How American Sniper cashed in on conservative resentment
Hollywood was shocked when last weekend ended and Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, a film about Chris Kyle — described everywhere as "the most lethal sniper in American military history" — not only was the top-grossing film in the country but took in over $100 million, the kind of number we ordinarily associate with superheroes or teenage girls fighting for their lives. Why did it do so well? The answer is, at least in part, politics.
I haven't seen the film, so I don't have any opinion about its content (though this lengthy IMDB summary explains the plot scene-by-scene if you're interested). But let's accept that at least some of people who went to see American Sniper over the weekend chose that film because they perceived it as a patriotic act. What we can say for sure is that professional conservatives are now very excited about American Sniper, and their analysis of it (see here or here) tends to be mostly about liberals — why they allegedly hate the movie, why they dishonor Chris Kyle, and why going to see it would be a great way for right-thinking Americans to tick them off.
Meanwhile, Mike Huckabee, who it seems will be basing his presidential campaign on making himself the tribune of those burning with conservative cultural resentment, is out criticizing Beyoncé for dancing suggestively and singing lyrics that amount to "mental poison." Few things are more edifying than politicians telling us what music we should be listening to or movies we should see. But politics can't stay away from pop culture for long.
All of us are attracted to the music, books, television shows, and films that reflect our own experiences and worldviews. But conservatives seem to have a particular taste for the products they think will make liberals mad. This is nothing new, of course. For instance, there's almost an entire subgenre of country music devoted to singing the praises of country life and telling city folk where they can stick it. Merle Haggard's 1969 song "Okie From Muskogee" ("We don't let our hair grow long and shaggy/like the hippies out in San Francisco do") is the urtext of the genre. Like so much in our endless culture war, we're still fighting over the things we fought over in the '60s.
When conservatives in the "heartland" say that they feel alienated from Hollywood's values, it isn't without reason. (And to be clear, the "heartland" can be located pretty much anywhere; on Monday night Huckabee told Jon Stewart that he resides in "flyover country" — despite the fact that he lives in a beachfront house in Florida.) Most of the people who produce TV and movies are indeed liberals, and some of their beliefs are reflected in what they create. The Simpsons are just about the only TV family that regularly attends church. Lots of shows portray gay people not as deserving of fear and scorn but as regular people for whom a viewer might feel sympathy. Groups of friends in advertisements are always happily multi-racial. On the other hand, an advocate of unfettered gun rights couldn't be happier with how often Hollywood sends the message that serious problems always have solutions that involve the righteous use of firearms.
In most cases, those decisions are made not to make a point but because of more mundane considerations, like how to maximize the audiences advertisers want to reach. The reason there's a CSI: Miami but no CSI: North Platte, Nebraska is that there aren't that many murders to investigate in North Platte.
But if you live in a small town in what you consider the heartland, you can take comfort in the fact that even if Hollywood doesn't set too many dramas in towns like yours, everyone in politics will rush to exalt you, your superior values, and the place you live. Every candidate who came from a small town will tell the story of the wisdom and morals he learned there, in a place where all the true virtues can be found (and he won't mention that when it was time to make something of himself, he left as quickly as he could). Despite the fact that most Americans now live in cities or suburbs, I've yet to hear a presidential candidate sing the praises of urban life, with its human diversity, cultural complexity, and economic dynamism. But every candidate without small-town roots wishes he had them to weave into his stump speech.
Nevertheless, if conservatives are motivated to let their politics shape their cultural consumption decisions, it's understandable. Whether you're listening to a neo-punk band you insist no one's ever heard of or blasting the same Tim McGraw song coming out of every other pickup truck in a hundred-mile radius, you're making a statement of identity you want others to hear. And if you feel that the dominant pop culture isn't about you, you'll be particularly interested in whatever you can find that is, or makes a statement you'd like to support.
So there's really nothing wrong with conservatives trooping to see American Sniper because they think that's what conservatives ought to do. And don't be surprised if in the next couple of weeks, we see at least a couple GOP presidential hopefuls extolling the movie and tweeting pictures of themselves going to see it (and stopping at Chick-fil-A afterward!), so the primary voters know who's One Of Us and who isn't.