Culture

The Secret Reason for American Sniper's Breakout Success

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American Sniper isn’t just a huge box office success. It’s in a category of its own. It’s set to be (at least) one of the three highest-grossing films released in 2014 (it opened on Christmas Day on four screens, before going nationwide on Jan. 16). It’s the only one that will make last year’s top 15 that isn’t a fantasy or a comedy. It’s on track to become perhaps the second highest-grossing R-rated film of all time and the second highest-grossing film about a real person. Number one in both those categories is The Passion of the Christ, meaning a Navy SEAL is giving Jesus a run for his money.

When comedian Seth Rogen in a tweet said American Sniper reminded him of a Nazi propaganda film, he showcased how utterly out of touch Hollywood is about the military. Not only did this thought occur to Rogen, which tells you a lot, but he actually thought it was innocuous enough to publish on Twitter. Instead it seems likely to cost him millions of ticket sales because Rogen, never previously identified as particularly anti-American, is now as popular in military-loving communities as he is in North Korea.

American Sniper is a hit for several reasons: It’s a great movie, with a riveting set of TV commercials. The audience-survey firm CinemaScore says it is getting a rare A+ rating from viewers. Clint Eastwood’s name on the marquee also means something — but Eastwood’s movies have never made huge amounts of money. His biggest-ever hit, Gran Torino, earned $148 million in North America. American Sniper will nearly double that.

What American Sniper has going for it is that it’s unabashedly patriotic and pro-military. That matters, because the military is by far the most beloved institution in American life.

I can hear Hollywood, the land where saying U.S. troops remind you of Nazis isn’t even considered controversial,  spitting out its arugula-and-endive salad at that. That can’t be. Can it?

For nearly half a century, American culture has been a story of gradual destruction of trust in everything. Banks, in a June Gallup survey, had a 26 percent trust rating. The presidency was at 29 percent. Newspaper journalists were at 22, with Internet and TV news lagging behind even that. Congress? Seven percent.

Confidence in the military, though, was at 74 percent. After decades of anti-military and antiwar propaganda from Hollywood, that’s astonishing. The only other institutions that commanded majority support were small business (62 percent) and the police (53). The trend is consistent: The military’s approval rating hasn’t dipped below 60 percent since 1988.

The American public is saying something very simple: We love our military. Give us more films that show our troops as heroes, and we’ll turn up for them.

Some liberal Hollywood types have been scratching their heads and saying, “Wait a minute, though. American Sniper is a very downbeat film. Its central figure is shown being tormented by survivor’s guilt and PTSD. It isn’t ‘rah-rah.’  So why do those rubes in the heartland love it so much?”

This is sheer projection, because it’s liberal sophisticates who have an amazingly simplistic, indeed kindergarten-level, view of war: Killing is wrong, so we should loathe all troops on an equal basis, regardless of whether they’re fighting for, say, the Fuehrer or liberal democracy. “The real American Sniper was a hate-filled killer,” ran the headline of an especially infantile piece in The Guardian, by American liberal Lindy West.

Was Chris Kyle supposed to be full of love as he shot to death cowards who disguised themselves as civilians as they planted deadly remote-controlled booby traps, or hurled grenades at Americans attempting to build a democracy? Was he supposed to feel benevolent toward jihadis trying to establish a medieval theocracy in which women would be stoned to death for adultery, and even belonging to the wrong sect of Islam would be a crime punishable by  death?

The patriots who are lining up to buy tickets to American Sniper are aware that war takes an enormous toll and can be agonizing even to those without visible wounds. That’s precisely the appeal of the film: By showing the price our troops pay to fight for our values, it reminds us just how much respect we owe them.