Is Canada having an American Sniper moment?
Clint Eastwood's Oscar-nominated movie about a uniquely efficient Navy Seal picking off targets in the Iraq War is set to win the box office again this weekend. The film rests on an unusual tripod of accomplishments: It's been critically lauded from many corners; it is an unprecedented success for a war film, earning $215-million at the box office in North America with no sign of flagging; and it has generated more controversy than any film since Zero Dark Thirty. (That movie, much more ambivalent about American military engagement, did not make nearly as much money. Ambivalence is not usually a stepping stone to box office gold.)
American Sniper is now more than a film, it's become a stick to measure Americans' love of their country, and their commitment to protecting it. On hundreds of comment threads discussing the movie, "liberals" and "rednecks" snipe at each other and question the film's veracity (it is based on the life of America's most lethal military sniper, Chris Kyle, who before his death made false statements about other parts of his life.)
It's not often that a film manages to work both Noam Chomsky and Sarah Palin into a lather. He denounced it, in case there was any doubt, while she loved it. Let me just say, I would pay any amount of money to have Mr. Chomsky and Ms. Palin become the new Siskel and Ebert, battling with duelling thumbs on their own TV show.
Many of the criticisms centre on the film's refusal to engage in moral questioning: There is no examination of why America went to war in Iraq. Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) referred to Iraqis as "savages" and "evil" in the memoir on which the film is based, and if he wrestled with his choices it's not shown. When a therapist asks if he regrets the killing he's done, he says he regrets only that he couldn't have killed more enemies.
The Iraqi targets are just that – targets, not people, completely devoid of motivation or back story. But complaining about the film's lack of ambiguity misses the whole point – its very power rests in its satisfying, binary view of a world in black and white. Director Clint Eastwood is masterful in getting even bleeding liberal hearts racing with taut scenes of our hero trying to pick off the Iraqi butcher (helpfully called "The Butcher") who is about to drill a child's skull. It has a video game's immediacy, and its subtlety. In the words of the teenager I watched the movie with, "That was just two hours of Call of Duty."
Nobody in American Sniper makes the mistake to "commit sociology," if I may quote our Prime Minister. I'd be curious to know if the people who made Stephen Harper's new "24 Seven" promotional video had sat down with a notebook to watch Mr. Eastwood's movie: The two certainly share a bellicose spirit, even if Ottawa's entry, titled "Canada Stands Strong and Free" is unlikely to win any dates with little gold statues.
In a voice-over, the Prime Minister outlines the threats posed by jihadi terrorists as a disjointed collection of images flashes underneath: fighter jets (not the overpriced ones) piercing the sky, navy ships steaming purposefully toward an unknown destination, a little girl holding a Canadian flag. "Canada will never be intimidated," Mr. Harper intones as the viewer is left to imagine the dark forces that threaten children waving paper flags.
Mr. Harper and his wife are shown paying respects at the National War Memorial where Corporal Nathan Cirillo was murdered. A shrine to Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent, who was run down in Quebec in October, is also shown. The connections are made visually, and highlighted with a dramatic musical score, that terrorism's shadow is covering Canada, and only this government can beat it back.
Even in an election year, the use of two men's deaths to score political points seems gut-wrenchingly cynical. But I don't expect an end to the cold-eyed, big-talking rhetoric any time soon. Last week, asked about a firefight between Canadian special forces and Islamic State fighters, Mr. Harper said: "If those guys fire at us, we're going to fire back and we're going to kill them, just like those guys did – and we're very proud of them." On Friday, the government introduced legislation expanding powers to eavesdrop on and detain suspected terrorists, although various experts have said existing laws are already fit for this purpose.
The current atmosphere of fear and uncertainty fosters the success of American Sniper and the increasingly fear-mongering tone of the Conservative government. (In return we get the soggy responses of Liberals and NDP, so worried about seeming "soft.") The new threat is shadowy, fast-moving, and hard to define. There are few successes to cheer over, few clearly defined targets to take aim at and applaud. The days of the clearly defined enemy, though not far in the past, have taken on a powerful nostalgic tinge. Ideology and politics abhor a vacuum, and step in to fill the void.