Somewhere in the welter of Academy Awards coverage there was an interesting observation: that in boxoffice terms the eight films nominated for Best Picture this year, combined, haven’t totaled the domestic haul of one of last year’s nominees, Gravity. That may change with the wide release today of one of this year’s anointed, Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of American Sniper. After cleaning up in New York and Los Angeles for a few weeks, it’ll take from Taken 3 and kick Paddington‘s bear ass, and break an earnings record for the typically frigid month of January.
American Sniper is the most alertly directed film Eastwood, 84, has made in several years–watching the likes of Hereafter and J. Edgar, you get the feeling he was talking more to that empty chair than to the cast and crew. Like most of his recent output, including last summer’s Jersey Boys–a typically half-engaging, half-sleepy enterprise–it runs about 135 minutes. Little is wasted, however; it’s taut, and tense, as cleanly executed as one of its protagonist’s record kills.
This was lost on the Academy, which, declining to follow the Directors Guild of America’s lead, failed to nominate him (and make a bit of history; joining The Judge‘s Robert Duvall as the oldest acting nominee, he would have been Oscar’s oldest directorial one). No worries–Eastwood, a pariah in the 70s, has been a member of the club since 1992’s Unforgiven, and he wasn’t the only high achiever slighted. (Bennett Miller for the dreary Foxcatcher, really? My sympathies, Ava DuVernay.) From top to bottom, however, this is very much an auteurist work, a right-wingish twin to 2009’s Best Picture, The Hurt Locker, which spotlit a protagonist also highly skilled at a dangerous job in war-torn Iraq.
Since American Sniper is officially an “Oscar movie,” let’s look at it in Oscar terms. Technically the movie is all of a piece, uniformly well crafted, and all those bullets whizzing around on their (almost) impossibly long trajectories, in one sequence through a sandstorm, certainly qualify for best sound mixing and best sound editing. The editing of the action scenes is tight, and the homefront episodes, with Sienna Miller trying to keep hold of a husband inexorably drawn to war, don’t dawdle. (The two sides of the movie meet when Navy SEAL Chris Kyle calls his wife in the thick of battle.) Things like the curious animatronic baby that mars a scene or two usually bug me, but I paid it no mind. That aside Eastwood’s team is working at a high level here.
As is nominee Bradley Cooper, a money-spinner on Broadway right now in The Elephant Man. It took me some time to warm to him; The Place Beyond the Pines, not one of his better-known roles, did it for me. “Sexy guy” glamor aside he’s in the working class hero mode of Bruce Willis, one that wears pretty well with age, and real-life Navy SEAL Chris Kyle fits perfectly in that wheelhouse. It helps that with weight gain and exercise, the hallmarks of any Oscar performance it seems, he bears more than a passing resemblance to the person he’s playing; moreover, he incarnates American values as Eastwood wants us to see them. (This is that rare movie where the adjective isn’t used as an ironic cheap shot in the title, a worn-out device.) I like to see non-actorly performances honored, and this is a good one, the exact opposite of Steve Carell’s bogus “transformation” in Foxcatcher.
Best Adapted Screenplay: Well, that was a job of work. I’ve read the autobiography, and the racist, xenophobic soldier at its heart doesn’t make too many appearances. Kyle’s legend has taken a beating since his murder two years ago, and the film presents us with a carefully airbrushed portrait, heavier on patriotism (Kyle, adrift, finds purpose after 9/11) than the militant Christianity that’s all over the book. Kyle, contemptuous of the subhuman Iraqis, portrayed himself engaged in a battle with pure, God-hating evil. Mindful of the mixed sensibilities of purple state audiences, the movie glides over most of his rhetoric. It’s not exactly apolitical while sticking to the middle ground, but there’s more blood than thunder here. (Come to think of it, not that hard a job of work; I can’t find my copy of the book, yet the basic strategy was to use some of Kyle’s words as voiceover, then cut out the more inflammatory sentences. The movie is purposely hard to read; the book isn’t. Depending on sensibilities, readers coming into it after seeing the film, as I did, may be in for a shock.)
Selma uses events of 50 years ago to comment on the present, and, for all the fuss kicked up about it by the American history police, it does so quietly. Coming as it does as our polite, respectful detachment from our military, and PTSD and other issues confronting veterans, are under discussion, American Sniper is very much a Best Picture candidate of the moment as well. While honoring its source–stumbles into cliche are recovered from adroitly–Eastwood bends some questionable source material to form a pensive study of a unique soldier whose gifts aren’t enough to protect him from every trap laying in wait. A child-killing American sniper, the bogeyman in Dirty Harry (1971), acquires a certain depth in this much different telling. Boyhood, watch your back.
As for the Oscars…well, host Neil Patrick Harris has his work cut out for him on Feb. 22. Questions of representation are dogging the affair. Matters of cinephile interest, like Linklater vs. Anderson, aren’t going to get butts on couches, and the expansion from five Best Picture nominees to a possible ten isn’t helping. Widening the field was intended in part to get more crowdpleasing fare in–what’s happened is that more middlebrow Oscar bait, like The Theory of Everything, with smaller, “arthouse plus” audiences, is clogging the works. With two slots open this year, why not fill them with Guardians of the Galaxy (hey, that’s got a gun-toting Bradley Cooper, too!) and Into the Woods, Gone Girl or Interstellar or Dawn of the Planet of the Apes–well reviewed hits? (And what happened to The Lego Movie? All eyes are on the animators for that omission…was it the unexpected switch to live action that killed its chances?) The voters are getting as stuffy as critics regarding these matters.
Except for Theory and the less insufferable The Imitation Game, I’m not really quibbling with the choices; Birdman wasn’t my thing, but four of the eight may make my personal top ten for 2014, which I promise to reveal by showtime, along with my Oscar picks. Still there’s room under the big tent for bigger movies, riskier smaller ones, and more diverse ones, too.