October 25, 2016
By Chase Murray, Sunny Chen and Jay Shadday
The most lethal sniper in American history through the eyes of American Muslims…
Figure 1: Bradley Cooper seen as Chris Kyle
Who: Directed by Clint Eastwood
What: American Sniper
Where: American Universities
Why: Depiction of Muslims
American Sniper is an American biographical war drama, depicting the life of war veteran Chris Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper (Figure 1). The 2014 film, directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Jason Hall, follows the life of the late Chris Kyle and gives an in depth look at all four of his tours of duty during the Iraq war. The film starts with a young Chris hunting with his father and shows him shooting and killing a deer. Congratulating him, his father recognizes him as an incredible shot. Kyle’s growing love of his country and tremendous rifle skills encouraged him to join the US Navy. Despite the recruiter insisting that becoming a SEAL is not for most men, Kyle shows his perseverance by claiming that he “is not like most men.” This claim becomes evident while watching the film. Throughout the war, Kyle’s innate ability to shoot a gun from great distances with pinpoint accuracy makes him an invaluable asset to the US Army. Figure 2 depicts a scene from the movie, where Kyle makes his first kill as a part of the SEALs. He kills a woman and a boy after they attack US Marines with a rocket-powered grenade. While visibly distraught from taking his first lives, Kyle continues to amass kills during his tours, both from long-range distances using sniper rifles, and from short-range distances during hand to hand combat.
Eastwood portrays Kyle in the movie as a hero, as the military’s special asset, eventually becoming so vital that the Iraqi people place a bounty on his head. By making it his mission to protect America through his prowess on the battlefield, Kyle earns the nickname “Legend.” However, being the Legend takes its toll. He is affected by the war and returns from each tour a bit more paranoid and traumatized, yet he never seems to admit it. Although, there are several scenes in which Kyle makes a kill and is visibly distraught his actions.
In addition to being extremely graphic, with footage of combat that some may find hard to watch, the film portrays the harsh realities of this recent war. The movie ends by depicting Kyle’s assistance to a fellow American veteran who wanted to learn how to shoot. However, in an ironic, bitter twist, this veteran turns the gun toward Kyle, killing him. For a former soldier who survived countless battles abroad, he could not survive this final, unexpected event at home.
When American Sniper was released in January 2014, it was one of the most anticipated movies of the year. The movie set box office records in the first weekend and received rave reviews from critics. John Nolte called it a film that “can tell the truth about America and the terrorist and the War on Terror and the incredible men that fought and died for us, in a way that is both emotionally complex, patriotic, heartbreaking, and rousing.” Quickly considered a classic American war movie, American Sniper has been lauded as “as clear-eyed and alert as its subject” (Robbie Collin).
Despite this positive buzz, the film was called out regarding some controversial scenes, one of which included his first kill (Robbie Collin). Some moviegoers were agitated, as Eastwood’s interpretation of the war could possibly be viewed as degrading and stereotyping Muslims as “terrorists” or “targets” when Kyle lines up a shot. Rand Richards Cooper adds that one can easily “pick out a number of scenes in Sniper that challenge received notions of patriotism and a soldier’s duty” (Cooper). Cooper argues further that the movie “puts war critiques forward, only to blow them away with fusillades of patriotic invective.” Despite this controversy, “Eastwood has described American Sniper as apolitical, insisting in one interview that ‘there’s no political aspect there other than the fact that a lot of things happen in war zones’” (Cooper).
In the spring of 2015, the University of Maryland planned to show the film publicly in the college’s film room. This plan was soon challenged by the university’s Muslim Student Association. The group protested the playing of the film, submitting that the demeaning and offensive depictions of Muslims should not be featured on campus. It was argued further that the film fuels “anti-Arab and anti-Islamic sentiments” and “helps to proliferate the marginalization of multiple groups and communities” (Anonymous). More specifically,
“American Sniper only perpetuates the spread of Islamophobia and is offensive to many Muslims around the world for good reason. This movie dehumanizes Muslim individuals, promotes the idea of senseless mass murder and portrays negative and inaccurate stereotypes. Hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians suffered greatly in the Iraq war; innocent people were deposed from their homes, traumatized by war, and lost their spouse, parents and children. This movie serves to do nothing but make a mockery out of such immense pain” (Anonymous).
After the case went to the school board and the group pleaded its case, the movie was postponed indefinitely. This censorship was met with some outrage, particularly from another student organization, the College Republicans. The president of this group, Breyer Hillegas, made a statement saying that American Sniper “isn’t a racist film,” and the purpose of the movie was to celebrate “a decorated American war hero who risked his life for you and me and all the viewers.”
This incident at the University of Maryland was not an isolated occurrence. More movements similar Maryland’s began to gain traction at universities across the country, including smaller schools such as Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, George Mason University, University of Missouri at Columbia, and the University of Mississippi. The Muslim Student Association at Michigan University also had the movie postponed indefinitely. It was argued that the Center for Campus Involvement “temporarily canceled a screening of American Sniper after more than 200 students signed a letter saying that the movie perpetuates ‘negative and misleading stereotypes’ and creates an unsafe environment for Middle Eastern, North African and Muslim students.” Nonetheless the outrage that followed from students, alumni, and even the head football coach, Jim Harbaugh, placed pressure on the school to reverse its decision. It was decided that the film would play, “with administrators saying ‘it was a mistake’ to cancel the showing” (Deer).
In an interview with Mubeen, an alumnus of the Muslim Student Association at Georgia Institute of Technology, he provided insightful information on how the Muslim community may view the movie, and why he feels like it should be censored from colleges and universities. Mubeen believes that American Sniper “portrays Muslims in a negative manner” and that “most Muslim characters in this movie are seen as terrorists attempting to attack and kill American soldiers.” Indeed, the only times that Muslim actors are on screen in the film are in scenes where American troops are fighting them. Mubeen also voiced his opinion on the movie’s “flimsy plot” and contends that Eastwood could have avoided “putting Muslims in a bad light.” He emphasizes the film’s potential to perpetuate Islamophobic sentiments, to place American Muslims into comparison with those in the film. This comparison can result in hostile attitudes toward American Muslims. Mubeen admits that the film’s creators had to depict “Chris Kyle as a hero,” that he “surely saved lives of his fellow soldiers and is rightly considered a hero” yet portraying this heroism comes “at the expense of Muslim lives.” With this outcome, he asserts that the film “lacks much substance” and that it was a “cookie cutter movie for filling the nationalistic void in people’s souls.” Mubeen’s perspective is echoed in Cooper’s description of the film as “herky-jerky storytelling, with an entire story arc…crammed into five minutes at the end.” Going further, Cooper admonishes that the film does not allow for criticism of American Patriotism. Any criticism “melts away into the American pageantry of the funeral-flags, flowers, football-and the prospect of grieving Navy Seals pounding gleaming gold trident pins into the wooden casket in a ritual of brotherhood” (Cooper).
Censoring the movie American Sniper on college campuses has had many effects, both positive and negative, on the culture of American Muslims and Americans in general. Although the censorship only extended to a few college campuses, the effect was felt nationwide, by many demographics ranging from college students to the elderly moviegoer. When the movie was formally censored at the University of Michigan, it made headlines all over the nation. As Cooper put it, “moviegoers are up in arms about a film of arms.” Mubeen covers much of the reason of this censorship in the interview, stating that it “falsely portrays a … particularly offensive … scene.” He asserts further his viewpoint that “Americans have every right to show and watch this film” and that this privilege in America “is a blessing.” However, he thinks that schools should be able to censor certain things “based on current world events and the contents of the film.”
Despite some people claiming that the movie was a senseless showing of Islamophobia and American nationalism, others see it as only a means of entertainment and as an integral part of the “‘Golden Age’ of television drama, a ‘Golden Age of Nonfiction,’ and, more recently, a ‘new ‘Golden Age’’ of war fiction” (Deer). There has been much debate between these two sides on whether or not to censor the film and the consequences of doing so or not doing so. On one hand, the film was the highest grossing film of 2014 and has received multiple Academy Award nominations and achievements, so there is no doubt that it is popular among both movie critics and the general public. On the other hand, some may find the film offensive, including some critics, who “decried it as dangerous propaganda” (Anonymous).
American Sniper. Dir. Clint Eastwood. Perf. Bradley Cooper, Sienna Miller, and Kyle Gallner. Warner Bros Pictures, 2014. Film.
Anonymous. “Censorship Dateline: Colleges and Universities.” NIF Newsletter on Intellectual Freedom 64.4 (2015): 98-125. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.
Collin, Robbie. “American Sniper: ‘Clint Hits the Target'” The Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group, 19 Feb. 2015. Web. 21 Oct. 2016.
Cooper, Rand Richards. “Mawkish & Hawkish.” Commonweal 124.5 (2015): 24-25. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.
Deer, Patric. “Mapping Contemporary American War Culture.” College Literature. Johns Hopkins University Press, Winter, 2016. Web. 18 Oct. 2016.
Habeen. “American Sniper Interview.” Message to the author. 17 Oct. 2016. E-mail.
Nolte, John. “‘American Sniper’ Review: A Patriotic Pro-War on Terror Masterpiece.” Review. Breitbart.com 16 Jan. 2015
“Univ. of Maryland Postpones ‘American Sniper’ Screening …” N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2016.
Keywords and Search Terms
American Sniper, Film Censorship, Islam, Muslims in Film, College Censorship, Islamophobia, Nationalism, Nonfiction, Hollywood