Knowledge is, ideally, a shared and common tool for change within this society; our nation’s established principle of free speech, while undeniably subject to constant abbreviation and petitioning, has gone far in encouraging an open dialogue regarding issues both within this country and its place overseas. The cinema (not as an art form, but a tool for influence) has long been understood to be an enormously effective means of distributing ideas or images which may present new knowledge, and unlock new realizations for world audiences. It should seem inevitable, then, that the movies might be used an ideal means of democratic approbation. Yet as a mass medium, American movies seldom strive for that sort of purposefulness – they often seek to appease a certain demographic, be it widespread or limited, and rarely attempt to find a common link between perceived segments of the population.
American Sniper and Selma, however, are two films which do contribute to this discussion of knowledge, and demonstrate its power when applied within the realm of commercial cinema. Each has been enjoying great financial success, and each has sparked passionate nationwide conversations concerning their respective, yet equally relevant subject matter: in the case of the latter, police brutality against black Americans, and in the case of the former, the effects of military combat as well as attitudes towards guns and violence in the United States.
Yet there are complicating factors in both of these films that causes one to hesitate from extolling their significance or relevance. If the greatest potential in movies lies in their ability to show us things we’ve never seen before, the compromise we risk as audience members upon seeing something “new” is the possibility that what we are seeing is inaccurate, or distorted. Once in the position of the uneducated, it becomes very difficult to judge the nuances of a teacher’s lesson. Thus American Sniper feels like an illuminating and useful reminder of the horrors faced by those at war, yet the fact that it addresses a world which has remained almost exclusively unexposed to Americans lends room to speculations that what the movie shows is, indeed, distorted and inaccurate.
Selma, on the other hand, does not have that problem: similarly derived from historical events and figures, it is a film that harkens back to a moment in American history that has been thoroughly documented, preserved in a vast catalogue of film reels, audio tapes, news publications, and official and personal documents. So we know that the story has been, in a way, distorted, because any attempt to depict that volatile moment in time (namely, the 1965 marches in Selma) is challenged by an intricate archive – the contents of which not only speak more immediately to the moment itself, but which communicate its essence with greater power than any post-event dramatization ever could.
Both films are receiving good notices, if not high praise; audiences flock to them (let’s ignore the potential joke about “sheep”) and eagerly embrace the films’ readymade appeal just as they are being exposed to some more provocative truths about the world we live in. Yes, this is how black people were treated less than half a century ago – and, say, is it possible that there are still corners of the globe, certain city streets and apartment stairwells, where they are being treated in the same way? And how about all the years that we were getting those death toll numbers from Iraq without seeing any of the bodies? What other commercial film (aside from, possibly, Lone Survivor ) has taken us behind the media-barring curtain of those years our men and women were oversees, fighting terrorists and losing their lives – or else losing their grounding, both emotionally and mentally, to the ravages of a desperate, abused country?
What these films do is honorable, and it is good to honor them for that. Both do a respectable job of laying out all the points of contention or uncertainty within the histories of their respective subjects – even if, in the case of Selma, those points all too well resemble the neat, spelled-out nature of textbooks or wiki biography pages, and in American Sniper they flit by without apparent comment from the director, or fall into the limited patterns of Hollywood action sequences. There is something clean about these movies, unchallenging, wherein history or violence is viewed through the glass wall of time, of distance. We were not there, so how can we know? And by the same token, how can we expect the filmmakers to know the truth of the stories they tell, no matter how inherently devastating the subject matter?
Do we celebrate the universality of these films? Do we cherish them for being strong contemporary examples of that old phenomenon, movies as a mass medium? Or do we lament their popularity, as a sign that perhaps the movies are better off small and independent, so that history and reality might be done better justice? It makes one realize that the best movies of yesteryear don’t always hold up to the perspective afforded by time; audiences grow smaller for individual films the more they slip into the past, more discerning. Perhaps the lesson is that, no, commercial cinema is not a great tool for layered analysis, or discussion, or contemplation, or art. But as a resource for essential information, as a means of sharing knowledge with a greater public, it can still be useful – and, in fact, indispensable.