Consuming “American Sniper”

“American Sniper” surpassed $200 million in box office sales on January 25th, making it one of the most successful war films in history. It also carefully avoids explaining why the United States invaded Iraq – the major plotline of the film. Accordingly, this whitewashed hallucination fits comfortably into the market for de-politicized patriotic-militarism in American consumer culture. It turns the horrific invasion of Iraq into a successful consumer product.

Chomsky and Herman’s study of the mass media brilliantly analyzes the controlled system where very few productions that challenge the established “propaganda model” make it through. One aspect of this system is the basic assumption that mass media serves as a vehicle for advertising. For example, a television show’s purpose to its network carrier is to draw the maximum amount of viewers, thereby increasing the selling price of advertising space during commercials. Productions are therefore encouraged to foster a “consumer friendly” environment by avoiding complicated and anti-corporate subject matter. Any production that challenges this status quo will inevitably receive less funding and exposure.

The filter

Flashbacks to the U.S. embassy bombings in 1998 and the attacks of 9/11 set the stage for Kyle’s military career in the film. Soon after these flashbacks, he and his fellow soldiers are at his wedding, cheering, “It’s on!” and toasting shots of alcohol upon notice of their being deployed. With no explanation of what year it is or what war we are going to fight in, it may come as a shock to viewers that Kyle was deployed in 2003, two years after 9/11; and to Iraq, a country that had nothing to do with the embassy or World Trade Center attacks.

There were two entities that had the power to make sure “American Sniper” told the story of the Iraq War, rather than a fictitious blend of 9/11 and the various American military conquests that followed. They are the Pentagon and Time Warner, the parent conglomerate of the film’s primary producer, Warner Bros.

The Pentagon offers discounts to film producers to use its military equipment in exchange for pre-approved scripts. This economic bargain creates a standard among war movies of not challenging the Pentagon’s political interests. Pentagon-approved scripts include “Air Force One,” “Rules of Engagement,” “Black Hawk Down,” and, of course, “Top Gun.” This filter prevents Kyle’s deployment from being explained by its context in the history of American military aggression. The film therefore chooses to exploit our emotional reaction to images of the collapsing World Trade Center into rallying us behind where we think Kyle is going – to bring the perpetrators of 9/11 to justice – instead of where he’s really going: Iraq.

The Pentagon filter also explains the whitewashing of Kyle’s character. His desire to “shoot people with Korans” doesn’t make the cut for the film. Instead, the scene that references this part of his book is played out with Bradley Cooper explaining to his commander that the man he shot wasn’t actually carrying a Qur’an, but an AK-47.

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The business interests of parent conglomerates also serve as a major filter for Hollywood scripts. General Electric brought in $4.3 billion in arms sales in 2010 and also happens to own Universal Studios – you know, “Jarhead,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” and “Lone Survivor.” The arms dealer certainly wouldn’t allow their subsidiary to make a major motion picture about the dangers of the proliferating private arms and securities industries. Such a product would not only disrupt the established consumer culture, but also heighten public consciousness about the role of private arms dealers in instigating global conflict.

“American Sniper,” however, is a Warner Bros film. What conflict in interest could the Time Warner conglomerate have in portraying a non-whitewashed Chris Kyle? CNN, one of Time Warner’s media subsidiaries, provides some clues. Along with its mass media colleagues, CNN relies heavily on government sources or funded think tanks for the majority of their “official” content, “facts,” and correspondents. The Pentagon alone sets aside roughly $4.7 billion for recruiting, advertising, public affairs, and psychological operations. Including excerpts from Kyle’s book where he found cheap thrills in the screams of Iraqi civilians would threaten Time Warner’s interest in maintaining a good relationship with government sources, who may be embarrassed by such twisted actions from their new poster-boy.

Consumer culture

Chris Kyle’s narrative of killing Iraqis, “I had to do it to protect the marines,” and identity as a deadly and proud soldier provided the perfect basis for a product of pornographic patriotism. The film contains a scene where Kyle is stationed on his rifle in Fallujah while simultaneously on the phone with his wife back home, who asks, “Do you want me to talk dirty to you?”

Patriotism is a powerful marketing tool. Its underlying message is already indoctrinated in the consumer with a pre-understood set of slogans (The Pledge of Allegiance, “freedom isn’t free”, etc.) and a universally identifiable symbol in the American flag. For producers, it’s only a matter of connecting this marketing tool to the new product. The film’s primary billboard shows Bradley Cooper standing in the background of a faded, waving American flag. Those same patriotic marketing tactics are used to sell Budweiser and Chevy trucks.

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The massive box-office success of “American Sniper,” however, cannot be explained by patriotism alone. It is a testament to how great of a consumer product specifically patriotic-militarism has become. The coexistence of patriotic-militarism and competitive advertising during a National Football League production shows there to be no conflict in interest in supporting the military, America, and participating in consumer culture.

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It is nearly impossible to watch an NFL game without consuming some form of patriotic advertisement for the armed forces. Immense amounts of patriotic symbolism support every on-field image of the armed forces – promoting a consensus that the two (patriotism and militarism) are inseparable. In the NFL’s own words: “Supporting the military is part of the fabric of the NFL.” The result is a public that is so desensitized by the product placement of the military in pop-culture that it may take a foreigner to point out that the military has nothing to do with football.

What makes the film “American Sniper” such a good consumer product? The Pentagon and Time Warner’s political and business interests ensured that the “consumer hostile” invasion of Iraq was falsely fed to viewers, leading them to believe that Iraq War was a necessity after 9/11. The tailored script thus fit in perfectly with the collection of Pentagon-approved war films that preceded it, making “American Sniper” a shiny new addition to the thriving market for patriotic-militarism. In the end, the Iraq War became a consumer product, sold to us to ensure our support for the next invasion.