Tuesday, January 27, 2015

American Sniper and Selma

Thanks to my brother-in-law and the miracle of cloud-based storage, I've been able to watch all the Oscar Best Picture nominees this year - a first since they expanded the field. I imagine the actual showdown between artsy-indie films (Birdman and Boyhood) will be less than exciting for the public at large. The two movies people seem to care most about are Selma, a telling of the events surrounding the Civil Rights march on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Alabama, 1965; and American Sniper, the dramatization of a memoir by Chris Kyle, Iraq-veteran and accomplished Navy sniper.

I don't know exactly what to say about American Sniper. It's a good film. There's a humanity involved, despite the horror and death, mental and physical trauma, there is a guy searching for meaning and ultimately finding it. We can debate all over whether he's looking or finding in the right places, but the story is honest and it rings true.

The story in the film, that is. The real story is, as always, much more complicated. Chris Kyle was unabashedly black and white, seeing the world only in terms of good and evil. Clint Eastwood, as blunt and unrelenting as he can often be, really captured the essence of Kyle without necessarily buying into Kyle's narrative. There is plenty of room in the movie to see and judge violence and war in many different ways. I think they did as good a job as they could with the movie while still doing justice to the man at the center of it.

I am not a fan of violence. So it would make sense to be drawn more to Selma, a story on the other end of violence. Black marchers, peacefully assembled, were beaten bloody and without mercy by local police and state troopers, while trying to march from Selma to Montgomery in pursuit of voting rights. I find it interesting to ponder how the Chris Kyle of 1965 would have defined good and evil in that scenario. But that is ultimately beside the point.

Upon first viewing of these films (about twelve hours apart from one another) it seemed easy to parallel the two themes. The war movie, in some sense, justifying (if not glorifying) the "honor" of war becomes a surprise smash hit, breaking all sorts of box office records, while the little, largely African-American production about protest and non-violence goes by largely ignored. It could be seen as a symbol of the way our culture views this issues - non-violence is just a tough sell.

I wanted to write that kind of post. In the end, though, I think these movies are far more similar than we give them credit for - and I'm not sure that's a good thing.

Both Selma and American Sniper put us in the mind of strong, heroic people, summoning great courage to face difficult, near-impossible situations. The stories are not about violence and non-violence, they're about inner strength. Each film is about doing what you think is right, even if it is unpopular and causes great suffering for you and your loved ones. The main drama in Kyle's story is the same as in Martin Luther King's - was the pain inflicted upon their families justified by their higher callings.

I suspect most American would say yes on both counts. King was doing things the right way - conflicts within a society must be handled peacefully; whereas international conflicts, like the one faced by Kyle, require a brute force. We've so often been taught how to recognize justifiable and unjustifiable violence, with just these scenarios as examples, it's easy to fall into line.

Neither movie really challenges the status quo. As a radically peace-loving Christian, I have a hard time glomming on to either film. I don't think war is ever the right answer. War has never, in the history of humanity, brought peace - yet we keep trying. At the same time, it's not exactly Chris Kyle's fault he's involved. Beyond the societal pressure to patriotism, only a heartless soul would expect soldiers to prioritize anything but survival in the midst of a war zone. I say that in reference to Kyle and to those he was sent there to kill.

At the same time, Selma's one extended explanation of non-violence was the opposite of a defense. The argument was, essentially, we're outgunned - fighting back will only make things worse for our people in the long run. The implication being that if there were a chance to succeed violently, then it might be worth it, but this particular battle is not going to be won that way.

In other words, if we're fighting an entrenched insurgency with the greatest military might in the history of the world, then of course we'd fight. Instead we're the rebels and we won't win that way. If you're Chris Kyle, fight; if you're Martin Luther King, you can only resist and pray.

We live in a society that believes this. It is truly the American way. It's not really our fault. Power and might is the way of empire. The man with the biggest gun makes the rules.

The power in Selma, comes from the eyes of the nation seeing innocent, peaceful marchers beaten for wanting to vote. Violence only holds sway so long as it can be justified to the masses. This is the purpose of American Sniper - at least in some measure. We're forced to ask the question: where is the line? How do we responsibly use violence, force, and might in the world. It's a difficult question. But it's easier to make peace with our answer (that war is a tragic necessity) when we have a movie like Selma to justify it. By recognizing the reality of an exception to the rule of violence, we're much more comfortable with the rule itself.

Justified violence is always a means to power. No one ever condones violence for violence' sake. We believe in violence only when it seems the best option to provide some perceived good. Freedom, security, control, peace-of-mind. It is easy, in the same way, to see non-violence as a means to power. Certainly the Civil Rights movement gained great freedom, security, control, and peace of mind without resorting to violence. Our temptation is to leave it there.

One of Dr. King's great legacies - something often lost in the historical priority of Civil Rights - was his absolutely insistence on non-violence as an end in itself. He vigorously opposed the Vietnam War, long before it became the popular sentiment. He did so because war causes suffering - for hero and villain alike (however we may paint them).

Our culture remains one obsessed with power - namely the power of self-determination. That is our idol and thus our culture's artistic expressions keep this front and center. Selma and American Sniper are good films. I liked both of them. I think they're well made and have important things to contribute to our collective conversation. They are, though, entirely within the realm of comfort for an American viewing audience. They're telling us things we want to hear, even if they do it in profound and difficult ways.

They are not different, though, only serving to support our underlying cultural structure. We must first understand the ends we pursue before we can really grapple with the means by which we arrive there. I'm not sure these films pull back the curtain far enough for us to find what we're truly looking for.

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