MY FIRST review on SCM was of Selma, a film which made some historical alterations in order to serve its storytelling. Every single biographical film ever made has done this, and as I explained in that review, the complaints about accuracy tend to be stronger when the events are in recent memory.
American Sniper takes place within the last 15 years, and its subject, Chris Kyle, wrote his dubious memoir only three years ago. He also died less than two years ago, in circumstances which were tragic whether you liked him or not. Not a project anybody should be going into unless they’re very confident that they can do the story justice. Cue the living legend and Dirty Harry himself, Clint Eastwood.
American Sniper, adapted from Kyle’s autobiography by Jason Hall, has been an unprecedented success for a January release in the USA. Critics have been generally positive about the film and it’s been nominated for six Oscars: three for its editing, plus Best Picture, Best Adapted Screenplay and a third consecutive Best Actor nomination for Bradley Cooper.
The film is solid. It’s emotionally moving, it feels realistic (as fictionalised as this version of events may be) and the acting and direction hold up well. It’s a good film. If you haven’t seen it, I recommend seeing it. This review is about to get a lot meaner than this film probably deserves, but there are some criticisms which can’t be overlooked. If you want to enjoy this film without thinking too hard about it, I give you permission to stop here and go have yourself a good time elsewhere.
If the story was entirely fictional, I’d probably be giving this film a positive review with no buts. But this film is about Chris Kyle, a man quoted as saying: “I hate the damn savages; I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis.” This film is about the Iraq war, which is a whole mess of ongoing ethical and legal debate. This film is about a sniper who murdered an estimated 160 people from a safe distance and then wrote a book full of straight-up lies.
Then we come to the controversy over its award nominations. While it certainly is impressive that Cooper’s career has reached this point, after years of cheesy rom-coms and one good Hangover movie, he is the least deserving nominee in the Best Actor category.
Cooper’s performance isn’t bad; he hits all his marks, does what I gather is an accurate Texan accent, and he carries the film with gravitas and charm. However, 2014 was an excellent year and the Academy made the wrong call nominating Cooper while more powerful performances by Jake Gyllenhaal, Ralph Fiennes and David Oyelowo weren’t recognised.
The Academy started nominating up to ten films each year for Best Picture in 2010 so that a wider variety of films could be given a chance. This was most likely because Wall-E and The Dark Knight, both excellent works of art regardless of their populist genres, weren’t nominated in 2009 despite being the most lauded films of the year.
They’ve sidled back into old habits though, still opting for standard award bait for most of their choices; the token curveball this year was The Grand Budapest Hotel, with every other film being a surprise to nobody. They also only picked eight films, leaving fans of Gone Girl, Nightcrawler, Foxcatcher and any other critical hit you can name baffled.
I’m not angry that American Sniper has been such a huge deal. It’s unambiguously patriotic in a year when film has been very cynical, and people want to be moved. I can’t say this film bothers me any more than Schindler’s List, another morally absolute film which milked a real-life tragedy for all it was worth and got a pile of Oscars for doing so.
If you want to see a movie which takes you through the ordeal of modern warfare in the comfort of a theatre seat, I can’t blame you – you’ll like this movie just fine. When the anonymous and mute Iraqi sniper is framed as a villain while the brawny American sniper is framed as a hero, you can either accuse it of being racist propaganda, or just accept it as movie logic. I recommend seeing it either way.
But see Whiplash first.