Nominated for eleven Academy Awards between them, American Sniper and Foxcatcher are two of the most divisive and much-discussed films of recent times. Check out my brief thoughts on each after the jump:
American Sniper, directed by the now 84-year old Clint Eastwood, is a troubling film. I had a lot of problems with it as I watched, and I am still stewing on it in a bid for clarity. The six-time Oscar-nominated film is adapted from Chris Kyle’s autobiography ‘American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S Military History’, and tells the story of Kyle, the Navy SEAL who became known as ‘The Legend’ (portrayed by Bradley Cooper).
There are compelling, well-directed and tense combat sequences, and a risky and committed performance from Cooper (incredibly an Oscar nominee for the third straight year) but American Sniper demonstrates an irresponsibly narrow perspective and ideology – Kyle’s own, drilled in by his father from a young age and further provoked by the culture of the military. The problem is, it doesn’t even stick to that. I understand the intended purity of Eastwood’s study – the point-of-view experiences of a human war machine (and credited hero) through four tours of duty, and the tragic psychological toll it has on the man and his family back home – but I fund it difficult to join his wavelength here. Having strove for a mythology, and wrestling with the belief that he failed, Kyle is unable to leave the war behind. Some of this film is very powerful. But, as we are aligned with a proud patriot of America, who believes it is duty to protect his country and fellow soldiers at any cost from the ‘savages’ they encounter in Iraq, the portrayal of Muslims is ugly.
In American Sniper physical superiority is always accentuated – over both the enemy as well sickly-looking US veterans, including Kyle’s own brother, whose disgraceful exit from the film after declaring he hates his duty in Iraq accompanies Kyle’s disgust at the statement. Even Kyle’s PTSD is thinly explored, and doesn’t seem to knock him around too much – a flinch at an electrical tool here, a thumping heart rate there – sweeping us through interludes with Kyle and his wife, a struggling mum, to take us back to the blood-soaked action. For many, this will satisfy. But, it does get tedious. While I appreciated the film incorporating a dramatic angle, the character development (from the ghastly early sequences) lacks nuance.
Kyle actually abandons his sniping post to kick-in doors and interrogate with the ground troops, fueling his desire to be the sheepdog and help his compatriots. A cowboy at heart, he is committed to the mythology he has constructed for himself, which is further celebrated by the military. He becomes known as the most lethal sniper in US military history and becomes a hero and celebrity.
But, it is hard to accept what I took to be fictional hero vs. villain arcs that transcend Kyle’s tour breaks. His war experience seems to stall for him to return home for a while, and begins again when he returns. Notably, the Olympic-champion rival sniper, and the barbaric ‘Butcher’ who drills into his victims. He must eradicate these threats to properly be defined as a hero to be celebrated, and this part lacks credibility. Simply saving the lives of so many fellow soldiers isn’t enough for this film, it also must relish in the obliteration of life.
Foxcatcher, directed by Bennett Miller (who was awarded Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival last year) from a screenplay by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman, is based on the shocking true story of Olympic Wrestling Champion Mark Schultz, his professional partnership with eccentric millionaire John Du Pont and the events that led to Du Pont killing Mark’s older brother Dave.
I caught the film at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September, where Miller and cast members Channing Tatum, Steve Carell and Mark Ruffalo received rousing applause when they came out to discuss the film afterwards. The film looked set to be one of the giants of the cinema year. Some negative press, and Mark Schultz’s disappointing social media tirade against Miller’s depiction of his relationship with Du Pont, have been a buzzkill since then. This is a cold, jet black tale that will leave a bit of your soul destroyed by the end.
Du Pont (Carell) stabled Mark (Tatum) like a piece of livestock, a vulnerable victim of post-Olympic Gold obliviousness and psychological torment, and possessed the monetary power to use and manipulate him as he pleased. He reignited Schultz’s then-surrendered sense of motivation, but transformed the man into a emotionless drone and an advocate for a brand operating outside the spirit of the sport. Then Du Pont learned that Mark could only truly be his best with the involvement of family-man brother Dave (Ruffalo), a symbol of hard working middle America who saw through Du Pont’s dream and wanted nothing to do with it. Until he became concerned about his brother’s well being. The pathological Du Pont, who saw this bond with Mark as a chance to be worshiped and an effort to be respected by his mother, could not accept another rejection.
The complexity of the three relationships will long be bearing on my mind. This is Miller’s best film to date (side note: Moneyball is GREAT) and it features incredible, career-defining performances from the three aforementioned men. This is especially true of Tatum, who is building himself into a reliable and versatile performer – here he is a soft-centred brute of a man, faithful to any master who directs him – and the always-excellent Ruffalo. The latter makes everyone else on screen better, in what I see as one of the definitive supporting performances of the decade of cinema to date. Carell’s prosthetic nose and leathery skin are obviously playing a role here, but his creepy transformation come from deep within.
This is a heartbreaking story of compromise at the wrath of dynasty-inherited privilege and greed. It has been enriched with nuanced metaphoric commentary, and examines the ugly cracks between this heart-wrenching story with a curious, artisan creativity and a deft sensitivity. I had enormous emotional investment in this film throughout and it joins a core group of films such as The Social Network and The Master about the pursuit of an identity in America and how influence can be represented as an asset to be wielded, but not necessarily earned.