The blockbuster “American Sniper” has opened up another front in the culture war, triggering a media firefight between liberals who have denounced the film as glorifying killing or whitewashing the Iraq war and conservatives who have embraced its patriotic hero.
Despite taking heavy flak from some critics, led by left-wing director Michael Moore, the film earned a jaw-dropping $247 million in its first two weeks, exposing a chasm between the Hollywood and political elite and moviegoing public not seen since the release of “The Passion of the Christ” in 2004.
Bloomberg Politics called “American Sniper” the “official Oscar nominee of the culture wars.”
“You’re seeing the same kind of astonishment that Hollywood reacted with when ‘Passion of Christ’ went well,” said Los Angeles talk-radio host Larry Elder. “The fact is, most Americans feel pretty good about their country, most Americans are very patriotic about their country, most Americans support the military, and even if they feel the mission may not be a good mission, they still support the military. And I just don’t think Hollywood gets that.”
The latest high-profile skirmish came Monday when actor Gary Sinise blasted former Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean’s declaration that ticket-buyers flocking to see the film are “very angry” tea party types.
“I bet you if you looked at a cross-section of the tea party and the people who go see this movie, there’s a lot of intersection,” said Mr. Dean on HBO’s “Real Time with Bill Maher.”
Mr. Sinise, an active supporter of veterans, swung back with a post on WhoSay informing Mr. Dean that he had seen the movie and “would not consider myself to be an angry person.”
“You certainly have a right to make stupid blanket statements, suggesting that all people who see this film are angry, but how is that helpful sir?” said Mr. Sinise, who stars in “CSI: New York.”
The movie, which tells the story of the late Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, a highly decorated sniper who served four tours of duty in Iraq, may actually be benefiting from the constant crossfire, said movie critic Christian Toto of the website Hollywood in Toto.
“I think you’ve got great word of mouth, and I think you’ve got a terrific film,” Mr. Toto said. “I think now it’s also going to have people, mostly on the right, who are going to say, ‘You know what? To heck with those Michael Moore types, I want to go see this movie and support it because it speaks to my values.’”
Shortly after the film’s release, Mr. Moore blasted military snipers as “cowards,” while Mr. Maher described the movie’s hero as “a psychopath patriot and we love him.” Actor Seth Rogen said on Twitter that the film reminded him of the Nazi propaganda film in “Inglourious Basterds,” but after the ensuing backlash released a statement saying he had not intended to offend anyone.
Those leaping to the film’s defense include country singers Craig Morgan and Blake Shelton, Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
“Michael Moore should spend a few weeks with ISIS and Boko Haram. Then he might appreciate @AmericanSniper. I am proud of our defenders,” said former House Speaker Newt Gingrich on Twitter.
Ironically, the movie is hardly the propaganda fest its foes decry and some of its champions hype.
Director Clint Eastwood says “American Sniper” makes “the biggest anti-war statement any film” can make by showing “what [war] does to the family and the people who have to go back into civilian life like Chris Kyle did,” according to the Hollywood Reporter.
While Mr. Eastwood became one of the world’s biggest stars playing “spaghetti Western” gunfighters and “Dirty Harry” Callahan, some of his other films — the Oscar winners “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby,” for example — are also about how killing burdens a man’s conscience.
“I don’t think the film is as black and white or as blunt as some of the ideological fighting suggests it is,” Mr. Toto said. “I think it does have a strong anti-war message, that war is hell, and that people are changed from it, and even a proud patriotic man like Chris Kyle comes home a different person and has to reclaim who he is, his family and his marriage.”
The notoriety of “American Sniper” could either help or harm its odds of winning an Oscar. The film has been nominated for six awards, including Best Picture, but “the Academy consists of a bunch of people who think like Seth Rogen and Michael Moore,” said Mr. Elder.
“[They] are instinctively anti-war, anti-Republican, and have real uneasy feelings about flag waving movies, and I think all of that is going to hurt the chances of ‘American Sniper,’” Mr. Elder said.
On the other hand, that could change if the movie continues to smash box-office records. A Reuters/Ipsos poll released Friday found that 22 percent of those surveyed wanted to see “American Sniper” win Best Picture at the Feb. 22 awards show. Coming in second was “Selma” with 8 percent.
“My gut says ‘Boyhood’ will win Best Picture, that ‘Selma’ will just miss and that ‘American Sniper’ will miss as well. But if the ‘American Sniper’ juggernaut keeps on going, I kind of think things are up for grabs,” Mr. Toto said. “I have a sense that if the culture continues to be blazing with this movie and the box office stays really strong for a few more weeks, it could sneak up and win Best Picture.”