2014 has been a disappointing year for movies. This has been aggravated by a roster of startlingly anemic Oscar nominations (even by the Academy’s standards) which had all white acting nominees for the first time in several years and 100% white men in the writing and directing categories. In the #OscarsSoWhite trend that followed, the internet mourned what it perceived as a major shut out of Selma and in particular its director Ava DuVernay.
Meanwhile, many railed against the multiple nominations for Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper, which the legion of political correctness and leftists regarded as evil right-wing pro-war anti-Muslim propaganda. (Try finding a news source that doesn’t have an angry editorial about this film).
The most insidious problem of contemporary film criticism is that a film’s quality and merit is solely judged on the perceived ideology, the message of the story. (This is what happens when indoctrinated politically correct Liberal Arts graduates are leading the conversation.) We have lost the ability to look at a film holistically, to critique the overall aesthetic and structure.
From the hype, you’d think that Selma and American Sniper were totally diametrically opposed. Surprisingly, there are more similarities than differences in terms of execution, strengths, and flaws. Both are highly ambitious films that aim to encapsulate a large swath of timely and timeless political issues around bold, active historical figures.
Selma’s genius is in its timing. Its theme of fighting for the right to vote is sadly just as relevant to today’s political climate with its recent strong allusions to “voter fraud,” police brutality, and a systemic set of laws to keep black citizens disenfranchised. The film itself has undeniable moments of brilliance which are ultimately outweighed by its cinematic deadweight.
David Oyelowo captures MLK’s voice and appearance as if the man himself has been resurrected from the dead. Yet his performance feels more informative, than engaging and would fare better in a reenactment for a BBC or PBS documentary than as a central focus for a narrative feature. This wouldn’t be the problem that it is if Selma wasn’t entrenched in the tried and true fashion of hero worship and devoted more time to fleshing out the other activists (Lorraine Toussaint and Tessa Thompson get especially short shrift.)
Selma’s weakest link is its screenplay which is credited to Paul Webb, but according to reports, heavily reworked by director Ava DuVernay. Regardless of who is culpable, the script reads as if lifted from the written word of historical records. Consequently, the actors struggle to breathe life to historical textbook SparkNotes masqueraded as dialogue.
The film’s strongest element (it seems that the kudos belong to DuVernay) is its bold revisionist portrayal of Lyndon Johnson, presented as the prime antagonist to Dr. King and his march; historically Johnson was an instrumental ally of King and his movement. Not surprisingly, it is also the only heavily contested part of the film. In the context of Selma, this retooling saves it from the white savior trope that makes countless Hollywood race-themed movies off-putting and self-serving.
On the downside, Johnson’s character is bloodless. The famously profane president is only permitted to utter the maximum number of expletives allowed for a PG-13 rating (which ironically hasn’t helped the Box Office all that much.)
The film’s best performance comes from Oprah Winfrey as a citizen activist. In her first and biggest scene, Winfrey beautifully registers sadness and fury as her character’s right to vote is so unfairly impeded. Her finest moment, and the highlight of the film, happens during the first demonstration outside city hall where her character breaks King’s non-violence pact and attacks a bullying policeman preying on a sick old man; this is a radical departure from her nice non-threatening black lady daytime persona.
There is rarely any suspense or sense of danger thanks to Bradford Young’s showy, but distractingly slow motion camerawork and Willie Burton’s overly glossy sound mixing that covers up too much of the gritty diegetic sound.
American Sniper opens with the scene that unquestionably made the best film trailer of 2014. This fraught moment, where Chris Kyle contemplates shooting an armed Iraqi woman and child, keeps the audience unblinkingly shaking in our seats. Initial flashback scenes in rural Texas are just as startling as the action in Baghdad, mapping the trajectory of Kyle’s indoctrinated violence in a succinct and staccato editing scheme.
Ultimately this flashback overstays its welcome as it morphs into the familiar biopic mold of a linear chain of events, detouring to an uninteresting (and ultimately impassive) storyline of Kyle’s rodeo career and his neglect of a girlfriend. Its first plot point (which has drawn droves of criticism for historical inaccuracy) of Kyle enlisting after witnessing the American embassy bombings in 1998 on TV is an incredulously, overly contrived let-down.
Things pick up considerably in the second act, which begins auspiciously with a startling montage of the brutal military training, where gradually, Kyle reveals his affection for killing. American Sniper reaches its zenith when entrenched in the harrowing throes of the Iraq war. This section is carved out like a 21st century John Ford Western.
As Chris Kyle garners a reputation as “the legend” by his fellow troops for his incredible killing record, he becomes the legend, which makes him more detached from reality and the emotional toll of war. Eastwood’s action sensibility heightens the suspense, ratcheting up with each scene as Kyle’s increasingly reckless and often self-serving decisions endanger his entire squad.
There are times that trying to keep Kyle’s point of view and expand more objectively result in a lack of clarity, but in this section, the two were melded together masterfully. We get a sense of the character and his thirst for battle, but Eastwood thrusts the camera back far enough to show the destructive spoils of war.
Much has been made about the unanimously simplistic and unsympathetic portrayals of Iraqis. Certainly true, but most of the American supporting cast doesn’t get much more substance. Generally, they are reduced to being skeptical anti-war counterweights to Kyle’s pro-savior stance. The one interesting character is Kyle’s nemesis, his Iraqi doppelganger (Sammy Sheik), who is given an unsettling tone matching that of the psychotic Andy Robinson character in Dirty Harry; he’s silent, but he looms like a poltergeist.
The final act suffers from trying to do too much. There are several well-constructed scenes depicting Kyle’s PTSD, but generally they feel like self-contained segments rather than part of a cohering storyline. Sniper superficially touches on the reportedly tough post-Iraq relationship between Chris and his wife, Taya.
Bradley Cooper captures the frazzled inexpressiveness of a veteran with frightening adroitness. His characterization is more textured than the one-dimensional gun crazy yahoo that he seemed to be, and that Kyle himself promoted. This does not necessarily glorify Kyle, as much as show the harrowing dual nature of a man that is both a charismatic country boy and a militaristic killing machine.