The fifth post in my series examining the top contenders at this year’s Academy Awards.
I doubt that anyone could’ve imagined that a Bradley Cooper vehicle would become the year’s most controversial Oscar contender.
It’s sounds silly to type, but I’ve had my ups and downs with American Sniper. Even with its early buzz, I knew virtually nothing about it until I read Vanity Fair’s cover story on Cooper that gave the film and his performance rave reviews. The film’s political implications didn’t click at first, not until I read Vulture’s review, which likened it to Republican propaganda. Taking director Clint Eastwood’s infamous empty chair routine at the 2012 Republican National Convention into account, the turn-off for me was immediate. Any interest in seeing the film after Vanity Fair evaporated.
Then January 15th came, and I woke up to American Sniper receiving six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor. Cooper’s third nomination in as many years was particularly surprising because he had been virtually absent from other award nominations, not even the Golden Globes. It was expected that either Selma’s David Oyelowo or Nightcrawler’s Jake Gyllenhaal would take the fifth slot. Also jarring was its comparison to Selma, a Oscar frontrunner, and its lack of nominations. Unlike The Imitation Game or Boyhood, American Sniper wasn’t expected to be a big player this season, so seeing it exceed expectations was shocking. When juxtaposed with Selma and considering what I thought the movie would be about, it raised troubling questions for me about the Academy’s appreciation of diversity. After the film shattered box office records, with over $100 million in its first weekend in wide release, it was clear that this overnight phenomenon needed a closer look.
Again, based off of Vulture’s review, I walked into this film expecting a propaganda piece that glamorized war and demonized Iraqis without prejudice. I got something entirely different walking out.
American Sniper is the story of Chris Kyle, an Iraqi war veteran touted as the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history, with the moniker of “The Legend”. Both his title and credentials are tossed around several times throughout the film, spoken with adoration from fellow soldiers and wounded vets back in the States. That wasn’t surprising to me. What did surprise me was Kyle’s consistent reaction to the praise, the discomfort in his face and body language at his perceived accomplishment.
If this was a blatantly pro-war film, even at its most subtly baised, I doubt I would have seen him practically crawling out of his skin upon greeting another starry-eyed admirer.
American Sniper ended up being a character study, closely examining the emotional, psychological, and physical effects that war had on Chris Kyle. The film doesn’t takes a firm stance on either political side, which allows a fascination human portrait to emerge where it otherwise would be missed. Because it is Kyle’s story, and he has expressed anti-Muslim sentiment on record, there are jingoistic elements and one-dimensional depictions of Iraqis that I didn’t appreciate. However, I understand that it would be unrealistic, and untruthful to Kyle’s story, to expect a multi-note assessment from a man with his particular task. Still, Clint Eastwood does a masterful job of keeping as much balance as possible. He is less concerned about making a political statement than looking at war’s effect on those who survive and are left behind.
For all of his killing prowess, Chris Kyle does struggle with the emotional turmoil that is birthed from his service. He is faced with moral dilemma as early as his first mission, and although he executes it decisively, you still see the small knick in his armor. He is toughened by these experiences, but to the detriment of his relationships. He falls in love before his first deployment, building a family in between tours, but he is never fully engaged with them. There is always the ghost of firefights and explosions haunting him, and his reluctance to share the burden puts increasing strain on him and his wife, played by a great (and unrecognizable) Sienna Miller. He is often praised for his abilities, but doesn’t really receive them. He keeps everyone, his family, his fellow soldiers, his victims, at a distance that ranges from comfortable to almost beyond scope. He needs to in order to complete his mission. His duty to his country doesn’t waver, but the scars that build up become difficult, and eventually impossible, for him to compartmentalize and continue. When he leaves the war and finally begins on some course of healing, tragedy strikes. It’s an unexpectedly nuanced character arc that proved more impactful than the obvious political beats that the film ultimately resists.
Even in its sharp focus on Chris Kyle, this is a film about war, and Eastwood’s depiction of the front lines is unflinching. Unlike Kyle, it’s terribly easy for viewers to jump several times upon viewing, just from the audacity of the action. The camera, often close to its subjects, doesn’t leave any breathing room or escape from the blood, sweat and sand. Eastwood commits to as realistic a war zone as Hollywood is capable of, and his results are thoroughly engrossing. It all serves the visual showcase of the realities of war. Bradley Cooper, as Kyle, is responsible for the psychological showcase, and he succeeds beyond expectations. The role requires a level of steadiness that borderlines on antisocial stoicism, but Cooper allows shades of visceral vulnerability to slip through that make the few times Kyle does crack under the intense pressure almost cathartic. It may be the best role of his career, and rightly deserving of its Oscar nomination. Cooper and Eastwood put in excellent work to peel back the layers of a deceptively simple man, without delving into worship.
Politics aside, American Sniper is a great film that succeeds both technically and emotionally. Still, it is hard to place its chances at the Oscars. As excellent as Bradley Cooper is, the Best Actor race is a deservedly two-horse race between Eddie Redmayne and Michael Keaton. Although technically impressive, it might be a bit too traditional in the face of more daring nominees. And yet, despite its very late start, the deafening buzz coming from its surprising nominations and box office performance definitely puts it in serious contention for Best Picture alongside Birman, Grand Budapest Hotel, and Boyhood. Depending on how well the film’s reception holds up through to February, American Sniper might complete its hat trick and pull an upset.
Coming up: Boyhood (I promise!). In the meantime, again, please leave any thoughts you have in the comments section and thanks for following on this whirlwind (I don’t think I’ve seen so many movies in one short period ever).