Published On: Wed, Mar 4th, 2015

‘American Sniper’: The ‘Deer Hunter’ of this generation

In the aftermath of the Academy Awards, many are expressing surprise and disapproval that American Sniper received only one of the six Oscars for which it was nominated, in the category of Best Sound Editing. But according to Richard Pells, this film doesn’t need the formal designation of Best Picture to make a lasting impact on viewers and on film history. Personal and emotionally wrenching, it is likely to stand the test of time as an important reminder of the horrors and legacy of the Iraq War.

American Sniper is to this generation what The Deer Hunter was to men and women who lived through the Vietnam War era,” says Pells, author of the new book War Babies: The Generation That Changed America (Cultural History Press, 2014, ISBN: 978-0-990-66980-7, $17.99, www.richardpells.com). “While both movies have been accused of being ‘political,’ they each transcend that label. They are less about the wars they depict than about their impact on men and women whose lives they touched.”

American_Sniper_movie posterIn his book, Pells examines how the distinctive war baby generation (born between 1939 and 1945) shaped America’s culture and politics during the past half-century. He notes that The Deer Hunter was directed by war baby Michael Cimino and featured incredible performances by war baby actors Robert De Niro and Christopher Walken (whose performance earned him an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor).

“Much like American Sniper has been in recent months, The Deer Hunter was enormously controversial after its release, in part because of its depiction of the Vietnamese,” Pells says. “It was never meant to be a feel-good, effortlessly entertaining movie, but to raise questions and tap into the concerns and feelings of the generation whose lives were changed by this conflict.”

Here, Pells takes a closer look at what makes American Sniper and The Deer Huntersimilar and memorable:

Both focus on the experience of individuals in war. Neither American Sniper nor The Deer Hunter tries to tell the history of an entire war. These films do not depend on a bird’s-eye view of troop movements and political maneuverings. Instead, both focus on a small group of soldiers—and are much more affecting because of it.

“For American Sniper‘s Chris Kyle and The Deer Hunter‘s Michael, Nick, and Steven, the wars they fought were not primarily about political ideals, patriotism, and heroism,” Pells points out. “Instead, both films do a great job of depicting that for individual soldiers in the thick of the fight, war is about doing a job well so that you and your friends survive. It’s about reacting to your immediate surroundings, not large-scale international events, overarching ideologies, or flag-waving.”

Both portray not only war, but its aftermath. These are not movies that conclude with a triumphant victory. Instead, they show viewers that the trauma of war accompanies soldiers home and is not easily shaken off.

As portrayed by Bradley Cooper, American Sniper‘s Chris Kyle finds it difficult to communicate with and relate to others, is affected by loud noises that recall explosions, and initially lacks purpose until he begins to help other veterans. And in one very evocative scene in The Deer Hunter, Robert De Niro’s Michael asks a taxi driver to drive past his house where a welcome-home celebration has been planned, preferring to grapple with his demons alone in a hotel room.

“Many veterans can personally identify with these portrayals of life after war, with feeling alienated and apart from the rest of society,” Pells notes. “And both films serve as an important reminder to civilian viewers that the cost of our nation’s conflicts continues to be borne by those who served, long after their active service has concluded.”

Neither movie is a “feel-good” film that glorifies war. Some war movies are meant to stir up patriotism, glorify war, and/or simply entertain audiences with “impressive” explosions and fast-paced action sequences. Neither American Sniper nor The Deer Hunter falls into this category.

“Both movies do not flinch from showing—and making the audience feel—the trauma its complicated characters experience,” Pells says. “It’s impossible to walk away from viewing either film with indifference. The Deer Hunter has left many of my college seminar students in tears, and I imagine American Sniper would have the same effect. That immediacy and authenticity are what make both movies so thought-provoking and memorable.

“Interestingly, Bradley Cooper has said that his riveting performance, on which American Sniper‘s emotional impact hinges, was influenced by The Deer Hunter—particularly Robert De Niro’s performance,” he adds.

Both center around the powerful consequences of “one shot.” In both films, the “one shot” mantra is a powerful theme. In American Sniper, it’s the sniper’s credo. Together, all of Chris Kyle’s many successful “one shots” make him a legend and a hero. However, he has great difficulty coming to terms with this characterization of himself because of the traumatic circumstances under which it was earned.

“In The Deer Hunter, ‘one shot’ is initially used to describe the goal of the eponymous deer hunter,” says Pells. “In fact, American Sniper gives this concept—and perhaps also its fellow film—a nod by showing a young Kyle killing a deer with a single bullet. But later on, ‘one shot’ takes on a darker tone in The Deer Hunter as Michael, Nick, and Steven are forced to play Russian roulette by the Viet Cong. In both films, for someone ‘one shot’ is always a matter of life or death that changes even the survivors.”

Both are powerful enough to have an impact outside of movie theaters. In 1979, a Vietnam veteran named Jan Scruggs saw The Deer Hunter. Scruggs, who worked as a counselor at the U.S. Department of Labor, was deeply affected by the film and conceived of the idea of building a national memorial for Vietnam veterans. He established and operated the fund that ultimately paid for the memorial wall in Washington, D.C.—perhaps the most visited and somber monument in the city.

“While American Sniper is still a relatively young film, its potential to impact American society outside of theaters is also quite high,” Pells comments. “Incredibly successful, it has grossed over $400 million, and its portrayal of the high price paid by American troops and their families won’t be easily forgotten. I can’t imagine that it won’t have an influence on the way the war in Iraq is remembered and on the public’s attitude toward veterans.”

“Ultimately, both American Sniper and The Deer Hunter succeed in portraying truths about the wartime experiences that shaped and defined two different generations of Americans,” Pells concludes. “And the fact that they do so in a way that’s intensely personal, thought-provoking, and even controversial is what makes each of them more than ‘just another war movie.’ While The Deer Hunter was recognized with a Best Picture Academy Award and American Sniper was not, I believe both will continue to engage audiences in a meaningful way for many years to come.”

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