As “American Sniper” continues to spawn think pieces, internecine celebrity squabbles and diatribes from hand-wringing lefties and chest-thumping righties, it’s interesting to remember the naysaying about the film’s prospects that swirled just last month.
The film’s director, Clint Eastwood, and its stars Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller were on hand for a swanky lunch for Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences members at the Four Seasons in Manhattan, yet a sense prevailed that people were jollying the filmmaker and cast along.
While attendees generally agreed, among themselves, that the movie was well done, and even enjoyable for those rarely keen on dudes-in-war flicks, the feeling was that with its Christmas Day release, “Sniper” was arriving too late in an already crowded race. Few Oscar forecasters thought the film, which tells the story of Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who shot his way to 160 confirmed kills in Iraq, had a chance for best picture. At the time, Mr. Cooper did not show up on any of the lists 27 experts drew up for the awards site Gold Derby.
Then came the film’s performance at the box office — topping $250 million worldwide and going strong — followed by the Oscar nominations: It picked up six, including two in the most important categories, best picture and actor.
A few more surprises lay in store, in the form of a firestorm started a few days later by three Twitter posts from two famous people.
On Jan. 18, the liberal documentarian Michael Moore posted on Twitter twice about the film, first to say that snipers were once considered cowards and that one had killed his uncle and then to say that defending one’s home from foreign invaders was heroic. And the actor Seth Rogen, fresh off “The Interview” fracas, said in a tweet that “Sniper” reminded him of a movie-within-a movie scene in “Inglourious Basterds” in which an outnumbered German World War II marksman picked off his enemies.
Twitter waited a few seconds before going kaboom.
Fueled by a Breitbart News headline claiming that Mr. Rogen had likened “American Sniper” to Nazi propaganda, conservatives started a pile-on that proved impossible for Mr. Rogen to explain his way out of. (Mr. Moore would later note that in his first two Twitter posts, he never mentioned the film; he then said on Facebook that while he opposed the war, he fully supported the troops.) Kid Rock wrote on this website that he hoped Mr. Moore and Mr. Rogen would “catch a fist to the face,” while voicing support for Mr. Kyle, who was shot dead in Texas by a fellow veteran he was trying to help in 2013. Blake Shelton said on Twitter that he was sickened “to see celebrities or anybody slam the very people who protect their right” to, roughly paraphrasing, free speech. Sarah Palin, long a fan of Mr. Kyle, took to Facebook to lash out at “Hollywood leftists” for “spitting on the graves of freedom fighters who allow you to do what you do.”
Meanwhile, the left started its own pile-on. Bill Maher said the film was about a “psychopathic patriot.” Chris Hedges, a columnist for TruthDig and a former reporter for The New York Times, argued in an essay with an incendiary title that Mr. Kyle “was able to cling to childish myth rather than examine the darkness of his own soul and his contribution to the war crimes we carried out in Iraq.” In a TV interview, Noam Chomsky noted that Mr. Kyle wrote in his memoir that he was fighting “savage despicable evil.” Mr. Chomsky added that “we’re all tarred with the same brush” for largely keeping silent about official policy and the country’s global drone assassination campaign.
Mark Harris of Grantland published a post-nominations essay weighing the film’s Oscar chances and later tweeted that the piece “yielded the ugliest invective I’ve ever had aimed at me.” A 500-word blog post by yours truly (who, for what it’s worth, liked the film, and worked in Iraq) recapping the film’s box-office bonanza and ensuing controversy drew nearly 300 comments alternately praising and denouncing the movie — many from people who had yet to see to it or refused to on principle. Reader emails to the Bagger included one that said, “You would want this great American’s help if you were in the hands of the Islamic State.”
All of which raises the issue of whether, in a bitterly divided country, these near hysterical reactions are remotely surprising.
Academics who’ve studied the country’s cultural wars say no. The film touches on two of the most controversial issues dividing the land — the war on terror and gun rights.
“Ever since Bush and Cheney took the country into the war in Iraq, the Republican Party has been predominantly a war party, and most of the lawmakers who have any doubts about wars are Democrats, and the same goes for voters,” said David Bromwich, a literature professor at Yale who’s written about film. “The popular understanding of it is not very complex.”
Andrew Hartman, an associate history professor at Illinois State University and author of the forthcoming “A War for the Soul of America,” said the “Sniper” controversy was a product of the continuing debate about what being an American means. In the 1980s and ’90s, that debate took the form of cultural battles about, among other things, depictions of sex and religion (like “The Last Temptation of Christ”). Post-Sept. 11, he said, that identity is being defined sharply by America’s relationship with the Middle East.
Mr. Bromwich said that historically American studio movies that went big on wars rarely took into account the enemy’s side. “They’re protective of the national self-love and the sense that even if we make mistakes, it hurts us most,” he said.
Which helps explain why, Mr. Hartman said, so many people hold heated opinions about the film — and its critics — even if they haven’t seen it. “That always happens,” he said. “It’s not important what the movie is or does. It just represents something.”
For the right, the film represents American heroism, sacrifice and might. For the left, it’s a symbol of seemingly futile American bellicosity abroad and, said Adam Winkler, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of “Gunfight,” about the fight over gun control, “how crazy our gun culture has become.”
“It calls into question the very idea of the Second Amendment,” he said. “Are guns useful for self-defense? Here was one of the most skilled shooters in American history holding guns, surrounded by guns, and was unable to protect himself.”
“I think everything associated with Chris Kyle’s life is fueling this controversy,” Mr. Winkler continued. “The choices he made as sniper for the American military are part of a broader cultural argument about the war on terror. Have we spent too much money and time, and for what good gain, and how many civilians have we killed in pursuit of terror?”
Over the weekend, Mr. Eastwood weighed in at a Producers Guild luncheon, saying, according to Variety, that “the biggest antiwar statement is what it does to the families left behind.”
Yet the firestorm burns on. On Saturday the actor Jeffrey Wright criticized the film, saying on Twitter, “Do we need to fire US xenophobia?” On Monday, the actor and veterans’ rights advocate Gary Sinise chastised Howard Dean via Twitter for saying people who see the film “are very angry.” And the owner of a Michigan steakhouse announced on a billboard that Mr. Moore and Mr. Rogen were barred from entry. On it goes.
Those uncertain about where they stand might check out the satirical site ClickHole, which published the titles of 20 mock think pieces about the film, including one that arguably has rare bipartisan appeal: “The Intended Message of American Sniper Was That Baseball Caps Can Be Worn Anywhere, Even War.”