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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Friday, May 08, 2015

Leiter Reports, American Sniper, and critique

Disclaimer: I have not seen American Sniper, so I can't make an informed judgment about it. To that extent, what is said below is tentative and provisional.

But much can be said even while bracketing off any final interpretation, or judgment, of the movie itself. This discussion over at Leiter Reports a few weeks ago greatly interested me. The background was that American Sniper was originally to be shown at a University of Michigan social event. This screening was cancelled after protests, although it was apparently still intended to screen the movie separately, accompanied by a discussion of some kind. Ultimately, the initial plan was reinstated.

The University of Michigan debacle raises interesting issues, including issues about freedom of speech, including, in turn, whether the decision whether or not to cancel the screening actually did involve freedom of speech worries at all. In turn, this raises problems about how we are to conceive of "freedom of speech" or "free speech" in current social circumstances. If the course of events at the university did not raise a free speech issue, exactly, was there nonetheless a serious issue of some other kind? Perhaps even if this wasn't about free speech, in some straightforward and classical sense of that concept, there were nonetheless important values favouring going ahead and showing the movie as originally planned. But if so, might some serious countervailing values also have been at stake?

I don't intend to get too deeply into these questions, although I may return to them at some future stage, whether or not I manage to watch American Sniper in the interim.

Meanwhile, a couple of tentative points:

First, the thread on Brian Leiter's blog is actually worth reading, unlike much else in the blogosphere. In particular, a couple of the people disputing manage to reach a certain level of agreement, or at least mutual understanding, right at the end their discussion. The general quality of the interaction helped my faith in philosophers, since everyone managed to stay reasonably civil and thoughtful; and even some of the people with whom I tend (without having seen the movie) to disagree made challenging, well-formulated points.

Second, though, it's disappointing that even among philosophers - who are supposed to be trained to look at issues relatively dispassionately and objectively, to search out the strongest arguments against their own initial positions, to be open to changing their minds if confronted by strong arguments and evidence, etc - there can be a degree of political tribalism skewing debates. In this case, some contributors seem to take it as obvious that American Sniper must be some sort of crude, warmongering movie, and that its attitudes to Muslims and people from the Middle East must verge on those in works of race hate propaganda.

But why make such assumptions, given everything we know about Clint Eastwood's history and his cinematic oeuvre as a director? Why not, more plausibly, expect a movie that would take a broadly anti-war perspective (and particularly a perspective critical of far-flung US military adventures) while simultaneously displaying sympathy for the motivations and the plight of soldiers caught up in the reality of war? Why not expect a movie with impressive layers of moral, psychological, and artistic complexity? Why not expect to be confronted by considerable ambiguity, and to be sent home from the experience teased into thought?

American Sniper might, of course, be a complex cinematic masterpiece while still portraying Muslims, for example, in stereotyped and unfortunate ways. That is not a contradiction. If it's so, it could be demonstrated and explained in a reasonably charitable, critically sophisticated "reading". Although that's very possible, it can't be assumed from the start. And it certainly can't be assumed that Eastwood is a simple-minded political enemy from whom we should expect a work of outright militarist propaganda. He is an expert and brilliant director who does, in fact, have somewhat complicated political views as well as the talent to create powerful, morally ambiguous cinema.

Once again, I suppose I need to see American Sniper for myself, much as war movies are not usually my thing. Perhaps it really is as crass as its detractors claim... but everything I know about Eastwood suggests it's unlikely.

Finally, we are talking about a hugely popular mainstream feature movie: it didn't do all that well outside the United States (not as well as the big superhero movies of its year, for example), but in the US domestic market it was monstrously successful. It was the number one movie at the US box office among those released in 2014 and also among those released in the past 365 days. Perhaps it succeeded commercially on a wave of simplistic patriotism, but most likely not. In any event, American Sniper was very widely watched in the US over the last few months, and the idea that showing it on the University of Michigan campus was endangering anybody is rather absurd.

We are certainly not talking here about a Nazi propaganda film such as Triumph of the Will, and that sort of comparison, where it has been made in public debate, actually does no credit to people who make it. If it has weaknesses or points that are open to critique, it's fair to identify and discuss them, but as part of an informed and imaginatively adequate interpretation.

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