We’re heading into the home stretch before the Academy Awards ceremony and, as expected at the start of the season, we’re down to two main contenders: Boyhood (the probable winner) and Birdman (my preferred winner). However, the one film that has really caught the attention of the public is American Sniper. It’s been a controversial film, yet beyond all of the fingers pointed at the Clint Eastwood biopic of U.S. Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle is one important and interesting truth: Unlike any of the other Best Picture nominees this year, American Sniper got people talking.
Likely to become 2014’s highest grossing release (at least in the U.S. box office) by the end of this month, American Sniper clearly captured something in the American psyche that was completely unexpected, especially considering how poorly movies about the War on Terror have done financially in the past. 2009 Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker only brought in $17 million. 2012 Best Picture contender Zero Dark Thirty hauled in a respectable $95 million at the box office. Meanwhile Sniper is at $308 million and counting making it the second highest grossing R rated movie of all time after The Passion of the Christ. But the impact of the film goes beyond how well it’s doing at the box office, and into the public response to it. People are legitimately interested in the film, and not in the, “How cool were the effects!?!” way that tends to follow $200+ million grossers. Whether they’re taking a positive or negative view, people are talking about this movie for its message and ideology, its themes and philosophy.
While all of these issues end up being debated ad nauseum in the online cesspool known as news site comment sections, it genuinely impresses me that a popular movie is generating this type of conversation because of how uncommon it is. Yet, isn’t that what movies should do, regardless of whether you’re a cinephile, or an average viewer? A movie that connects with audiences, particularly members who don’t often connect with movies, is a rare animal indeed, and that should be something for our consideration.
Should the attention be enough for it to win Best Picture? No, but it is a refreshing change of pace when you consider the lackluster topics of conversation inspired by the other nominees. The Imitation Game, Whiplash, and The Theory of Everything are primarily known for their acting. Most of their positive remarks come from the accomplishments of Benedict Cumberbatch, JK Simmons, and Eddie Redmayne, respectively. Nothing against praising good performances (where would movies be without them?), but with Best Picture, you’d expect something a bit weightier.
Of all the films that were in the running for nominations, it certainly seemed like Selma might have been the one to break in on the territory American Sniper found, as they are both about important events in American history. However, once it failed to secure a nomination in several key categories, the conversation quickly shifted to crying foul rather than discussing the reasons why it should have been nominated. The merits of the film itself seemed secondary to accusing Academy voters of racism and bias, and maybe that’s telling. A film should be nominated because of its own quality, not only because it happens to focus on a specific issue. This isn’t saying that Selma is a bad film or that it shouldn’t have been nominated in other categories, but, as Mxdwn Movies Editor Tim Falkenberg acknowledged in his article when the nominations were announced, “it’s also very hard to argue Selma into any of the categories it could be up for.” This statement is actually true for most of the movies this year – while many are good, it’s hard to say that many are exceptional.
Arguably the antithesis of American Sniper’s (maybe accidental) inflammatory nature, The Grand Budapest Hotel was probably the biggest crowd-pleaser of the eight pictures – it’s broadly enjoyable, looks fantastic, and has a wonderful ensemble – but it came out so early in the year (March 7, to be precise) that its benefits were almost all forgotten by awards season. Additionally, while Wes Anderson movies always have a distinctive heart (he’s one of the few filmmakers that truly gives a sense of what it means to love one’s creations), he’s still something of an acquired taste. Budapest is his highest grossing movie in America, and it still couldn’t top $60 million. This isn’t saying that the betrayingly whimsical World War II fable didn’t have topics that people could connect to, but its unique visual style and structure made its deeper themes more subtextual, where you’d be more likely to discuss its look than its concepts.
My preferred winner, Birdman was the nominee that received the most acclaim for its cinematic merits. The stream of consciousness style of filming, the impact the score had on its feel, the many terrific performances (with Michael Keaton as anchor), and the dizzying direction that made it feel like a living dream made it the year’s stand out feature. People, at least those who could see Birdman (it never made it into as many as 1000 theaters nationwide in a single week even after an awards season bump; compare that to something like Guardians of the Galaxy, which opened in more than 4000), praised those elements, but they might also be the very reason more people aren’t talking about the movie’s ideas. Birdman, among other nominees, requires audiences to come with some knowledge of film language to get at many of the ideas it’s wrestling with.
Finally, probable winner Boyhood got its primary attention for the “gimmick” (a term I don’t intend to use derisively) of being filmed over twelve years. Yet with any film where the gimmick (be it a twist or amazing effects) is the talking point, you end up wondering whether the gimmick enhances the film or whether the gimmick is the film. Nevertheless, a three-hour coming-of-age story (particularly one without a vomit-inducing pie eating contest) certainly isn’t the type of film to appeal to all audiences, despite its homespun demeanor.
Even if audiences can’t directly relate to Chris Kyle or his wife on a personal level, they can at least understand them. Many people have or know someone who has served or is serving in the military, and American Sniper respects the troops probably better than any movie about the War on Terror. It doesn’t lay judgment, it doesn’t make grandstanding political statements (even its patriotic bent doesn’t seem hokey), and it doesn’t try to be smarter than it actually is; it tells of one man’s experience in battle. It’s the most “common” (again, a term I don’t intend to use derisively) movie on the list, and people welcomed that.
It’s also (and maybe more importantly) the most accessible film in terms of style. It’s a basic story told simply…and that’s not necessarily a bad thing (say what you will, but Clint Eastwood knows his way around a camera). The marvelous production design and nesting structure of The Grand Budapest Hotel is delightful, and the directorial and cinematographic wonder of Birdman might be what sticks with you most from 2015, but they are things for, well, film snobs. Some have argued that American Sniper is so good because it gets out of its own way, while others have argued that it’s not particularly well made, so it obscures the ideas which are otherwise easily seen, but in either case those people are discussing the ideas of the film at least as much as the technical aspects of its construction.
And regardless of how well American Sniper was made, it does present ideas worth discussing in a way that makes people feel comfortable engaging with them. Is it pro-war, or is it pro-troops with a cogent recognition that war is sometimes a necessity? Is it celebrating a killer, or is it honoring a soldier, and how does one draw that line? Is war a matter of good vs. evil, or a matter of necessity? (And the Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima twofer definitely shows Eastwood as a man cognizant of the personal and ideological factors faced by all sides involved in these conflicts.) I would have liked Eastwood to spend more time on the question of what happens when soldiers return from war physically and/or mentally broken, but it’s an important issue that the movie does bring up, and it does so without really “blaming the war.”
While every nominated or nearly nominated film has something to say, none of the other films really have something to say that feels so relevant to so many people. The only real contender for this title is Selma and even that is a bit of a sticky wicket. Comparing the Selma marches to modern protests can seem poignant, or it can seem like it’s co-opting an iconic moment in American history when the realities of the situations couldn’t be further apart. Additionally, the modern issues that might be reflected in Selma came on so quickly and took up so much media attention that by the time Selma hit theaters people were either burned out of discussing it or, if they were still involved in the debate, were in a perpetual rage (regardless of which side they were on). The War on Terror is something that we have been living with for close to 15 years at this point. It’s part of the fabric of our national identity, yet it’s really not something we feel like we can discuss honestly in the same way we do more domestic issues. Bringing it up often devolves into political party screaming matches, or being accused of being with X/against Y. By giving a face and a family to the plight faced by so many, American Sniper seems to have made people feel okay talking about the topic openly. And that’s a very good thing, regardless of where one falls on the matter.
And maybe that’s what pundits are talking about when they comment on nominating more mass-approved movies. Not necessarily choosing the most popular films, but picking the ones that inspired discussion about something greater than what should be done with Spider-Man. American Sniper wasn’t the best movie of the year, but it certainly seems to be among the most important. Hopefully, its commercial and critical success will inspire more major studio fare to be willing and able to take chances and tackle issues worth commenting on.