This year’s Academy Award race for Best Picture is a classic Hollywood Left vs. Right contest, pitting a biopic about an American marksman against Selma, a film depicting Martin Luther King Jr.––an apostle of peace who was actually assassinated by an American sniper.
The pacifist organization CODEPINK took aim at American Sniper, protesting what’s being ballyhooed as the highest grossing U.S. war movie ever made, at a February 2 Directors Guild of America screening attended by director/producer Clint Eastwood and star/producer Bradley Cooper. Sniper, which has grossed more than $282 million in ticket sales, is an adaptation of Chris Kyle’s American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History about the “legendary” Navy SEAL who shot 160-plus Iraqis; CODEPINK denounced the film as militaristic propaganda.
“It’s important for people of conscience to be critical of the ways Hollywood perpetuates war and racism, quite frankly, through film. . . which influences and reflects society,” said Sophia Armen, L.A. campaigner for CODEPINK Women for Peace.
The antiwar group identified American Sniper as “ahistorical and a narrative really quite similar, actually, to the narrative we were all too familiar with during the Bush era. . . The invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan really terrorized, more than stopped terror. The film completely absolves the U.S. of its many crimes in Iraq and perpetuates the American war mongering narrative. . . that’s really rooted in anti-Arab racism, which is quite apparent in the film,” stated Armen, a U.S.-born twenty-three-year-old of Armenian ancestry who participated in the demonstration on the Sunset Strip in front of the headquarters of the DGA, the trade association that represents movie and television directors.
Armen and about a dozen demonstrators, including CODEPINK co-founder Jodie Evans, Iraq War veterans, and Iraqi Americans, quickly gathered after hearing about the screening through the Hollywood grapevine, she said. The activists held a pink banner and signs proclaiming, “Illegal and immoral war is not heroic” and “American Sniper fuels racism & war,” handed out information, and engaged theatergoers as they entered the Guild complex (which contains two theaters).
Armen said those attending the screening included “big people in the film industry”––some of whom heckled the protesters, which, she said, shows how much intolerance there is, even in Hollywood, for critics of American foreign policy.
“It’s important to note how even over a decade after the invasion of Iraq critics of the war are being bullied online, are being hounded by warmongers,” Armen said. “Clint Eastwood himself actually has been part of this,” attacking celebrities who criticize the war. However, she added, “we had really wonderful conversations and experiences with people going in and out of the movie and walking on the street.”
According to Armen, the demonstrators were “visually making Eastwood and Cooper aware that no matter where they go there will be opposition to this. . . We attempted to enter the [DGA] building but were escorted out by police.”
CODEPINK is renowned for infiltrating and disrupting high level governmental events, but members were unable to penetrate the DGA and interrupt the actual screening and Q&A session. Armen called the DGA complex “a highly secured area” ––apparently more controlled than the Senate, House, or National Defense University in Washington, D.C., where CODEPINK disruptor-in-chief Medea Benjamin repeatedly interrupted Pres. Obama during a May 2013 address.
And during a Jan. 29 Senate hearing with Henry Kissinger, CODEPINK activists held signs reading “Arrest Kissinger for War Crimes” and dangled handcuffs next to the Nixon-era Secretary of State’s head.
It’s routine for directors to participate in such screenings at the DGA, although the February 2 event came shortly before the February 6–17 period when Motion Picture Academy members vote for the Oscars. Sniper is competing in six categories including Best Actor and Best Picture. Many screening attendees were presumably eligible to cast their ballots for those coveted golden statuettes, and by making personal appearances at the DGA during this critical time it can be assumed that four-time Oscar winner Eastwood and four-time Oscar nominee Cooper’s star power was strategically deployed to woo Academy voters. A Warner Bros. spokesman declined to comment on the record for this story.
Armen went on to say: “That’s why it was so important for us to be there, to say that this is something the American public doesn’t want to celebrate and award. . . We really do hold responsible those perpetuating that narrative. . . We hope the Academy will not celebrate this film. . . It’s a question of priorities in the film industry” for “the Hollywood elite.”
In 2013, Zero Dark Thirty received five Academy Award nominations including Best Picture––but after a Hollywood Boulevard demonstration denouncing the film as pro-CIA and pro-torture, it won only a single sound editing Oscar.
“The subject Eastwood takes on. . . is not something we should glorify,” stressed Armen. “The subject, Chris Kyle, has been interviewed many times, stating that he thought killing Iraqis was ‘fun,’ that they were ‘savages’. . . It particularly glorifies someone who is a deadly sniper, but who also held a very apparent racism.”
The movie’s release coincides with ongoing national outrage over the police killings of unarmed people of color. [Editor's Note: And just today, the murder of three Muslims by an atheist in Chapel Hill, NC, last night is being described by the victims' families as an Islamophobic hate crime.)
That Sniper is pro-war may be debatable. The film depicts post-traumatic stress disorder and the adverse effects of combat on Kyle and his family, and at least two scenes are critical of the Iraq War: When Kyle runs into his brother Jeff, a Marine in Iraq, Jeff badmouths the war (though in a February 9 CNN special on Chris Kyle, Jeff Kyle and Scott McEwen, coauthor of Chris Kyle’s autobiography, disputed that this incident actually occurred), and a slain serviceman’s letter lambasting the war is read at his funeral.
Armen is unimpressed. “[Those examples have] come up several times as absolving the film of its warmongering narrative, by saying it’s somehow making antiwar statements––but I’d say, actually, the film rarely provides even a soldier’s counter-narrative of experiencing disillusionment with being in Iraq,” she says. “The film itself really positions Kyle as the hero and actually it’s Kyle, in both of those instances, who almost looks down upon that criticism.” In the case of the slain serviceman’s letter criticizing the war, Armen notes that Kyle seems to blame the soldier for causing his own death by “giving up.”
“Even the moments where we see some kind of brief questioning by some other characters, Kyle himself almost criminalizes that and states it as weakness,” she argues.
A CODEPINK press release also alleged that “the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee has reported a drastic increase in hate speech and anti-Arab/anti-Muslim threats since the film’s release.” Armen cited an ensuing increase in social media bigotry and threats as proof of this trend, adding, “revisionist history of the invasion [is] highly based on Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism.”
A January 24 statement issued by the studio asserted: “Warner Bros. denounces any violent, anti-Muslim rhetoric, including that which has been attributed to viewers of American Sniper. Hate and bigotry have no place in the important dialogue that this picture has generated about the veteran experience.”
Armen found the movie’s lack of context and dubious historical accuracy to be especially troubling. Shortly after the World Trade Center is attacked, Kyle, who is already a SEAL, is shown fighting in Iraq, prompting Armen to proclaim, “The film makes a very dangerous connection, which we know is not only inaccurate but part of the lie the American public was told, that there was a connection between 9/11 and Iraq.” Armen calls the film “a disservice to American memory… There could have been moments where all of this was referenced and that alluded to American crimes in Iraq,” for which the U.S. is still reaping the mayhem it sowed.
By airbrushing historical context, the film’s central conceit can be propagated: That since childhood, Kyle was a “protector” who brought his marksmanship skills to protecting U.S. troops in Iraq. By perpetuating the lie that Saddam Hussein was somehow connected to 9/11, the film burnishes Kyle’s status as “the Legend.” But there was no link between the Iraqi regime and the 9/11 attacks, and Baghdad had no weapons of mass destruction, as even George W. Bush ultimately admitted.
By not raising these all-important points Sniper avoids asking serious questions––because if they were asked, the protagonist might be perceived differently. Was Kyle a foreign invader who participated in an unprovoked attack on a much smaller country enfeebled by years of sanctions? If Kyle is regarded as part of an imperialist invasion, what of the defense that he was a “patriot” “just doing his job”?
The answers to these uncomfortable questions might also explain why almost every hour of the day a U.S. veteran commits suicide. If the mission is immoral and illegal, and those who ordered these debacles are never held accountable, how does this affect those who carry out these errant imperial errands abroad?
Strangely, the trial of the troubled veteran who shot Chris Kyle at a Texas rifle range in 2013 is unfolding during the lead-up to the February 22 Academy Awards ceremony, serving as a poignant reminder of what violence begets.
Ed Rampell, The Progressive’s Man in Hollywood, co-authored “The Hawaii Movie and Television Book.”