I have to give the Academy some credit. At least one of the movies they nominated for Best Picture was one of the best movies of the year. American Sniper, the story of Christopher Kyle (the most lethal sniper in US Military history), is a great film, an important film and I hope every theater showing it is as packed as mine was for this film.
How is it that we’ve been at war now for well over a decade and no one cares? Maybe you do, but in the conversations I have and the overall effect it has on daily life is negligible to non-existent. Whatever you may think about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, they happened. They’re still happening. US troops are fighting and there are no massive protests or national dialogue about it, and for all the talk of supporting the troops which seems to be the line de jour when it comes to the men and women who have experienced this conflict, there are still plenty of troops in harm’s way and they return home to find themselves struggling with PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and a variety of other after-effects that mar their new reality. For a deeper look at what soldiers are facing when they return home, check out the very powerful book Thank You for Your Service by David Finkel.
The point I’m leading to is: where is Hollywood in all of this? The oh so politically vocal Hollywood was all over Vietnam. They’ll spit out films on any social issue you could think of, but since 9/11, how is Hollywood handling the event that changed all of our lives and the aftermath? Largely, they’re not. There have been two powerful films about this period in history: United 93 and Zero Dark Thirty. There have been others made, but those two are the only ones that come to mind when I think of this topic. Those films, though, are primarily about the 9/11 attack and Osama bin Laden. American Sniper is the first powerful movie that examines the war in Iraq, and it does so with brilliant acting and superb direction.
American Sniper follows Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) from his start in Texas as a cowboy, his meeting and marrying his wife (Sienna Miller) and his induction into the Navy SEALs after 9/11. Kyle is motivated by patriotism and by an ingrained desire to take care of the men he serves with in the war. He feels he has a gift with his ability to shoot and with that ability he can save the lives of the men going door-to-door while he watches over them from a perch. This call to duty is so strong that it sent Kyle back to Iraq for four tours of active duty, and the film deftly examines the slow erosion this service has on his marriage, his health and his very soul.
I like Bradley Cooper, and have felt before this that he was a very good actor. I think Silver Linings Playbook is incredibly overrated, but he was good. I think American Hustle is one of the greatest showcases of acting in the last decade and thought Cooper held his own with Christian Bale, Amy Adams and the rest of the ensemble. Both performances, each nominated for an Oscar, were very manic, energetic and comedic. Cooper in American Hustle is a completely different animal. He’s incredibly bulked-up. He looks every bit a SEAL and, though Kyle has a very funny sense of humor, the man at his core was someone with incredible anger toward those who would bully the weak. He and his wife have a fantastic relationship; Cooper and Miller have great chemistry and you genuinely like them as a couple and establishing this makes the strain put on their bond by the war and the toll it takes on Kyle heartbreaking to watch. Kyle also clearly is battling PTSD between tours, and the film finds clever ways to smoothly integrate this into the overall narrative without changing the flow of the story. It’s very clear the price Kyle is paying for his service when he’s at home and the small “triggers” that everyday life contains, and how stressful and uncomfortable he is. Cooper was nominated for this film and, not only does he deserve the nomination, he deserves a win for Best Actor.
The other star of this film is Clint Eastwood, who took over this project when Steven Spielberg backed out. I’ve written an entire piece on Eastwood’s directing (click here to read that retrospective), but suffice it to say that I have been frustrated by many of his efforts. His movies tend to be ponderous in their pacing, often glacially so. If you had sat me down and had me watch this film, I would never have guessed Eastwood directed it. This is the best film he’s directed since Unforgiven, but that’s the quintessential Western. It’s his genre and he hones it to perfection. This film is 145 minutes, but flies by with taut direction that keeps Kyle’s story moving and compelling whether he’s trying to pick up his wife in a bar or he’s deep in a firefight. Eastwood uses angles and shots I never would have expected from him. The final rooftop firefight where he’s cutting perspective from the men on the roof, intercut with drone shots overhead that show their tactical position was a brilliant was to give the audience an entire picture of the battle without exposition. Despite all that, and a deserved Directors’ Guild nod, Eastwood didn’t score a nomination for American Sniper, but he has so much hardware on his mantle at this point that its hard to build up that much rage. I’m just so impressed with a man in his mid-eighties, stretching himself and getting better and better.
I haven’t seen any preliminary numbers for this first wide release weekend for Sniper, but my theater was sold out with people sitting on the stairs and in the hallway. The film elicited tears from more than one man sitting around me. The word-of-mouth on American Sniper should be stellar. It’s a powerful film with a great performance, direction from a legend at the top of his game and an amazing story of an extraordinary man. It also gives people what may turn out to be the defining film of the second Iraq war. The movie seemed to be gaining momentum with voters moving into the Oscar nominations and I hope that momentum continues to grow. This is a film worthy of a Best Picture Oscar and I’ll be rooting for it.