American heroes are box-office staples. Tales of truth, justice, the American Way run throughout our cinematic history–from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Rocky, Miracle, and many more. Two recent films–American Sniper and Selma–have offered up new (real-life) American heroes, and in so doing have called particular attention to our contemporary moment of war in the Middle East and domestic racial conflicts at home. Coming as they do right before Oscar season, these historically-based films have thrown a spotlight on the disagreements that often linger under the surface of public discourse.
Both American Sniper and Selma are serious, if flawed, films. In American Sniper, we follow Chris Kyle, “deadliest” sniper in U.S. history, as he experiences his call to the military, and is forced to confront both the ugliness and the magnetism of that calling. Selma, on the other hand, presents the story of a non-violent hero, one who carried out his work here at home and whose impact is more readily apparent, all while offering us a bold, unflinching view of the genuine difficulties involved in the fight for equality.
It’s worth dwelling a bit on the problems within these films, problems that in this case can be designated as lost potential rather than glaring issues. American Sniper makes vague attempts to draw a parallel between Kyle and the enemy combatants, to illuminate the humanity of both, particularly with an enemy sniper that seems to be equally as legendary within his own sphere. Unfortunately, those attempts seem watered-down and aimless, and come across more as a tired Western-film trope more than anything (this is a film directed by Clint Eastwood, after all). If you look hard enough, you can see a complex and morally ambiguous glimpse at the hard realities of war, something Eastwood has been known for in his more recent films.
Both of these films present opportunities to reexamine our motives, our preconceived notions, and to reevaluate exactly how we can best love our neighborAmerican Sniper’s Chris Kyle exhibits such an intense love and loyalty toward his country and desire to protect his own that he sometimes seems unable to countenance the problems disordered country-love can often lead to. The movie presents the protagonist with doubts and criticisms from the outside, but Kyle never lets them within, always explaining his actions and explaining away the naysayers. In the end, the film presents a man whose sacrificial love for his country affects him more than he’s able to admit to himself. Kyle’s love for others is deep, profound, and profoundly flawed.
While American Sniper allows for an uneasy questioning of its protagonist’s jingoism to linger beneath the surface while simultaneously crowding it out, Selma seems too wrapped up in portraying history’s warp and woof, content to offer up its characters as mere players in an inevitable and necessary battle. Appropriately, the battle’s two biggest players are also its most complex. Both Martin Luther King and President Lyndon B. Johnson are presented with genuine and often seemingly catastrophic flaws, an approach that makes their relationship in this film seem all the more relatable and demonstrative.
Unlike Chris Kyle, Martin Luther King is a de facto hero, nearly an American saint at this point. It’s no shock, then, that his portrayal on film would be relatively safe, and present a man who seemed to have the absolute best motives in his heart at every moment he is on screen. The MLK of Selma is empathetic, shrewd, thoughtful, and loving toward his family and his people. His worst moments don’t even really exist within the film; they are only played back in a small snippet of tape that conveys his adulterous relationship. He sits, heart-broken, with his wife in the living room as audio plays of him with another woman. He insists to his wife that it isn’t his voice. He’s not telling the truth, but he’s not wrong either. This is a different Martin Luther King altogether, one the film itself has little interest in putting on display.
Unfortunately, President Johnson’s particular saving graces aren’t realized until well into the film, and only in broad strokes that can easily be interpreted cynically in light of the rest of the film. Throughout he is presented as the frustrated, impatient, and domineering authority figure, determined to put a stop to King’s crusade for fear of what it will do to his own plans. Only in the last ten minutes does he seem to have a change of heart. As a result, many critics of Selma have disavowed the film, while others seem to have merely ignored the film altogether.
Compared to the more proactively heroic American Sniper, Selma languished in the box office, and many wrote the film off because of its supposed “unfair” treatment of President Johnson. While American Sniper riles up the right-wing patriots, many uncomfortable with war have raised the alarms and launched attacks on the nature of war and soldiers, emboldened by the distressing reality of Chris Kyle’s humanity. In the case of both American Sniper and Selma, swept up by the zeitgeist, these films were reduced merely to their flaws, known primarily for their missteps. Those who might most have benefited from the insightful questions these films offer up have refused to engage with them, instead choosing to attack the attempts wholesale. When it comes to the culture war, this Oscar season is open season, and the reaction to these two films might tell us far more about ourselves than we ever wanted to know.
It makes sense that these films, true stories about desperately flawed heroes rising up to protect and correct an even more flawed society, would struggle to win converts. We love to cry in movies, but we prefer tears of joy, or tears of relatable and heartfelt sympathy. We rarely want to find ourselves crying out of contrition if we don’t have to, particularly over popcorn in theaters on a Friday night. Yet both of these films present opportunities for precisely that, to reexamine our motives, our preconceived notions, and to reevaluate exactly how we can best love our neighbor (and conversely, to consider the ways we are inadvertently hating them).
American Sniper can give us a new understanding and appreciation for the American soldier, and a begrudging understanding of the necessity of war. Selma might remind us of the loss and despair present in the black community and the ways in which the status quo is often complicit in that loss (a status quo in which I situate myself directly). We might leave American Sniper sober-minded and clear eyed as to the realities of evil and the toll those evils take on us, even (especially!) as we determine ourselves to rid the world of them. We might leave Selma feeling repentance for inaction and a lack of empathy, and a determination to seek out both understanding and opportunities for action.
In order for art to do its work, we first have to receive it, open-handed. We must, despite our natural inclinations, open ourselves up to films and other media we may not naturally gravitate toward. God often works miracles through common graces, and one of those graces is the work of a director’s hands. Our goal is to actively place ourselves before those works that can more specifically speak to us in ways that will cause us to stretch and grow.
Doing so requires that we move past the many flaws inherent in the films at hand and the protagonists they present to us, and to instead see ourselves in them. It is by no means essential for anyone to see any particular movie, but it is a truly good thing to open oneself up to an experience that could grow us as Christians and human beings. It’s a sign of grace when God uses the things in this world to speak to us in ways we might not be willing to speak to ourselves.
The spotlight is a treacherous place to be. It has the potential to expose the flaws of films, heroic protagonists, and the academy. Staring that spotlight down can be blinding, overwhelming, leaving us with a desire to run and hide in the dark. If our aim is comfort and complacency, we’d do well to stay out of it.
But those who seek illumination must step into the light. Go ahead, take a look at yourself. You might see something you hadn’t noticed before.