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Sniping at the Oscars

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books and culture

Sniping at the Oscars

Eastwood’s latest falls down; Birdman soars. December 12, 2014
Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle in American Sniper (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Suppose they gave an Academy Awards ceremony and nobody came? It may be coming to that, but you wouldn’t know it if you clicked on GoldDerby.com, a website obsessed with handicapping the Oscars, moving contenders up and down rankings according to a mysterious zeitgeist, as if they were indeed horses prepping for the Preakness. Nevertheless, it’s a cliché at this point that movies are no longer what they once were, competing as they do with myriad other forms of entertainment and non-entertainment. It’s also a cliché that’s what’s left of the cin-nay-mah is not friendly to conservatives, if it ever was.

So it was with some anticipation that I unwrapped my Academy-member’s screener DVD of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper. Eastwood, after all, is the only Hollywood mega-director who publicly identifies as a conservative/libertarian—well, at least the only one who is sought after enough to appear at the GOP convention and create sufficient controversy to outshine the candidate. He’s also made a ton of great movies. Grand Torino and Unforgiven are just two of my favorites. Million Dollar Baby wasn’t chopped liver either. At 84, Eastwood seemed primed for one of those “lifetime achievement” Oscars handed out honorifically at the end of magnificent careers. The Hollywood Reporter and Variety had already been sniffing around—would the Academy honor a conservative in 2015?

Well, sorry, in this case, it shouldn’t. American Sniper—adapted from the autobiography of Chris Kyle, the U.S. military’s most lethal sniper—is at best a so-so movie. (For the record, I am disagreeing with a number of critics here, including the National Board of Review, which gave Clint its best director prize.) The film starts out well enough with some superbly shot action sequences, but begins to deteriorate as we get deeper into the personal story of Kyle. Actually, despite Bradley Cooper’s excellent performance, we never find out much of who the legendary sniper really is, his motivations or background, and even less of his wife, Taya, who is a virtual cipher, without friends, family, or occupation. Other than Taya, Kyle has no one to talk to about his numerous tours in Iraq, except for his brother, who disappears for reasons unspecified in the middle of the movie. Hence many violent and important events go uncommented upon and unexamined. Often they’re confusing—and I suspect not in a deliberate way. Too much of this film looks to have been made in the cutting room.

Most of the problem is undoubtedly Jason Hall’s script. Giving Hall his due, he had an unexpected setback. His real life hero was shot and killed by a fellow veteran at a Texas firing range in February 2013. Kyle’s book was already published. Hall had probably already launched into the screenplay. Everything was subject to revision, and much undoubtedly was. Still, the completed movie was released a scant 20 months later—an extraordinarily rapid pace in feature film production.

Unfortunately, it shows, especially since Kyle’s death was in some sense more dramatic than his life, and that death gets very short shrift. Discharged and suffering from almost inevitable post-traumatic stress disorder, Kyle eventually took other similarly afflicted veterans under his wing to cure himself and them. This ambitious and complicated turn is tacked onto the last five minutes of the movie. Fleshing it out would itself have made a riveting and original film. What we are left with instead is just a lot of bang-bang. American Sniper is yet another wishy-washy, superficial, anti-Iraq War movie, surprising and, alas, disappointing from a conservative director.

But enough of the depressing cinema news. If you are one of those people who goes to only a handful of movies a year, as many now do, and want to be uplifted—figuratively and literally—in a truly post-modern way, go see Birdman. Mexican writer/director Alejandro González Iñárritu brings Latin American magic realism to New York with flying colors. (Excuse the bad joke, but I understand puns have just been banned in China and I’m flapping my wings.) The comeback of onetime schlocky action movie hero—the eponymous Birdman, well-played by Michael Keaton—to serious Broadway theater makes far more compelling and entertaining viewing than I expected. Edward Norton gives a bravura performance as the-most-self-involved-actor-of-all-time. Both he and Keaton are up in the rankings at the aforementioned Gold Derby, as is the film. Birdman also gets special points for very little knee-jerk liberal sermonizing. If there’s only a small amount these days, I’m grateful.

I could go on, but right now FedEx is at the door with yet more movies for me to view and vote on for the Oscars. As I noted last year, sometimes it’s as if the Sorcerer’s Apprentice is responsible for multiplying the DVDs. Do I see them all? Only my hairdresser knows for sure—and my head is shaved.

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