Hollywood's Furriner Problem

02/05/2015 02:26 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

I was waiting to buy a ticket to see the new film American Sniper when the guy next to me provided a capsule review. It was a fantastic movie, he told me. The main character, Chris Kyle, was a great guy, and the film really showed what the war over there was like.

"And the Taliban are evil," he added. "They were just doing terrible things, using kids to throw bombs and stuff."

The fellow told me that the movie had inspired him to look up more information about Chris Kyle on the Internet and learn about his tragic death. But despite this additional research, he still believed that Kyle was fighting against the Taliban. In fact, American Sniper is about Kyle's four tours in Iraq.

My fellow moviegoer can't really be blamed for the confusion. American Sniper doesn't dwell much on the targets of the American army. Of course it mentions several times that Kyle was deployed to Iraq. But the locale of the movie doesn't really matter. We are supposed to be spending most of our time in Chris Kyle's head, and Kyle was focused on killing the bad guys wherever they might be.

In both American Sniper and that other controversial recent release The Interview, Americans are the heroes and foreigners are the targets. And not just foreigners but furriners: an undifferentiated group of people so alien in their ways that they are practically subhuman. Although the first movie is a drama and the second is a comedy, they espouse a similar philosophy. The Americans in these films don't negotiate with evil, as Dick Cheney once famously said; they defeat it: one on one in a test of wills.

In a bizarre coincidence, both movies even climax in identical ways. In scenes that show the slow-motion trajectory of a deadly projectile and the graphic death of the chief villain, the American cowboys get their men. In another parallel, the films haven't gone over well in the countries of these villains, neither in North Korea nor in Iraq.

In war and regime change, furriners are an inscrutable bunch. They are obviously bad guys, or we wouldn't be trying to kill them or oust them from power. They lie. Some of them even pretend to be our friends. But ultimately, as these two buddy movies demonstrate, furriners can't be our buddies. They don't just envy us, as George W. Bush would have it. They want us dead.

So who can blame us for standing our ground and hitting them before they hit America?

Inside North Korea

First I have a confession to make. I found parts of The Interview very funny. Critics have generally been lukewarm about the film, calling it inane and sophomoric. And the North Korean government didn't like it very much either, largely because it features the assassination of its leader.

James Franco plays TV host Dave Skylark and Seth Rogen plays his handler Aaron Rapaport. As in previous movies like Pineapple Express, Franco and Rogen use The Interview as a vehicle to explore male bonding. The funniest parts come at the beginning, when Skylark tries to establish a rapport with a straight-faced Eminem, and then later compares his friendship with Rapaport to various pairings in the Lord of the Rings -- which occasions the most unsettling impression of Gollum that I've ever seen. Also priceless is a hilariously awkward meeting where a former journalism school classmate who works at 60 Minutes ridicules Rapaport for the trashy "news" he produces. The meeting inspires Rapaport to aim higher.

If The Interview had remained in the United States, it could have been a very funny send-up of what passes for TV news these days -- and saved Sony millions of dollars in damages connected to the hacking that took place in December prior to the film's premiere. But no, just like their characters in the film, Franco and Rogen wanted to raise their game. Making fun of America's tabloid journalism -- and relying on body part humor -- was too easy. They wanted to take on a dictator, and a real one at that. And that's when things got complicated.

The creators of The Interview certainly know something about North Korea. The Pyongyang airport is appropriately empty of traffic. The children performers at the dinner banquet could have come directly from the Children's Palace. And Kim Jong Un, played by Randall Park, worries about his father's approval (though Kim Jong Il's accusations of effeminacy were actually directed at his other son, Kim Jong Chol). Finally, given the leader's friendship with Dennis Rodman, it's not so far-fetched that he might develop an interest in someone as gonzo as Dave Skylark.

But a little knowledge proves here to be a dangerous thing. North Koreans are portrayed as entirely credulous people who, once they learn that their leader goes to the bathroom like everyone else, will shed their illusions and rise up against him. In fact, judging from defector testimony, even members of the North Korean elite no longer subscribe to the personality cult.

Pyongyang, meanwhile, is in many ways a showcase city, but not quite the Potemkin village portrayed in the film. Skylark becomes enraged when he comes upon a food-stuffed grocery store, which he'd earlier glimpsed from the backseat of a car, and discovers that the fruits and vegetables are made of plaster. But how would he have reacted to the private Tongil Market in Pyongyang, which is genuinely well provisioned, but only for those who can afford it? Would he rail against it as a sign of totalitarian inequality or celebrate the emergence of capitalism in North Korea?

But The Interview doesn't live or die on the faithfulness of its representations of North Korea. It's not, after all, a documentary. Rather, as the action shifts to Pyongyang, it's becomes progressively less funny. There are a couple of amusing scenes in which Randall Park's Kim is at his most human -- singing along with Katy Perry and partying with Skylark. The rest of the humor relies on one joke: North Koreans are wooden. And since when exactly was assassination funny?

In 1991, Colin Powell declared at the end of the first Gulf War that he was running out of enemies and only had Kim Il Sung and Fidel Castro left. The same holds true for Hollywood, in terms of not only who are the villains (always Nazis, sometimes Russians, occasionally Muslims) but who can be the butt of humor. The only people who can be safely made fun of in a collective way are obscure (the Kazakhs of Borat) or the roundly vilified (North Koreans). They don't have strong lobbies in the United States devoted to image control.

But at least The Interview features one decent North Korean, who has been transformed by the love of an American. That's more than can be said for American Sniper and its approach to furriners.

Sniper vs. Sniper

The director of American Sniper, Clint Eastwood, is no stranger to westerns. He starred in them and directed one of the best (Unforgiven).

He sets up his latest film according to the basic principles of a western, transplanted to Iraq. Chris Kyle is a modern-day cowboy, quite literally, for he starts out as a bronco rider with a keen sense of right and wrong imparted to him by his father. There are sheep and wolves, his father tells him over dinner, and then there are the sheepdogs that protect the innocent weak from the evil strong.

Kyle becomes a Navy Seal and, based on his marksmanship, does four tours in Iraq as a sharpshooter. There he builds up a reputation as "the Legend," with more than 160 kills to his name. He saves his buddies, he goes after the unmistakably evil Butcher, and he suffers no qualms. As he explains to a psychiatrist at the VA, he only wishes he could have saved more American soldiers.

Eastwood is no fool. He wants to celebrate the sacrifices made by American soldiers. But he also wants to inject some ambiguity into the film, if only to appeal to a larger, more liberal audience.

Although he doesn't speak of it, Kyle is worried about the nature of his job. After all, he is not exactly protecting the weak. He is keeping watch over highly trained and well-armed Marines who are going door to door scaring the bejesus out of mostly Iraqi women and children. Of course, the movie suggests that some of these women and children are also legitimate targets, but Kyle is clearly struggling with the burden of determining which of the people in his sniper scope are friendly and which are not.

When one of his fellow Seals gets shot and killed, Kyle attends the funeral stateside. The victim's mother reads her son's last letter, which speaks of the war turning into a "wrongful crusade." Kyle dismisses this sentiment and tells his wife that it was the letter that killed his buddy.

In some sense, he's right. The war required absolute faith on the part of the soldiers, and agnostics like his fallen buddy could not last long out there. The moral quandary Kyle faces is expressed most unexpectedly when, at a birthday party back in Texas, he assaults a real sheepdog that he believes is attacking a child. The war has made him lose his moral compass.

All of this may well be too subtle for most American moviegoers. The film, after all, is structured like a video game with four levels. If he kills enough "savages," Kyle can return to the States and prepare himself for the next level. The last stage of this "game" features the ultimate competition, the High Noon standoff that caps all westerns. The Legend must kill or be killed by Mustafa, an insurgent sniper who'd once won a medal at the Olympics for his skills. It is a fitting match-up.

But even though Mustafa is doing his job, just like Kyle, and even though the rival sniper also acts as a sheepdog in his efforts to protect his flock from murderous outsiders, he receives no sympathy in the film. He is just another "savage."

Here was Eastwood's opportunity to humanize the adversary. He failed to do so. They all remain, in the end, furriners. The ambiguities of war are inserted only to make the American hero more complex. The furriners are just sniper fodder.

Too Soon to Humanize?

I don't expect the creators of The Interview to go out of their way to humanize North Koreans. They've produced a comedy that, like the characters in the film, hews closely to the politics of the U.S. government.

Clint Eastwood is a different story, his conservative politics notwithstanding. As a director, he created a two-part epic about the battle of Iwo Jima: Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. He filmed the two movies back to back, the first looking at the battle from the American perspective and the second from the Japanese viewpoint. Indeed, Letters from Iwo Jima features an all-Japanese cast, is in Japanese for the most part, and features not furriners but real people. In a supreme irony, Letters from Iwo Jima did better at the box office than its American counterpart.

But of course neither film was a blockbuster -- in stark contrast to American Sniper, the highest-grossing war film of all time.

Japan today is a stable, more or less democratic country that the United States counts as a major ally. The passage of time and the tides of geopolitics, in other words, have done much to transform the image of the Japanese in American culture to make a work like Letters from Iwo Jima possible.

The Iraq War, however, is too fresh a wound in the American memory. And in some sense we are still fighting that war today, on the ground with advisors and in the air against the Islamic State -- just as we continue to fight against North Korea with full-spectrum surveillance and economic sanctions. It's not surprising, then, that in their depiction of furriners, Hollywood movies continue to wage their version of war as well.

This blog post was cross-posted from Foreign Policy In Focus.