Just a few weeks after The Interview opened in limited theatrical release with seemingly none of the violent consequences Sony feared, another major motion picture has sparked a political debate throughout Hollywood. Once again, Seth Rogen is involved. This time, Michael Moore is in on the action, too.
Rogen sparked the debate by posting a tweet that compared American Sniper to the Nazi propaganda film that’s shown towards the end of Quentin Tarantino’s film Inglourious Basterds. That fictional film-within-a-film, called Stolz der Nation (Nation’s Pride), depicts the story of a German sniper who kills more than 200 soldiers. In that sense, Rogen’s comparison is not an incorrect parallel. American Sniper is a movie about real-life U.S. Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle’s confirmed 160 kills.
Many news outlets, however, inferred a deeper meaning behind Rogen’s observation. In his Fox News segment covering the story, Todd Starnes refers to Rogen as someone who “made his mark on with movies about sexually-frustrated potheads” while claiming “Chris Kyle killed bad guys so that good guys could live.” Multiple news outlets accused Rogen of equating American Sniper with Nazi propaganda. People like Newt Gingrich reprimanded him:
Rogen backtracked on his initial sentiment with a series of tweets further explaining his point of view:
Michael Moore was also lumped in with Rogen in the great American Sniper debate for a curiously related tweet he sent out around the same time which referred to snipers as “cowards.” Like Rogen, Moore quickly distanced himself from the tweets and blamed media outlets like Deadline and the Hollywood Reporter for sensationalizing the story (both have since amended their stories to more accurately fit Moore’s opinion). In a Facebook post, Moore even offers praise for the film, referencing an “awesome performance from Bradley Cooper” but criticizing Eastwood’s decision to call Iraqis “savages” throughout the film.
So both Rogen and Moore offered criticism of the film, received backlash from the public and the media, then amended their first thoughts by offering praise for the movie. The story likely only became such a sensation because of Eastwood’s conservativism, Moore’s leftist politics and Rogen’s recent involvement in an international cyber-terrorism plot, but it also demonstrates the public interest in what the film means for American politics. As they did with The Interview, many have made American Sniper more than a film. It’s a centerpiece for political discussion. For some, it's a depiction of heroic patriotism. For others, it's an important depiction of the difficulties soldiers face returning home for war. Others simply take issue with the fact that it glorifies anyone that killed so many people in a country that maybe shouldn't have been invaded in the first place. At last the discussion is being had.
I haven't seen The Interview or American Sniper, but the controversies surrounding both films represent a growing trend in Americans politicizing Hollywood films. These discussions about what films mean and how they reflect upon our society are incredibly important. Any film that depicts the modern realities of the American military, the difficulties returning home, and issues with war and PTSD is an important one for audiences in the United States and abroad to see and discuss. Just because you don't agree with Chris Kyle's actions, the political leadership that sent him there or Eastwood's representation of his story doesn't mean that the film is any less credible. It's not propaganda, but it is a point-of-view about events still well within recent memory. Making a film so soon after the events on which it was based actually occurred is always dangerous, especially considering the story has to be dramatized in order to fit into the accepted cinematic narrative structure. Zero Dark Thirty questioned the morality of torturing suspected terrorists, but it also presented a fictionalized version of real events of international importance that took place just a couple years before. Whether we want them to be or not, these films are available to audiences around the world and they are incredibly revealing about the American psyche and how it relates to international issues. It’s not that American Sniper is propaganda, but it could certainly look like that to many people.
Regardless of the political connotations, American Sniper is a huge hit. According to Variety, the film made $90.2 million in its first weekend in wide-release, and its expected to shatter January box office records. Compared to the other eight movies nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards, it’s already earned the most. The Grand Budapest Hotel is in second with a paltry $59.1 million. In contrast to both of those films, The Interview is reportedly expected to lose $30 million.
These ridiculously high numbers are yet another reminder that films are, first and foremost, entertainment. They exist to make money for movie studios. But fictionalized versions of real stories also offer a recorded, easily-referenced account of how the events occurred. This can often materialize in a one-sided, propagandized point-of-view. But that doesn't mean viewing the film has to be a patriotic act. There's nothing brave about watching The Interview or American Sniper, and neither will have any real impact — positive or negative — on American society. The discussions that these films are generating, however, at least help us come closer to realizing how we feel about important issues and how our American values are reflected upon the rest of the world.