethnocentrism prevents us from being open to an honest look at our history. The indoctrination by our corporate media and educational system prevents us from getting an honest perspective on the truth. The truth is sometimes pretty ugly. And in the case of history as entertainment, it seems most people prefer the fairy tale version of it.