This insightful review by journalist and analyst on Arab affairs Sharif Nashashibi, originally appeared in the Dubai-based The National newspaper
American Sniper, the newly released film about real-life Navy Seal Chris Kyle, is already a box-office hit and has gathered six Oscar nominations. It is likely to prove Clint Eastwood’s most successful movie. It is a shame, then, that audiences, critics and the film industry are congratulating a movie that essentially whitewashes the Iraq war, linking it with September 11 and the US embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania.
Kyle, who was killed on a shooting range in February 2013, saw his duty in Iraq as to “kill every male you see”. He “loved” killing. “I hate the damn savages,” he wrote. Since the film’s release, there has been a torrent of similarly deplorable anti-Arab comments on social media posted by Americans pumped up after watching the movie.
Eastwood regurgitates the familiar theme of American good versus Arab evil with all the stereotypes that entails. The question “why do they hate us” is not just unanswered – it is not even asked. In the context of Eastwood’s film, whatever American troops do is justified.
The film’s opening scene, in which a boy runs at American soldiers with a bomb, is reminiscent of Yemeni children firing at the US embassy in Sanaa in Rules of Engagement. Hollywood directors tend to rewrite history in relation to American involvement in the Arab world, which is hardly surprising since that history is rather ugly. “Americans … can invade a country and immediately construct a narrative justifying it,” said French-Swiss director Jean-Luc Godard. For example, Black Hawk Down reflects the official account of Operation Restore Hope in Mogadishu as a humanitarian mission, rather than a politically-motivated military intervention that killed hundreds of Somalis.
Various factors contribute to Hollywood toeing the government line. Directors may be ignorant of the subject matter, which is plausible given the prevalent misperceptions in the US regarding the Arab world. However, Jack Shaheen, author of Reel Bad Arabs and contributor to this newspaper, disagrees. “Once upon a time I thought the stereotyping of Arabs was because of ignorance. No more,” said Shaheen. “I know it is more straight-out purposeful now … Arab-bashing is a sure-fire box office winner.”
Certainly, the Arab “baddy” has long been engraved in American popular imagination. Shaheen notes that “nearly all Arabs on the silver screen are heinous characters”. According to his research, of 900 films studied, only about 50 showed a neutral image of Arabs, while those containing positive images could be counted on one’s fingers.
A difference in recent years is that Hollywood increasingly employs real Arabs to perpetuate the old stereotypes and utilises a token Arab “good guy” to make up for the rest of the Arab characters being bad. In The Siege, Tony Shalhoub plays a cop trying to stop Arab terrorists from continuing their bombings on US soil.
The “good Arab” in The Kingdom is a cop who helps the FBI track down a terrorist behind attacks against American civilians in Saudi Arabia. Of course, the cop is fond of American culture, having grown up watching The Six Million Dollar Man and The Hulk, who was his inspiration in his career choice because the superhero “killed only the bad guys”.
Another contributing factor to Hollywood towing the US government line is that the former often relies on the latter for expensive military hardware that is vital to a war movie. In exchange, the government approves scripts to ensure the military is portrayed positively. Such help has reportedly been given to numerous Arab-bashing movies.
David Robb, author of Operation Hollywood: How the Pentagon Shapes and Censors the Movies, says that Hollywood is “embedded” with the military, who know that “when positive images are portrayed in movies and television shows, they see huge spikes in recruitment”. Other factors may be prejudice, national loyalty or fear of alienating domestic audiences and industry peers by being accused of lacking patriotism or of not “supporting the troops”. These accusations were thrown at Hollywood figures who publicly opposed the Iraq war.
Documentarian Michael Moore was booed offstage during his acceptance speech at the 2003 Oscars, in which he said: “We have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons … We’re against this war, Mr Bush. Shame on you.”
Anti-war actor Tim Robbins said of his satire Embedded that “about the only thing we don’t poke fun at is soldiers”. By necessity, then, American troops are the heroes, and any critique of war must never encroach on that.
Abuses must either be portrayed as “a few bad apples” contradicting American values, or necessary for the greater good. If the effect of war is highlighted, it is on American troops, their families and society. Examples in relation to Iraq include Jarhead and The Hurt Locker. Arabs and Muslims are not afforded the same compassion and humanity. They do not value life or love their family and friends the way Americans do.
In American Sniper, Kyle is credited with killing 160 Iraqis, but they and their families are anonymous figures. Audience sympathies are directed toward his wife, who is anguished by his absence and the effect this has on their children. We feel for how Kyle tries to conceal the psychological effects of war in the service of his country. We are offered a window into the lives back home that American troops left behind. We know and care nothing about those whose country has been occupied.
American Sniper has fared far better at the box office than other films about the Iraq war because, say industry experts, it was produced after the US withdrawal, so there is less public pain and no more news saturation. Similarly, movie classics about Vietnam were only released years after the war.
As such, the success of American Sniper may encourage a new crop of Iraq-related movies.
However, Iraqis are still likely to be dehumanised, especially as the rise of ISIL will provide fresh and highly negative material.
Expect more violent, uncivilised, fanatical Arabs on the silver screen to make Americans feel righteous about the actions of their government and military. Do not expect analysis into the connection between the two. That would be unpatriotic and thus unprofitable. There is simply no domestic appetite for complicating real-life stories with reality if it is unflattering.