Magazine | February 23, 2015, Issue

Bloody Crossroads Redux

Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in American Sniper (Warner Bros.)

There have been two great political wars this Oscar season, and both have involved American liberals’ complex relationship with the movies. What makes this relationship complicated is that liberals have a natural sense of ownership over Hollywood — natural because, as you may have heard, the people who work in Hollywood are generally quite liberal — combined with an anxiety about the various forces (from corporate ownership to the masses’ right-wing tastes) that prevent that ownership from always delivering the goods.

This anxiety is often justified: The movies do have a liberal bias, but they have less of one than you might expect from simply polling screenwriters, directors, and studio executives about their views on abortion, foreign policy, and the minimum wage. Political correctness is powerful in the industry, but reactionary ideas keep slipping in — sometimes because genre conventions or just basic storytelling make them unavoidable; sometimes because great artists, regardless of how they vote, can’t help grasping reality in full; and sometimes just because studios are interested in making money and there’s a pretty big audience out there for movies that don’t just toe a Left Coast line.

But this slippage is most contained, and liberal pieties are generally safest, in prestige movies that deal with current events or recent history. Once you leave the realm of pure fiction for the realm of quasi-fact, the room for taking political liberties gets smaller, and the ideological policing — especially in Oscar season, when everyone’s clawing for advantage — turns much more overt.

But what happens when this policing pits liberal against liberal? That’s been the story in the great war over Selma, a movie that many people regarded as a Best Picture favorite when it debuted, but that has since been staggered by an extended controversy over whether it makes its Lyndon Johnson, played by Tom Wilkinson, look like more of an antagonist to David Oyelowo’s Martin Luther King Jr. than the real-life LBJ was.

Team LBJ, in this case, includes not only historians and columnists but some people who actually worked for Johnson, including Joseph Califano, a Johnson aide whose Washington Post op-ed got the argument started. Team Selma took a while to find its footing, but now it has produced a string of manifestos in the film’s defense — from Amy Davidson at The New Yorker and Mark Harris at Grantland, among others.

As in most cases in which historical fictions get policed for accuracy, the movie’s defenders have the better of the argument: Selma does probably stray into unfairness in its portrait of Johnson (particularly in a scene implying connivance with one of J. Edgar Hoover’s grosser crimes), but its license is in the service of a defensible artistic objective — underlining King’s own agency and the forces arrayed against him — and hardly unusual in a season filled with dramas that are fact-based but not factually exact.

But the argument isn’t really about art, it’s about anxiety and control. The movie rather effectively pits one liberal icon against another, and clearly some of its critics don’t like that conflict, that tension; this is the kind of movie — handsome, historical, righteous — that’s supposed to confirm them in their liberalism, so what’s all this suggesting that some liberals, some white liberals especially, didn’t always acquit themselves perfectly in that era? Why isn’t Ava DuVernay, the director, content to stick with George Wallace as her antagonist, so that everyone can leave the theater feeling good?

Then, alongside the great Selma debate, we have the ongoing American Sniper argument, which is likewise about liberal anxiety, but this time in a more straightforward way. Sniper is a Clint Eastwood Iraq War movie that’s a lot like Eastwood’s World War II movies, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. It’s mostly interested in the experience of battle; it’s admiring of its fighting-men subjects — in this case, Chris Kyle, the famous sniper of the title — and also grimly serious about the burdens that they carry; and it doesn’t really get into any of the political questions hanging in the background.

Which is to say, it’s a movie that’s pro-soldier and conflicted about war, which is the kind of approach that Eastwood has long relied on to win liberal, often anti-war admirers for movies about hard men killing bad men and then reckoning with the cost.

But in this case, the war is George W. Bush’s war, and so that kind of shades-of-graying is, for many liberal writers — from Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi to various explanatory journalists at Vox to a New Republic contributor who critiqued the movie’s politics based solely on the trailer — simply unacceptable: You’re either with us or with Dick Cheney, and, by failing to include a scene in which Kyle monologues about the missing WMD, Eastwood has obviously thrown in with the Cheneyites. (It should be said that few professional movie critics, to the profession’s great credit, have thrown in with this argument.)

The anti-Sniper anger has been sharpened, undoubtedly, by the huge box-office numbers the movie has put up; it will turn hysterical if Eastwood somehow makes off with an Oscar. But he probably will not, for the same reason that Selma was set back in its Oscar quest by the criticism it earned. You win Academy Awards, more often than not, by making voters feel validated, comfortable, confirmed in their pieties, and reassured in their worldview. And nothing is so unreassuring as a controversy that pits liberal against liberal, or one in which art and some left-wing party line are plainly on opposing sides.

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