"So-called ‘sand movies,’ the term Hollywood sometimes uses for films set in Afghanistan and Iraq, have a terrible box office track record,” noted the New York Times. Or rather, they had a terrible box office track record. The release of American Sniper, a biopic about Iraq war veteran and legendary Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, has changed all that.
The film, which opened wide January 16, shattered the record for the largest opening weekend of a film released in January, a month traditionally considered a graveyard for ticket sales. The film pulled in $105 million its first weekend against its $60 million budget—and the film that previously held the record for largest January weekend is Avatar, the highest-grossing picture in history. Already, American Sniper has the markings of a cultural phenomenon. In exit polls conducted by CinemaScore, movie-goers rated the film A+. Phil Contrino, chief analyst at BoxOffice.com, has attributed the film’s success to a massive outpouring of favorable attention on social media.
Naturally, the commercial and artistic success of American Sniper—it received six Oscar nominations—has liberal Hollywood deeply conflicted, and pockets of the left outraged. This success can be largely traced to Clint Eastwood’s surefooted direction, as well as Bradley Cooper’s understated and Oscar-worthy performance. But it’s been 13 years since 9/11, and the war on terror has been at the forefront of American culture and politics every day since then. Politics probably explains why it has taken Hollywood this long to make a truly great and popular movie about this war.
In content and tone, American Sniper is distinctly different from the sand movies that preceded it in that it unambiguously celebrates the heroism of the soldiers fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. In this, American Sniper is in rarefied company. Last year’s Lone Survivor—based on a book by Kyle’s good friend and fellow SEAL Marcus Luttrell—and the little-seen 2009 HBO film Taking Chance are about the only other notable exceptions to Hollywood’s seeming obsession with delegitimizing the war on terror and those fighting it.
The list of films that stand in stark thematic contrast to American Sniper is long. Just to name a few: MTV Films made Stop-Loss, with Ryan Phillippe, Channing Tatum, and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, in which a group of young soldiers nearly run off to Mexico rather than go back to Iraq. It was little more than a sexed-up infomercial warning young men off military service. In the Valley of Elah, starring Tommy Lee Jones, was a tepid murder mystery masquerading as a morbid meditation on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Washed-up auteur Brian De Palma made Redacted, a graphic film about American soldiers who rape an Iraqi girl and murder her family. Matt Damon starred in Green Zone, a heavy-handed thriller about a government conspiracy to hide WMDs in Iraq. (Green Zone was loosely based on the work of Washington Post reporter Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who was widely rebuked for misrepresenting his need to be evacuated by helicopter from his military embed in Afghanistan. The real reason he wanted out: to attend the film’s celebrity-studded premiere.) John Cusack was a twofer. First he starred in Grace Is Gone, a film that egregiously wallows in the grief of a man who can’t bring himself to tell his kids his wife was killed serving in Iraq. Then he made War, Inc., a painfully unfunny satire about corporate profiteers amid a war in the fictional country of Turaqistan.
It should not be surprising that such politicized films had little appeal for the American public. Even some of the better films in the genre, the Academy Award-winning The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty (both directed by Kathryn Bigelow), were deeply ambivalent about America’s post-9/11 defense. And these films were only mild improvements in that their protagonists, fighting in these wars, were respected for their commitment and professionalism. The Hurt Locker was largely ignored in theaters. And it’s telling that the Oscar campaign for Zero Dark Thirty was stymied by organized opposition to the film’s acknowledgment that enhanced interrogation techniques yielded intelligence that helped locate Osama bin Laden. The movie acknowledged this solely as a historical fact, without endorsing, much less glorifying, alleged torture. But this mild concession to reality was too much for Hollywood.