Seth Rogen versus Sarah Palin: Is 'American Sniper' pro-war or patriotic?

'American Sniper' is on track to become the biggest January blockbuster in history – as well as a cultural phenomenon that has everyone from documentary filmmaker Michael Moore to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich weighing in.

Warner Bros. Pictures/AP
Bradley Cooper appears in a scene from 'American Sniper,' which has been nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor.

Is “American Sniper” a hugely divisive American phenomenon?

That’s the impression you’d get from reading a lot of pundits’ just-baked hot takes about the wildly popular Clint Eastwood-directed flick.

The move is undeniably polarizing. On the one hand, there are folks who wonder whether the biographical depiction of slain Navy SEAL shooter Chris Kyle is too dismissive of Iraqi humanity, too casual in its killing, and ultimately too pro-Iraq War. Some reviewers came to these conclusions, but Oscar-winning filmmaker Michael Moore and actor/producer Seth Rogen have become the faces of this point of view, fairly or not.

Mr. Moore tweeted that his uncle was killed by a sniper in World War II and that he’d been raised to believe snipers “cowards.” Mr. Rogen, fresh off the international incident created by his North Korean movie “The Interview,” opined that “American Sniper” reminded him of a fake film that’s showing near the end of the Quentin Tarantino’s World War II movie “Inglourious Basterds.” That film showed a German sniper killing Allied soldiers from a clock tower. Thus some drew the conclusion that Rogen was comparing “Sniper” to Nazi propaganda. (He’s since said he was just pointing out a resemblance, not criticizing the film.)

On the other hand, there were reviewers who found “Sniper” a jittery and realistic depiction of the way real soldiers feel and act and react to the horrible stress of combat. Other defenders of the flick simply said it depicted an American hero and that criticism of its politics was a thinly veiled attack on Oscar-winning director Eastwood, who spoke at the 2012 Republican National Convention.

Moore’s and Rogen’s comments thus sparked some predictable outrage. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich tweeted over the weekend that “Michael Moore should spend a few weeks with ISIS and Boko Haram. Then he might appreciate @AmericanSniper. I am proud of our defenders.”

Former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin jumped into the fray, posting on her Facebook page a denunciation of the film’s critics.

“Hollywood leftists: while caressing shiny plastic trophies you exchange among one another while spitting on the graves of freedom fighters who allow you to do what you do, just realize the rest of America knows you’re not fit to shine Chris Kyle’s combat boots,” the post read, in part.

Despite this back-and-forth, there’s other evidence that a broad US audience is reacting to the movie as a work of art, seeing in it multiple messages that speak to multiple points of view.

After all, “American Sniper” is a huge box office hit. It took in $105 million over the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend, putting it on track for the biggest January opening ever, the Monitor’s Dan Wood reports.

And the movie, which has been nominated for six Oscars, is drawing well everywhere, not just red or blue states, or cities or rural areas. Its audience has a relatively high percentage of women and older viewers. Presumably there are both pro- and anti-war supporters in its audience.

“American Sniper” has the look of a bona fide cultural phenomenon,” writes CNN’s Brandon Griggs.

The movie may have benefited from good timing, in the sense that the US appears ready for a movie that grapples seriously with the after effects of the Iraq War on the US military, and in general on the corrosive effects of combat service on the ability of soldiers to reintegrate into normal life.

It’s also an effective human story, about a flawed and fresh character. In some senses the movie is all things to all people, in an ideological sense: “both a devastating war movie and a devastating antiwar movie,” in the words of the New Yorker critic David Denby.

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