War as Entertainment: Ethics of “American Sniper”

“Most of America is tired of hearing about Iraq. But now, they’re at least open to being entertained by it.”

—Paul Rieckhoff, Iraq War veteran and activist, in a Variety guest column

Chris Kyle, American SniperThe statement sounds pretty harsh. But as I sat in the movie theater this weekend watching American Sniper’s tense war scenes and homefront personal struggles, I had to question myself about why I was there, and if it was okay to make real, current events into entertainment.

To relieve some of the tension you’re feeling. Rieckhoff himself says he’s okay with it: “It’s tearing open a shameful national boil of a discussion that’s been bubbling below our collective skin for far too long,” he wrote. “And with that, it performs an exceptionally important public service in a way only film can.”

Whew. Right? I’d rather piss off Michael Moore than a veteran any day.

However, there’s still a serious question in play here—is it ethical for the entertainment industry to mine horrific real-world events like wars for box office hits? It is ethical for me to hand over my money for the pleasure of partaking this kind of entertainment?

I’ve wrestled with this many times, and I’ve come to take issue with the word “entertainment” when applied to movies like American Sniper more than I take issue with the film itself.

Movies—especially popular, box-office-hit movies—blur lines. We call them entertainment, and most of the time they are. Heck, it’s the name of the entire movie-making industry.

But movies are also art. And good art does not “entertain” so much as it engages. Good art forces our eyes and minds to wrestle with things we maybe would rather not. It forces us to see things we would not see on our own, and then think about what this new thing means.

And this is something American Sniper does well. If you haven’t experienced war, if you haven’t struggled with a loved on returning from a tour, or struggled with PTSD, your eyes are forced open a little wider by this film.

So is it okay for “entertainment” to take on something “serious”? It’s not just acceptable, it’s a responsibility.

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