Frank Rich on the National Circus: American Sniper Proves Obama’s Politics Beat Cheney’s

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Most weeks, New York Magazine writer-at-large Frank Rich talks with contributor Alex Carp about the biggest stories in politics and culture. This week: the American Sniper debate and the Koch brothers’ bankrolling of the Republican Party. 

Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper just completed its second weekend as the No. 1 movie in the country, and, with the attendant controversy drawing in the likes of Michael MooreNewt GingrichJohn McCain (not to mention Howard DeanSeth Rogen, and even Noam Chomsky), it looks to be one of the rare war movies that is both a commercial success and a political flashpoint. Why has American Sniper created such a storm when so many other Iraq and Afghanistan war movies have not?
The tumult surrounding American Sniper is in many ways more interesting than the film itself. Its record-shattering box-office performance — not only crushing all previous Iraq War films but also all of its Oscar competitors — is a testament to brilliant under-the-radar marketing by Warner Bros., a vacuum of mainstream entertainment for red-state cineplex audiences not exactly pining to see Birdman or The Grand Budapest Hotel, the steady ascent of Bradley Cooper, and the passing of time since the height of the Iraq War, from which America officially withdrew more than three years ago. Plus, Chris Kyle’s story is powerful, whatever one’s moral judgment about his wartime role as a sharpshooter, even if it is somewhat clunkily and repetitively told by Eastwood. Would that this movie were as taut as Million Dollar Baby and as moving as Flags of Our Fathers, the World War II film that is in some ways Sniper’s thematic companion piece in the Eastwood canon.

Of course, the political debate is boosting the box office further; people want to see what all of the shouting is about. But that controversy says more about knee-jerk ideology than it does about what’s actually in the film. Sniper is not the unalloyed glorification of wartime carnage some on the left claim it to be, nor the flat-out endorsement of “good old traditional American values” claimed by Rush Limbaugh. And much of the debate is just flat-out ridiculous. Both Chomsky and McCain have opined at length about American Sniper even as they both freely conceded they hadn’t bothered to see it.

I’m second to no one in my outrage about the Iraq War, but I would hardly call this film an endorsement of that war; it’s an endorsement of the Americans who volunteered to fight it. If anything, Sniper is the very opposite of a recruiting poster for further American military adventures in the Middle East. The Iraqis are xenophobically and all but uniformly presented as duplicitous, indistinguishable “savages” (in Kyle’s lingo) unworthy of American sacrifice. The war is presented as a quagmire with nothing that can be called “victory” in the offing. The soldiers who fought the war, Kyle included, are seen as returning home in various forms of mutilation, physical and psychological, to an inadequate support system. That’s why it’s no surprise that Jane Fonda has praised Sniper: In some ways it does resemble her Vietnam film Coming Home.

And in this sense the film is where the country is politically, at least as far as present and future military engagement goes — far closer to Barack Obama than Dick Cheney. Eastwood’s performance with a chair may have done nothing for Mitt Romney, but American Sniper is more of a boost for the anti-interventionist foreign policy of Rand Paul than the unreconstructed neo-con hawkishness of most of Paul’s erstwhile Republican opponents, Romney included.

Meanwhile, if liberals want to find a movie celebrating a real-life war hero that’s really worth getting angry about, I nominate The Imitation Game. As Christian Caryl writes in a definitive takedown in the New York Review of Books, the filmmakers’ fictionalization of the genius British code-breaker Alan Turing “managed to transform the real Turing, vivacious and forceful, into just the sort of mythological gay man, whiney and weak, that homophobes love to hate.” It’s rather incredible that a gay-rights organization, the Human Rights Campaign, is lending its imprimatur to this movie for its Oscar campaign.

At their annual winter retreat, the Koch brothers revealed that they plan to spend close to $900 million on the 2016 campaign, which essentially gives them the resources of a third major political party. (The Times notes that in the 2012 cycle the Republican National Committee and its congressional committees spent $657 million combined; the Kochs spent just under $400 million.) Now that the Kochs may be more powerful than the Republican Party, what can we expect from the candidates?
Those who take the Kochs’ money are going to have to dance to their tune — as they would to that of any big donor. And the crazy truth is that the GOP base is so far right that the Kochs may actually make the party “more moderate,” as Daniel Schulman of Mother Jones argued last year. Keep in mind that “moderate” is a relative term. The Kochs believe that what’s good for Koch Industries is good for the USA. So they want to eliminate any tax they can, gut government regulations (especially environmental regulations that impinge on their gas and petrochemical businesses), crush unions, “privatize” Social Security and most other government social programs, and fund climate-change denial.

But they are also libertarians more or less. David Koch is a self-described “social liberal” who has endorsed gay marriage, marijuana legalization, and presumably favors abortion rights. He was cool to the Iraq War and is in favor of cutting defense spending. Such stands put him at odds with at least two of the GOP presidential hopefuls (Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio) who turned up at the Kochs’ Rancho Mirage retreat last weekend seeking their favor and cash.

Earlier this week, Politico published a detailed look at the internal plans for Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. They note that almost all of the top positions have been filled, except for communications director. If you were interviewing candidates for the position, what would you be looking for?
This is a tall order. Left to her own devices, Hillary Clinton is something of a gaffe machine, particularly when it comes to her defensive efforts to portray herself as an economic populist and deflect talk about her buckraking on the speaking circuit. Her book-tour claim that she left the White House “dead broke” proved not to be a one-off. “Don’t let anybody tell you it’s corporations and business that create jobs,” she said nonsensically when appearing at a forum with Elizabeth Warren in October. This is déjà 2008 all over again. It doesn’t help, either, that she hates the press, with the apparent exception of Rupert Murdoch, whom she continues to court, according to a Times report this week.

The lead of the Politico article is buried in its very last paragraph, where it’s noted that the “next critical task” for the Clinton campaign is “developing her message.” Indeed! What Hillary Clinton actually stands for beyond party boilerplate — and, more pointedly, what she would actually want to do as president — is the question that remains unanswered. Until it is, it doesn’t matter who is put in charge of communicating it.

American Sniper and the New Antiwar Consensus