Clint Eastwood’s latest, American Sniper, tells the story of the deadliest sniper in American history, Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), with admirable clarity.
We open in Iraq, as Kyle sees a child sent by his mother to kill a group of American troops. He is uncertain of whether to fire: "You get it wrong, they fry you," his spotter says. Before he can pull the trigger, we snap back in time to Kyle’s childhood, where we see him pull a bully off his brother. Kyle is told in no uncertain terms that a good man protects the weak. Then we skip ahead a bit. Now an adult, Kyle seems to have lost his way, flitting through life as a rodeo cowboy.
It isn’t until the terrorist attack on America’s embassies in Africa in the late 1990s that he finds his calling. Kyle is to serve as a protector—not of his little brother, but of all America. He joins the Navy, heads to SEAL training, and finds a woman, Taya (Sienna Miller). He and Taya watch the towers come down on 9/11 and his orders to ship out to Iraq arrive during their wedding. Their lives are defined by America’s conflict with radical Islam.
It’s a conflict that has defined the lives of many American families these last 14 years, and Eastwood’s depiction of that life is unparalleled. There’s a reason American Sniper has touched a nerve in the American psyche: No better depiction of the mundane mental struggles faced by military families has been committed to film. No film has better captured the day-to-day uncertainty, the nagging, ever-present fear at home and the boredom punctuated by terror in the field.
Eastwood takes us through Kyle’s four tours of duty. What stand out are the moments: putting the crosshairs on a kid and his mom; watching his buddies catch a bullet; trying to take down a butcher who dispatches innocents with an electric drill. Such is the life of a SEAL. This SEAL has an enemy. Kyle is being pursued by Mustafa, a terrorist sniper whose travel through Iraq mirrors our hero’s own.
American Sniper is not a film that could be accused of trafficking in subtlety. Kyle is told by his father that there are three kinds of men in the world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. The sheep are hunted by the wolves and protected by the sheepdogs; try and guess which Kyle is. The script is structured to humanize Kyle’s nemesis by treating Mustafa as his mirror: after Kyle’s first child is born, we see Mustafa stroking his rifle while sitting next to his newborn. Enemy snipers: They’re just like us!
American Sniper’s greatest flaw is its lack of a third act. Kyle comes home from his last tour of duty and finds he is haunted by the sounds of death. However, it’s not the rifle cracks that felled little kids carrying grenades keeping him up at night. It’s the high-pitched whine of a power drill burrowing into the skull of an Iraqi child whose family helped the Americans. Kyle isn’t troubled by what he did but by what he couldn’t do, what he has stopped doing. He only finds peace after discovering that he can help vets get over their PTSD—a discovery with tragic consequences.
But that final a-ha moment takes about 10 minutes of screen time in a 134-minute film. His demise at the hands of a serviceman he’s trying to help is handled in a title card, his funeral relegated to the film’s credits. As a filmmaking choice, it’s an odd one, an almost aggressive violation of "show, don’t tell." And as a storytelling choice, it is profoundly dissatisfying.
Selma is another competently made, well paced drama focused on a historical figure. David Oyelowo stars as Martin Luther King Jr., who has come to the Alabama town in an effort to register voters. LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) wants King to help get the Great Society going, siccing J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) on him when he insists on his voting registration drive. George Wallace (Tim Roth) wants King to go home and mind his own business—and doesn’t plan on doing anything to stop locals from violently sending him packing.
Director Ava DuVernay’s film is at its best when focused on smaller, more intimate moments. Two wrenching scenes in particular stand out.
The first comes early on, when an elderly black woman, Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey), attempts to register to vote. When the registrar’s blunt attempts at intimidation fail, he begins testing her knowledge of the state. The questions grow in difficulty until she is, ludicrously, asked to name every county court judge in Alabama. The crushed look on Cooper’s face as she recognizes the banal horror of the system she is trapped in reveals the injustice of life in the heart of Dixie.
The second moving scene comes midway through the film, when King is comforting the father of a boy who has been shot by the police following a nighttime march. It’s a quiet, tender moment: the man is torn between grief for his son and awe for King. The pained expression on Oyelowo’s face says it all.
Selma has a much more directed focus than either American Sniper or Boyhood, two of the films against which it is competing for best picture at this year’s Academy Awards. But it’s still a picture that luxuriates in certain moments, lending the proceedings an episodic quality: here’s a speech; there’s a meeting between MLK and LBJ; oh, wow, Malcolm X is in town for a scene for some reason.
Visually, the picture is lacking. There isn’t a single standout image or striking shot. By the end of the proceedings—specifically, when Martin Sheen shows up as a judge granting King and his followers the right to march in protest—one can’t help but feel that one is watching a relatively well-done made-for-cable movie.
It is odd that the culture war has devolved into a fight between supporters of American Sniper and Selma rather than Boyhood, the best picture frontrunner about a liberal family growing up in the reddest of states during the Bush and Obama years.
Richard Linklater’s latest film constitutes a daring cinematic experiment. Filmed in fits and starts between 2002 and 2013, Boyhood watches the growth of Mason (Ellar Coltrane) through his school years. We check in with Mason and his mom (Patricia Arquette) and his sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) as they move around Texas in search of work and educational opportunities. Mason’s dad (Ethan Hawke) flits in and out of his life, taking time off from finding himself to bash Dubya and employ Mason in an effort to elect Obama.
Boyhood’s alternate title might as well be Patricia Arquette’s Bad Choices. Mason’s life is shaped by her inability to stop herself from falling for abusive drunks, first a professor and then a soldier-turned-corrections officer. Neither man particularly cares for Mason, and Mason doesn’t particularly care for them.
The massive level of critical support for Boyhood—its best picture victories from film critics in Washington and New York and Boston and Chicago and Detroit and Houston and Iowa and Los Angeles; its 98 percent fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes; its 100 on Metacritic—is baffling. Yes, it’s an interesting experiment (though one we’ve seen before, albeit in documentary form). And sure, Patricia Arquette delivers a great performance (the side-eye she throws Mason’s father when he makes an empty offer to help pay for college is epic).
But as a piece of storytelling, Boyhood is utterly trivial when it isn’t clichéd. Just in case you were too dense to catch on, Mason spells it out for you in the closing scene: Life is just, like, moments man. A finite series of small things that add up to nothing in particular.
Whoa. Heavy, dude.