Jamie Weinman’s piece on socially conscious criticism got me thinking about the flaws of the approach: it has a preference for bluntness over subtlety. I’m reminded on one relatively recent example: the years-old debate about whether American Sniper was too jingoistic; perhaps a modern version of John Wayne’s pro-Vietnam War The Green Berets.
I think American Sniper is a film that is nuanced and ambiguous enough that it can be seen in different ways. If you view Chris Kyle as an unambiguous hero, the film will certainly support that view. If you view him as an intense bro unable to deal with serious issues in a controversial and flawed war, the film will support that view. Since it focused on his military career and family, some of his more controversial activities (including a propensity for outright lying) weren’t relevant. It seems that some of the people who dislike the film wish for it to depict events that didn’t happen in real life (IE- Chris Kyle considering someone else’s serious and articulate criticisms of the Iraq war.)
This is a bit different from The Green Berets. I haven’t seen it, but from my understanding it’s much less amibguous than this one. The critical reception for Sniper is better, and it did get some big Oscar nominations, although in retrospect a name actor changing his physicality and affecting an accent is likely to get nominated. The criticisms about Sniper are about omissions than presentation. Eastwood is also a different director, making his second film to come out in 2014, than Wayne, who made the second film of his directing career.
There is certainly a place for art that is blunt and unambiguous about the political message. But it’s a mistake to assume that art that isn’t clearly on one side is dangerously on the other side. The real world is messy, and rarely offers obvious political answers. There’s nothing wrong with art that reflects that.