Fury vs. American Sniper: The Difference Between Cinema and Propaganda

 

FuryAmerican Sniper is on pace to become the top grossing war film of all time, passing the 200 million dollar mark and fast approaching the record 216 million dollars set bet Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan.  What is troubling about this is the way in which American Sniper is emblematic of the frighteningly common practice of mythologizing American history and indulging in selective history.  The film, directed by Clint Eastwood, presents stark dichotomies akin to old westerns that had good guys dressed in white, and bad guys dressed in black, but more problematic than this, it promotes the narrative as being based on a true story despite the fact that the autobiography that inspired it has been proven to be willfully fallacious in a court of law.  There is nothing wrong with fiction in film, the problem arises when it is presented and accepted as truth.  Fury, another American war film released this past year, offers a template of what a war film should aspire to be.  It celebrates heroic patriotism, but it tempers this patriotism with self-critical reflection, and the people on the other end of the canon are not presented in such strict dichotomies, but instead and made human and given depth.  Given that American Sniper was released the same year as Fury, it is frustrating that audiences chose the more problematic of the two films to spend their money on.

 

 

Bradley Cooper, who stars as Chris Kyle in American Sniper.

Bradley Cooper, who stars as Chris Kyle in American Sniper.

The biggest concern from a historical perspective, is the fact that American Sniper sells itself as being based on truth.  The film, though, has more fiction than fact.  In one scene, a character inform Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), that al Qaeda has put a bounty specifically on his head.  This, however, was not the case.  In an interview with Conan O’Brien, Kyle himself concedes that the bounty was on the heads of all snipers, not just him.  The film acknowledges that adult men are referred to as ‘military age’, but does not outline that military age is not ‘adults’, but as reported by Amy Nicholson, is anybody from the age of 10-60.  The film also makes no reference to the ballistic computer used when sniping (also mentioned in the O’Brien interview), and instead suggests that Kyle’s sharp shooting was pure skill.  The film also portrays Kyle as being torn about shooting civilians, but in his book Kyle expressed that he would have liked to shoot people carrying a Qur’an, and also stated that he wished he’d killed more people and referred to Iraqis as ‘savages’.  Aside from there troubling and overtly Islamophobic views, Kylie’s novel ‘autobiography’ also demonstrates his propensity for storytelling lying.  He, for instance, claims that he once shot and killed two people who tried stealing his truck, but this story is unverifiable, leading many to believe that it was completely fabricated.  He likewise claimed to have killed more than 30 people during hurricane Katrina, but this is also unverifiable.  In court, his claims that he knocked down form governor and Navy Seal Jesse Ventura were proven to be false.  The number of lies is overwhelming and cast doubt on all claims made in his book, but what’s troubling is that so many people seem eager to believe both Kyle, and the film adaptation his narrative.  Films like this serve as propaganda and frame intolerant, Islamophobic mass killers and liars as heroes.  Kyle admits to shooting children.  He boasts of killing Americans, and claims that he wishes he had killed more people than he had, particularly people carrying Qur’ans, and somehow this man is supposed to be a hero?  People see the fiction on screen and choose to believe it, ultimately romanticizing Kyle in the same way history books have romanticised slave owners and rapists by framing them as the ‘founding fathers’.

 

Brad Pitt, who stars as Collier in Fury.

Brad Pitt, who stars as Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier in Fury.

Fury, though a fictional narrative, has as setting that is rooted strongly in reality and does not feel the need to portray every American as a flawless hero. Don ‘Wardaddy’ Collier (Brad Pitt), the film lead protagonist, alludes to a criminal past, suggesting that it was a judge that sent him to war.  This frames soldiers as potential criminals and calls into question their motivation and reliability.  Though no criminal past is mention when Grady ‘Coon-Ass’ Travis (Jon Bernthal) is introduced, it seems likely given that the character is an overtly sadistic and cruel solider.  Norman Ellison (Logan Lerman), the character whom the audience is supposed to identify with, is a shy, quiet and even cowardly man at first and has his heroism thrust upon him.  He is not supposed to be in combat and has no tank training, though he is assigned to a tank battalion.  This demonstrates the incompetence in the military, or at the very least the disorganized nature of it.  After hesitating in combat, Collier forces Ellison to execute and SS officer that has been capture, committing an act that is opposition to the Geneva Convention.  Each of these figures is problematic at best, but they all have redeeming qualities.  They are all willing to sacrifice their lives for each other, and for foreigners they’ve never met.  This depth of characters makes the human, sympathetic, and relatable.  Their motives for entering the war are sketchy at best, unlike Kyle, who is apparently motivated to signs up when motivated by his patriotic duty after he sees news of the embassy bombings in 1998.  Where American Sniper offers strict dichotomies, Fury offers more balanced and genuine character development and is not overly preoccupied with patriotic heroism.

 

Shia LaBeouf, who stars as Boyd 'Bible' Swan in Fury.

Shia LaBeouf, who stars as Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan in Fury.

It is not only the way in which the protagonists are presented that makes Fury the superior film, but also the way the combatants are presented. In American Sniper, enemy combatants are literally referred to as savages, calling upon the colonial language applied to the aboriginal people of the Americas when European colonists first arrived invaded.   Aside from such abusive terms, the film also fails to address the motivations of the enemy combatants and Iraqi civilians alike.  When a man uses a drill to murder a child in the streets, there is no context for this barbarism.  There is also a fictional sniper meant to heighten the villainy, and even the civilian Iraqis are presented in problematic terms as they are either helpless, or greedy.  In Fury, however, despite the fact the protagonists are battling Nazis, the epitome of evil in the 20th century, they are still humanized.  There are soldiers, for instance, who were only German Army regulars, often drafted into the army (Wehrmacht). They fought for their country, but were not necessarily members of the Waffen-SS or supporters of the Nazi party.  When capturing a town, Collier proves willing to mistreat and execute Nazis, but does not do the same for German Army regulars.  However, even members of the SS are humanized in the film.  In the final scene (SPOILER ALERT), when a young member of the SS sees Ellison hiding under a tank, he opts to let the young man survive, rather than turning him in for execution or imprisonment.  This kind of empathy in combatants is utterly lacking in American Sniper.  The civilians are likewise portrayed with more depth in Fury thanAmerican Sniper.  After conquering a town, Collier and Ellison share a meal with a two German women, and though there is a language barrier, they seem to communicate without words.  When Travis and Boyd ‘Bible’ Swan (Shai LeBeuof) arrive, they accost and bully the civilians, demonstrating how cruel American soldier can be to civilians who pose no danger to them and showing the viewer that the relationship between the two groups is not as uniformly flattering for Americans as is suggested in American Sniper.  These kinds of layered and diverse presentations of enemy combatants and civilians alike are absent from American Sniper, which instead offers a polarized hero/savage dichotomy.

 

Alicia von Rittberg

Alicia von Rittberg, who plays Emma in Fury.

This difference in character is reinforced by the exceptional casting in Fury as well.  Though Cooper displays the full range of his acting abilities when portraying Kyle, there is simply no other note-worthy performances in the film.  Sienna Miller is a fine actress, but the screenplay allows no depth for her character.  In Fury, however, even characters who have limited screen time display complex emotions.  Alicia von Rittberg and Anamaria Marinca both have limited roles, but with few words both actors manage to encapsulate a wide range of emotions, ranging from terror to gratitude, from anxiety to joy, and from disgust to affection, and all in a space of less than five minutes. No peripheral performance in American Sniper can even hope to be compared to this.  Whilst Pitt maintains his heroic persona through most of the film, he also takes moments to show the depth of his emotions, whilst his supporting cast, highlighted by LeBeuof and Michael Peña, offer an array of characters and performances that are far more varied than the cookie-cutter soldiers that one might expect to come across in a video game but instead people American Sniper.  In terms of casting, there is simply not even a conversation when comparing the two films.

 

 

Anamaria Marinca, who plays Irma in Fury.

Anamaria Marinca, who plays Irma in Fury.

Aside from the superior acting character development, Fury is also a far more exceptional production that features better story telling.  Being a period piece, Fury required antiquated machinery, including a authentic tanks.  The uniforms, dilapidated buildings, interior sets, and battle fields, all display a craftsmanship that was lacking in American Sniper.  It is admittedly difficult  for a film set in the present to compete with period piece in terms of production quality, and American Sniper does do an effective job when setting the film in the 1990’s, but Fury simply does more.  In terms of storytelling, there is little suspense in American Sniper, other than when Kyle if deciding whether to assassinate a child or not.  The audience does hold its breath, waiting to see whether or not Kyle will have to pull the trigger, but we never truly fear for the safety of the protagonist as we do in Fury.  Coupled with this, it is hard to see Kyle as heroic when most of the time he is picking of women and children from long range, while Collier and his company are directly engaged with the enemy.  The dueling-tanks scene in Fury, for instance, is far more compelling than that sandstorm sequence in American Sniper as the audience is able to see what is going on and situate themselves in the combat, whereas the sandstorm scene is, perhaps necessarily, opaque.  The sandstorm sequence is also predictable and a touch melodramatic, whilst Fury manages to maintain suspense as the audience does not know how the scene will turn out, given that it does not telegraph the climax in the way American Sniper does.

 

The central cast of Fury.

The central cast of Fury.

This is not to suggest that Fury is a flawless film, or that it is entirely authentic.  It has been praised by veterans, but the same veterans have also noted that the film does not capture the true horror of war.  Fury is also plagued with the same kind of patriotism that is present in American Sniper, but it is not defined by it.  Though it does not prominently feature the efforts of others countries who fought in WWII, there is at least no excessive flag waving ceremony at the end of the film (I literally could not count the number of American flags in the American Sniper’s final sequences).  Fury also deserves credit for not trying to pass itself off as a true story, which American Sniper is certainly not, even it if uses actual names.  Fury also avoids the trap of demonizing the films antagonists in a vain attempt to make unwavering heroes out of its protagonists, and instead offers a complexity in its flawed heroes.  The vast number of notable acting performances, coupled with the superior production and storytelling, make Fury a far more engaging and entertaining film.  It is also a far less dangerous film as it does not to portray a man who gleefully kills Muslims and expressed a desire to shoot people who carried a Qur’an as a hero, and does not make the films protagonist a man whose only regret in war is that he didn’t kill more people.  Perhaps general audiences prefer oversimplified presentations of combat that position their fellow countrymen as heroes, even when they are assassinating children, but in terms of a film making and telling a human story, Fury is the superior work.  In its defence, however, American Sniper is a far superior piece of propaganda.

 

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Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Comments

  1. Hi Jason. Please just consider this a PS. to my comment on your review of the film. In the last few days (since I commented) the controversy of this film has been all over the place. Scores of statements have been reported about Kyle being less than the good man he has been portrayed to be, let alone a good soldier. Well informed people are getting pissed off, as well they shoud. I know I am. Propaganda for war is another American faux pas but it brings in the jing whether the promotion is based on truth, fabricated or outright lies. Usually this type of propaganda is incited by right wing, strictly consevative republicans, which Eastwood just happens to be. ICK ! And the Oscar goes to … prolific liers. I personally can’t wait until this is all over and done with. It’s disgusting !

    Now, back to your recent play.

  2. Thanks! I’m glad to hear that not everybody is blindly accepting this portrayal as truth!

  3. Harrell Guy Graham says:

    Thank you for this thoughtful piece on the two movies. The reason I found your site was because I happened to see which movies were up for oscars and when I found out Fury wasn’t among them, but American Sniper was, I was shocked; and so I goggled “Fury better than American Sniper” to see if there was anything ‘out there’ along those lines. Thankfully, there is good criticism of this travesty, the travesty of not nominating a far superior film, with far superior acting, story, drama, nuance, truth, etc.

  4. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I am in complete agreement with you. Fury was a fantastic film; American Sniper is propaganda. Patritism runs so high, and I think a lot of people didn’t even SEE the film before nominating it (it wasn’t widely released until after the nominations came out). I think they just though: “Oh, it’s Bradley Cooper and Clint Eastwood, it must be good.”

    Fury is the one war film people should be watching from last year.

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