The bridge from ‘Selma’ to ‘American Sniper’

Published 12:10 pm Saturday, February 7, 2015

by John Railey

Can fans of the controversial movies “Selma” and “American Sniper” ever find common ground?

Here’s what my friend Chris Geis of Winston-Salem wrote me in an email the other day:

“I saw ‘American Sniper’ and ‘Selma’ over the weekend and loved both of them. But I think I’m one of the few people in the overlapping part of two Venn diagrams on these movies. ‘American Sniper’ is now a conservative cause célèbre, and some of my white friends seem to have taken a pass on seeing ‘Selma.’”

I saw Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” a few weeks ago and liked it. I’d been meaning to see Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” as well, and the email from my buddy, a local lawyer and commander in the Navy Reserve JAG Corps who is white, prompted me to do that.

Count me in the apparent minority with Geis: I liked “American Sniper” as much as I liked “Selma.”

“American Sniper,” of course, is about the late Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in American military history, and his time in the Iraq war. “Selma,” of course, is about the Alabama march led by Martin King and others that led to the passage of the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965.

At first blush, the two films don’t seem to have much in common. Some might even think it’s sacrilege to compare a film about war with a film about peace. But there is a duality in the American soul on war and peace. Most of us crave peace somewhere down deep, but our culture nurtures us on war images.

In its graphic depiction of war and the physical and mental pain it visits on its vets, “American Sniper” is in some ways an anti-war film.

Whether you agree with that or not, the two films are closer than you might think. Both works, like the best movies, give us larger-than-life heroes in whom we can dream of seeing parts of ourselves, rising to extreme occasions as they do. I’ve got good-old-boy (and girl) friends and family like Kyle and activist friends and family like King. I love them all.

No, King wouldn’t have approved of Kyle’s violence, but he might have liked Kyle. He hated war, not warriors. He railed against the Vietnam War that drafted poor guys. And he’d probably have railed against the desert wars, fought with an all-volunteer force of men and women, many, if not most, of modest means.

But many of those troops, like Kyle did, believe in what they’re doing to the point of dying for it. King could identify with that. He could also have identified with Kyle’s commitment to his cause to the point that it hurt his family life. In “Selma,” the tortured warrior of peace King all but runs from the love of his wife. In “American Sniper,” the tortured warrior of war Kyle all but runs from the love of his wife.

As Geis wrote me in an email:

“The troops deserve our respect, gratitude, and awe for the sacrifices they make on behalf of their country. But it is difficult to watch people deify them. They’re great men and women, but they’re not saints — just as Martin Luther King was not a saint. He was a godly man who, in his public life, came as close to acting on the principles of Jesus as any American in public life ever has, and he deserves our respect, gratitude, and awe just as we would give those things to a winner of the Medal of Honor.

“I feel the same level of disdain for people who despise the military as I do for people who deify it. What I look for is the conviction to do something, to lay it on the line for something or someone besides yourself and your own narrow interests — whether you were a soldier in battle or a civil-rights worker in the 1960s. Pat Tillman did it. MLK sure did it, and thank God for that, or else where would we be as a country? John Lewis did it.

“I love the military with every fiber of my being, and, given the chance to stand alongside a veteran, I will do it any day. But you can’t tell me that what MLK or John Lewis did was any less patriotic or Christian than our most decorated, religious soldiers, sailors, Marines, or airmen.

“Can one not appreciate the patriotism and honor in both movies?”

I sure can.

JOHN RAILEY, who grew up in Courtland, is the editorial page editor of The Winston-Salem Journal, which published this column.