Amid the uproar around American Sniper and its racially-minded approach to portraying Middle Eastern peoples, the New York Review of Books ran a piece countering the notion that Sniper represented a uniquely glorifying notion of warfare. Its predecessor, Howard Hawk’s Sgt. York, with neat parallels in content and context of the film, is a war film about a sniper released in conjunction with military conflict—albeit portraying one decades ago resolved. York speaks back to WWI, where American Sniper plants its boots in a modern and seemingly endless conflict.
J. Hoberman, in the NYRB, cut Sniper down to a grinding portrayal of paralysis and hopelessness, that to some felt weirdly “liberating” to watch, a “guardian angel” protecting American interests and American well-being as he guns down a mother and son. (For the record—a point Hoberman includes—Sniper is a self-declared anti-war film in the eyes of its director, the confounding Clint Eastwood.)
The last few years have seen three goliath war movies, two unsurprisingly by the same superstar director, Kate Bigelow. Hurt Locker (2008), Zero Dark Thirty (2012), and the towering, top-grossing American Sniper (2014) rode full-throttle momentum through theaters, as cinematically masterful windows onto America’s ongoing conflicts in the Middle East.
Consistently, among these mega-titles, the window adopts a highly personalized viewpoint onto the narrative, a small core of active and capable characters knee-deep in a conflict that can feel a world away to a given American viewer. How else to tell a story other than through an individual’s eyes? Looking at the broader conflict is uncommon. A general overarching war-view is a history book and not a story. The elegance of a single point of view, we’re led to believe, not only gives us a direct, focused, and accurate view of what war looks like on the ground, to the individual, at close range.
So where does the national view come in here? These are nations at war, not individuals. The individual war story is the one we hear, closest to those who fight in said wars. The history lesson, the overview, is the hindsight distanced view, a canonized view of the next generation. Satirizing and re-narrataivising those canonized history-book views belongs in the province of Inglorious Basterds and Django Unchained. And these films don’t burden themselves with clarifying a larger vision other than tone. In Zero Dark Thirty, a film that flips between the digital Gods-eye-view of surveillance with Maya (Jessica Chastain) to sand-and-grit night-vision action, with Justin (Chris Pratt). In conference room exchanges, presidential advisors and representatives piggishly asking for more details and more information, unattainable data that seems disconnected from the facts of intelligence work. Ambivalent salvation arrives in the greenlighting of the operation. But the tone of the larger moment is far from positive from the individual perspective.
Zero Dark Thirty trades on the mythology of the wartime, the personal contact of those touchpoint individuals to the conflict is, as per the trend, out access point. It’s a “her against the world”—a direct quote from the film—narrative. But where Hurt Locker and Sniper are stories about their protagonists, as well as through their eyes, Chastain shines at the center of a narrative that is additionally about her own transformed and distanced brand of warfare. Readout dates and a proliferation of screens illustrate neatly transmuted kind of attack and retreat. This is what James Der Derian calls the entertainment industry’s “aesthetication of violence”: how does the violence of war look? In the eyes of the video game, the “corporeal gravitas” of bodily harm, of a soldier’s body, is nil. And something similar could be said to be happening in Zero Dark Thirty. The scene of its warfare is so far from the traditional here—traditional being American Sniper’s beautiful sandstorm scene, the gritty reality of the battlefield moment, the video game shooter—with losses displayed in readouts and numerals, that Zero must break, to return to the conventional war scenes via characters like Pratt to remind of the viewer of its role as a protracted element of war all its own. This is an information age narrative with a boots-on-the-ground interlude, complete with a drumbeat score to underline the contrast.
The pristine display of technological age, the government watchmen, is an easier vision of Hoberman’s “guardian angel.” It’s a very modern viewpoint onto the scene of war: even the Pakistani camp is overrun with high-quality flatscreen computer monitors perched on the walls. This is one more representation of the led character’s personal touchstone on the conflict, the iconic moments of a conflict. Our main character is forbidden from getting boots on the ground. That grit belongs to a different world.
These films and their clear, psychologically laden point-of-view characters exist as touchpoints for the general, theater-going population. Zero Dark Thirty fits neatly into the window-onto-the-action, knee-deep-in-it narrative. It’s where we get a chance to press our fingers to the iron, squint our eyes into the blinding sand. The data readouts blaze. The protagonist is caught in profile. It isn’t war. But it does carry some of that hard-charge drama manufactured by Hollywood around the concept, its trope patterns displaced into boardrooms, caught on route to a political drama—although it is unmistakably a war movie. Its electric charge proffers a new, joint vision of conflict: data to action, data to action.
Entering into the current, we complete that circuit. The popular vision of war is energized, shared, and takes hold. And this most recent version is not holistic—who understands the whole of the conflict?—but still, disorienting, personal. We only have the fragments. And the fragments only make sense if you’re trained to make sense of them, from a technological god’s eye—as in Zero Dark Thirty. The world of war is jagged. Its edges are only partly visible to a very few. And perhaps this fragmented view belies something about the general political and social viewpoint onto America’s ongoing, uncertain conflicts as well: are we certain of anything? Is Jessica Chastain’s clear-eyed zeal, her, repeated, “certainty” the panacea to our disjointed viewpoint, our media-saturated and yet still only haphazardly informed news climate?
Each of these major films takes place in a post-9/11 combat zone—a currently ongoing combat zone—unlike Sgt. York, which took Americans back to a past victory. Meanwhile, its contemporary star-studded blockbuster, Casablanca, struck a decidedly different tone. While Sgt. York shot straight, Casablanca was a blockbuster about uncertainty set in the midst of an uncertain international conflict. Fast forward, and now the cinemas thrive on such uncertainty, ambiguous films: the morality of the characters in motivation or morality. American Sniper thrives on it (remember, that mother and child, that racialized perspective). Zero Dark Thirty thrives it, repeating the conductive word itself, “certainty,” clinging to certainty in a landscape where certainty is fatally rare and seemingly impossible in the probability-driven operational plans. Justin (Pratt), in the midst of a horseshoe throwing game, says that Maya (Chastain’s) certainty, certainty, certainty is the driving force behind his own conviction. Conviction is a rare and precious commodity, both within film and in its context. Meanwhile, her conviction rests in part on the controversial and brutal “enhanced interrogation” methods for which the film’s apparently positive portrayal sparked controversy.
These personal, touchstone characters have a very different tone than the “training” video games, like the quintessential America’s Army, that are designed to orient players to the mindset of a military mission. Both media are mission-centric, but one (the films) gives the mission a questioning, nuanced context, which out-and-out first-person shooters like America’s Army lack completely. Marcus Power writes that such games allow us to “play through” the “anxieties that attend uncertain times and new configurations in power.” If anything, the film’s close-up viewpoint onto their respective missions are uncertain even in the polilticized measure of their reception. “Reassuring to some,” is how Hoberman put it. But there is a certain, deep-running fluidity in all of these massively popular war stories. They are collectively a trembling narrative that deprives us of answers, lacking, particularly, the America’s Army drive to orient our heroes as heroes.