Posts Tagged ‘American Sniper’

Events have conspired to keep me away from this blog over the last week or so, but after a year of blogging about film I feel it would be remiss of me – with just a few hours to go – not to make a few comments about nominees for this year’s Academy Awards. Needless to say, there are films that I would have liked to see shortlisted for Best Picture but which weren’t. Under the Skin would be the film I’d have given an Oscar to; this, Foxcatcher, and Nightcrawler were, in my view, all vastly superior to American Sniper and The Imitation Game. However, the Academy Awards, like the recent BAFTAs, seem to exhibition a certain degree of conservatism.

The main points of controversy have been the lack of recognition for black performers and film-makers, as well as the degree of dramatic license taken in many of the films depicting historical events. I have seen, though not reviewed, all of the films nominated for Best Picture and in some cases my view of a picture has changed since I first saw it. So, without further ado, here are my brief thoughts on the nominations.

American Sniper  I didn’t for one minute think that this was a pro-war film, but in retrospect I agree with many of the film’s detractors that it was problematical to view all events from the perspective of Chris Kyle. In particular, Kyle appears to swallow the falsity that Iraq was involved in the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon, but director Clint Eastwood does nothing to disabuse the audience of this myth. We also know from Kyle’s own book that the opening scene of the movie is inaccurate, albeit in a way that invites the audience to share his view of Iraqis as “savages”: the woman we see carrying the grenade did not, in reality, pass the weapon to a child to carry. Nonetheless, to my eyes – if not to some other viewers – American Sniper clearly showed the American invasion of Iraq to be a futile venture. But does this film deserve its Best Picture nomination? Not in my view. By a long way, this is not even Eastwood’s best film.

Birdman (or the unexpected virtue of ignorance)Interweaving fantasy and reality, this is one of the more obviously dazzling nominees, with several terrific performances, a stirring soundtrack, and most of the film apparently shot in a single take. Michael Keaton excels in his role as Riggan Thomson, an actor who once starred as a movie superhero called Birdman, and who is now attempting to put on a Broadway theatrical production. There is obviously a degree of self-referentiality here, in that Keaton of course played Batman in two movies. Self-referentiality also appears when Riggan engages in fisticuffs with the volatile Mike, played by Ed Norton – who of course starred in Fight Club. Funny and inventive, Birdman is like Fellini’s remade by Terry Gilliam. I rather felt that the female characters played second fiddle to the men, but perhaps that simply reflects the way that Hollywood actually is.

Boyhood Richard Linklater is one of the most creative directors in the business, with films like the Before… trillogy, A Scanner Darkly, Waking Life, and School of Rock to his name. Filmed over a 12 year period, Boyhood is undoubtedly one of the most adventurous projects undertaken by any movie director. Some might question whether the slender storyline merits an Oscar, but on the other hand it is the very depiction of the development of ordinary lives that fascinates the viewer. As the winner of the Best Picture at the BAFTAs, this may have some momentum behind it.

The Grand Budapest Hotel  Wes Anderson’s latest has all his trademark visual style, as well as a range of weird and wonderful characters played by many of the most notable actors in the business. Ralph Fiennes gives a brilliant comic turn as Monsieur Gustave H., the concierge for the hotel of the title as well as a self-confessed lothario towards the female visitors. In my view Fiennes should have been nominated for Best Actor. However, like most of Anderson’s films this one amused me but failed to be as funny as I thought it would be.

The Imitation Game  I was initially very enthusiastic about this film. It is funny, thrilling, and despite its intellectual subject matter moves along at quite a pace. I wasn’t sure at the time just how historically authentic this was, but assumed that a few liberties had been taken in order to enhance the drama. That’s fine – up to a point. However, from what I have subsequently learned I feel that this is a film that has stepped over a line. Benedict Cumberbatch is terrific as Alan Turing, but the simple fact is that Turing was not the socially awkward Aspergers-like character shown in the film. He had a sense of humour and worked well with his colleagues. Perhaps even more importantly, among the film’s fictitious constructions is the suggestion that Turing failed to disclose to the authorities that one of his colleagues was a Soviet spy (for fear that his homosexuality would be revealed). In effect, this depicts Turing engaged in an act that would have been considered treasonous, had it ever actually happened. On a more positive note, Keira Knightley is fantastic as Joan Clarke.

Selma  In many ways this is a brilliant and moving film. It follows Martin Luther King Jr, in the wake of the Civil Rights Act and his award of the Nobel Peace Prize. Despite the passing of the Civil Rights Act, which gave black Americans the right to vote, many southern states contrived various illegal devices to prevent black people voting. King attempts, unsuccessfully, to persuade President Lyndon B. Johnson to tackle the problem of the southern states, but the President is resistant, wishing to focus on the wider problem of poverty. King travels to the town of Selma, where he organises a series of increasingly large demonstrations. The violent response to these is widely televised, leading the President to finally take action. It is surely a major oversight of the Academy that David Oyelowo was not nominated for his excellent portrayal of King. However, this film also is not beyond criticism. It seems to have been generally accepted that President Johnson was actually far more sympathetic to King’s cause than is shown here. It is interesting to note that three significant Americans (King, Johnson, and Governor Wallace) are all played by British actors (respectively: David Oyelowo, Tom Wilkinson, and Tim Roth).

The Theory of Everything  The story of Stephen and Jane Hawking, this could perhaps be a safe choice for the Academy’s voters. The cinematography is beautiful, the story moving, and the characters sympathetic. Jane and Stephen Hawking are said to have been very pleased with the film. Nonetheless, the film’s overarching romanticism surely airbrushes events that must have been far more difficult than is depicted here. Eddie Redmayne is brilliant as Stephen, as is Felicity Jones as Jane, and both are fully deserving of their Best Actor nominations.

Whiplash  In terms of pure entertainment, this is hard to beat. It’s the story of an aspiring jazz drummer who comes up against a teacher whose drive to create a new “great” tips over into outright bullying. As a story, it doesn’t have the same significance as something like Selma or The Theory of Everything, but the narrative construction is as tight as one of its own drumskins, and the final scene is more perfect than any of the other nominations.

My verdict:  Of the films nominated, I would give the Best Picture award to Boyhood, a film that is captivating and unique and deserves to be formally recognised as such. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Academy goes for one of the more obvious crowd-pleasers.

For Best Director, I would have to pick Richard Linklater for the above-mentioned Boyhood. To put together such an extraordinary film over a 12 year period, whilst also making some other great movies, is a monumental achievement.

I was sorry that Jake Gyllenhaal didn’t get nominated for Best Actor (male), for his role in Nightcrawler. I thought he was easily more deserving than Bradley Cooper (good though he might have been). This is a pretty tough category to choose from this year, though, with some stunning performances delivered. I rather suspect that Michael Keaton or Eddie Redmayne will pick up the award, but if it were left to me I would choose Steve Carell for his portrayal of troubled millionaire John du Pont in Foxcatcher. Some have said that this is more of a Supporting Role, but for me Carell absolutely dominates the picture.

As I haven’t seen all the films in the remaining acting categories I shall refrain from commenting on those. Possibly the most egregious omission from the Oscars, in my opinion, is Mica Levi’s soundtrack for Under The Skin. I thought this was a country mile ahead of anything else in the year just gone.

For Best Original Screenplay I would choose Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, and for the Best Adapted Screenplay I would choose Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash.

I have seen just two of the films nominated for Best Documentary, but frankly – in terms of sheer contemporary importance – I find it hard to imagine how there could be a more deserving winner that Laura Poitras’s Citizenfour. This documentary about whistleblower Edward Snowden reveals just how badly we have been lied to by our governments about the scale of intrusive surveillance upon ordinary people. And more than anything, it shows just how brave Ed Snowden is.

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Kajaki: Directed by Paul Katis; Written by Tom Williams; Country – UK; Runtime – 108 mins.

Cast: Mark Stanley (‘Tug’ Hartley), Malachi Kirby (Snoop), David Elliiot (Mark Wright), Paul Luebke (Jay Davis), Ali Cook (‘Spud’ McMellon), Bryan Parry (Jonesy), Grant Kilburn (Alex Craig), Andy Gibbins (Smudge), Scott Kyle (Stu Pearson), Jon-Paul Bell (Luke Mauro), Benjamin O’Mahony (Stu Hale), Connor Mills (voice), John Doughty (Dave Prosser), Liam Ainsworth (Ken Barlow), Robert Mitchell (Faz).

American Sniper: Directed by Clint Eastwood; Screenplay by Jason Hall, from the book by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen, and Jim DeFelice; Country – USA; Runtime – 132 mins.

Cast: Bradley Cooper (Chris Kyle), Cole Konis (young Chris Kyle), Sienna Miller (Taya Kyle), Max Charles (Colton Kyle), Luke Grimes (Marc Lee), Kyle Gallner (Goat-Winston), Sam Jaeger (Captain Martens), Jake McDorman (Biggles), Cory Hardrict (‘D’ / Dandridge).

*** SPOILER ALERT: Each film reviewed here is based on real events, and these are described in my review. ***

War – what is it good for?

British armed forces have been engaged in continuous conflict somewhere on the planet for the past hundred years, and for several decades after World War Two war movies were a regular part of the film industry’s output. Even in the late seventies and early eighties good business was being done by films like The Eagle Has Landed, The Wild Geese, and The Dogs of War. However, ever since the televised images from the Falklands War brought the shocking reality of conflict to a new generation it seems as though British film-makers have lost their enthusiasm for war films. There are of course some exceptions, such as Regeneration (1997) and Enigma (2001), the former set in Word War One and the latter concerned with a mystery among Bletchley Park’s codebreakers in WW2. However, it is hard to think of any British movies that deal with our more recent conflicts. Perhaps film-makers have been cowed by the intense controversy that surrounded the TV Falklands drama Tumbledown (1988). Even representations of earlier conflicts can arouse establishment ire if they are felt to question the authorised version of history, as with The Monocled Mutineer (1986).

By contrast, Hollywood has produced several films that are based upon recent conflicts. The best-known of these are Three Kings (1999), Black Hawk Down (2001), The Hurt Locker (2008), The Men Who Stare at Goats (2009) – based on the book by British writer-journalist Jon Ronson, Jarhead (2005), and Zero Dark Thirty (2012). However, it may be that 2014 represents a turning point in the decline of the British war film. We have had another Bletchley Park drama, The Imitation Game, the thrilling adventure film ’71 set in “the troubles” of Northern Ireland, and – most significantly – Kajaki, a true story concerning the 3rd Battalion, Parachute Regiment (“3 Para”), during their 2006 deployment in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province.

The film itself is an exercise in realism, focusing on three themes: the bravery of the men in extreme circumstances, their earthy humour (Kajaki is frequently very funny) and the terrible injuries – shown in graphic detail – caused by landmines. The opening scenes are largely concerned with boredom. 3 Para have the task of guarding the Kajaki dam, and do this from their position on top of a nearby hill. In the heat of the Afghan sun all they do is watch. And watch. And when not assigned to the task of watching they read messages from home, talk, joke, drink tea, and exercise.

But these are one of the army’s elite units and the men long to fight. When a small group of Taliban (referred to throughout as “Terry”) are spotted setting up an illegal roadblock down below, a small group is assembled to go and tackle them. However, this is an unauthorised mission: the men are told they need to obtain permission from a senior officer, but never do. Presumably they regard a tiny group of Taliban as no match for their elite skills. But as they reach the bottom of a hillside path disaster strikes. One of the group steps on a mine and is severely injured. From hereon in things go from bad to worse. The men are trapped in a Soviet-era minefield that was not marked on their map. In the attempts to rescue the injured and escape, yet more soldiers are hurt. Communications equipment does not work properly and it is only when a couple of Americans arrive that there is reliable radio. When the RAF are contacted they don’t send a helicopter with a winch, as requested, but instead send a Chinook that tries to land and whose downdraft is so strong that it explodes another mine.

But remarkably, as the situation deteriorates the men continue to joke, even those who are hurt. By contrast, the quips of the fictional James Bond seem quite restrained. At one point, ‘Tug’ Hartley tries to work his way through the minefield towards an injured comrade by tossing his backpack ahead of him and then leaping on top of it. As he does this one of the lads calls from the sidelines “That’s how he mounts his missus!”

The film is a fine tribute to the bravery of these men of 3 Para, and brilliantly conveys the tight-knit bond that spurred them on through this most terrible of situations. Kajaki does not make any overt political statements about the Afghan conflict, but the fact that it was a Soviet minefield that did for 3 Para can’t help but serve as a reminder that Afghanistan has long been known as “the graveyard of empires”.

It should be said that Kajaki will be particularly tough viewing for the squeamish, and the special effects and makeup teams are surely deserving of an award for the realistic depiction of physical wounds.  In this viewer’s opinion, Kajaki stands among the best British war films to have been made, which is all the more extraordinary when you realise that it was put together through crowdfunding. The Ministry of Defence, however, withdrew their support for Kajaki during filming, perhaps because of some of the rather unflattering depictions of British military operations.

RATING: 5/5

Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper is a different kettle of fish altogether. It tells the story of Navy SEAL (Sea, Air and Land), Chris Kyle, based upon his own memoir. Kyle served as a sniper during several deployments in the post 9/11 invasion of Iraq and claims to have been the most lethal sniper in US Navy history. With an excellent performance from Bradley Cooper as Kyle, Eastwood depicts this big patriotic Texan as a man driven to save good people from evil. As a child he is told by his father that there are three types of people: sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. The wolves want to devour the sheep, who are too weak to fight back. Sheepdogs fight to protect the sheep. Kyle senior tells his boy that he expects him to be a sheepdog.

However, at age 30 Chris Kyle appears to be pissing his life away as a womanizing wannabe cowboy. When a girlfriend dumps him with a few harsh truths in the process, he starts to reevaluate his life. Following the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center Kyle sees the opportunity to become the kind of man his father wanted him to be. He joins the Navy and becomes a sniper with the SEALS. When America leads the invasion of Iraq after 9/11, Kyle is sent to Fallujah. Working as a rooftop sniper, he is utterly driven. His kill rate is so high that he becomes known as “the legend”, although he finds the label hard to live with. Whilst home on leave, he takes his new wife, Taya, for a checkup at the hospital. The nurse there quickly spots that this is a man who is bottling emotions up inside. She takes a blood pressure reading from Chris, which turns out to be abnormally high. On each home visit Taya struggles to communicate with Chris, who seems to be lost inside his own thoughts and becomes twitchy around ordinary everyday events. When he eventually quits the service he ends up seeing a psychiatrist at the Veterans Hospital, and with his assistance (although the details are skated over) manages to re-establish his relationship with Taya.

It is possible that hawkish Americans will view American Sniper as a patriotic tale of a soldier who did a great job, at personal cost, in a just war. However, I don’t think that is the real story we are being presented with. This is not the Clint Eastwood of the Dirty Harry movies, but the more considered and questioning Eastwood of Unforgiven. Chris Kyle is essentially presented to us as a metaphor for America itself. In his attempt to be the saviour of good people, Kyle represents the America that sees itself as the world’s policeman. But whilst serving in Iraq Kyle makes promises to local people that he is unable to keep, again like America towards Iraq in general. He tells a frightened Iraqi that he will be able to protect him and his family if he provides important information. Subsequently, the man’s son is tortured in front of him and then the man himself is shot. Those responsible announce to the neighbourhood that this is what happens to people who talk to the Americans.

When one of Kyle’s close comrades is killed by an Iraqi sniper he becomes driven by revenge. During a mission he disobeys an order to “stand down” and kills the sniper from a distance of over a mile. However, in doing so he gives their own position away and his unit find themselves embroiled in a firefight with overwhelming enemy numbers. As the SEALs eventually manage to escape they are literally enveloped in a “desert storm” (the name given to the first invasion of Iraq in January 1991), symbolically representing their inability to impose order on the country. It is after this event, in which Kyle is injured, that he decides to leave the service.

Kyle devotes himself to helping other veterans, whether they are physically disabled or suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD). It is in his attempt to assist a soldier with PTSD that the final – metaphorical – irony lies. Whilst on deployment Kyle had stated that one of the reasons for fighting was to prevent terrorism back home. Yet Chris Kyle is shot dead, not by a terrorist, but by a disturbed veteran that he is trying to assist. The message seems to be that America, in trying to police the world, not only deviates from the path of justice to one of revenge, but also ends up damaging herself in the process.

RATING: 4/5

CORRECTIONS: My original review accidentally referred to Clint Eastwood’s earlier film as ‘Forgiven’, when it should of course be ‘Unforgiven’. Also, Chris Kyle joined the Navy after seeing the 1993  bombing of the World Trade Center on television, not the 9/11 attacks (though those are shown too, after which Kyle is sent to Iraq with the SEALs).