Friday, January 30, 2015

Slyly Intelligent AMERICAN SNIPER Offers Rewards To Those Willing To Look

AMERICAN SNIPER (directed by Clint Eastwood, 2014)

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend." That classic quote from John Ford's "The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance" feels so tailor made for "American Sniper," it must be emblazoned on a plaque above director Clint Eastwood's bathroom mirror. But what if the fact of sniper Chris Kyle is more compelling? And what of a movie that tries to print both?

Such is the challenge set by "American Sniper," a movie sometimes corny, often times harrowing, but also with a sly intelligence lurking beneath the surface, perpetually on the cusp of revealing itself. Here is a movie with no easy moralizing, no sermons, no revelations, no a-ha moments. Instead it offers itself, as it is, like it is, and take from it what you will.

How much you take largely depends on what you think the movie's up to in the first place. So man, oh man, lets tread carefully. Poor Seth Rogen just got banned from a steakhouse.

After a brief scene of Kyle (a stunningly transformed Bradley Cooper) eyeing a mother and child in Afghanistan, showcased in all the trailers, we flash back to his childhood, and from there, "American Sniper" is lean and linear as an arrow. Kyle grows into an aimless man in his 20s riding in rodeos. He joins the military to find direction. He falls for Taya (a more than capable Sienna Miller). 9/11 happens and he ships overseas, honing a real talent for sharpshooting that claims more than 100 confirmed kills and the nickname "Legend." Soon his fame spreads throughout insurgant territories and large bounties are placed on his head as he becomes adversaries with a sniper nicknamed Mustafa.

Eastwood's love-it-or-hate-it minimalism comes on full force here. As a filmmaker, he rarely adapts to a screenplay, instead applying his default style to it, letting the chips fall where they may. This leads to some fairly consistent misfires (can you believe this is the same director behind the lackadaisical "Jersey Boys" adaptation only six months ago?). But with screenwriter Jason Hall's work on "American Sniper," it's the kind of marriage where both parties compliment each other's strengths, and even if they don't cancel each other's weaknesses, at least they hide them well. 

Ain't nobody ever gonna call Eastwood a stylist. No coffee table books will ever showcase his trademark shots. If anything sums the Eastwood mantra, it's that of the invisible force of God - form your cast and your script, put them in front of the camera, and get outta the way. So how does that elevate "American Sniper," when I can barely even remember his "Flags Of Our Fathers"? Because it creates throughout the movie a universal truth. As the movie's Chris Kyle (an important distinction versus the real Chris Kyle) volleys between his tours of duty in the Middle East and back home with his wife and children, Eastwood's flat, crisp filmmaking creates nary a distinction between these two worlds. War and home offer little difference for Kyle. The same stress and anguish he feels on the battleground follows him to his family.

What could thus be written off as typical bland choices from Eastwood quietly becomes one of the more harrowing, subjective portrayals of PTSD on film in recent memory. Battle scenes carry the expected tense weight, but something as simple as a drive on an American freeway almost feels like a chase sequence, as every passing car feels like a potential threat. It's a subtle effect, but a potent one, building as the movie progresses without ever rubbing your face in it.

That's confidence as a storyteller.

Chris Kyle in the movie is neither vilified nor deified, simply presented. He's absolutely flawed, calling insurgents "savages" and in the movie's climax, allowing his obsessive machismo to get the better of him and endangering his men in the process. It's the push/pull of his personality that Eastwood and Hall wisely never take a blatant side on, and this lack of a stance seems to turn some people off. Further controversy includes the movie's purported extreme jingoism, treating the American military as the end-all heroes of the world. To that end, if you'll believe the hype, "American Sniper" is either morally bankrupt propaganda cheering the killing of brown people or a noble salute to fallen heroes that sends you home dreaming of raising a flag whose size would put a used car lot to shame.

These two extremes simply refuse to engage the movie for what it is, while criticizing it for being too simple minded, for not delving into the mind of Kyle better, is reasonable, but I feel misses the point. A different movie might have asked tougher questions. What drove Kyle to be a sniper? How does he truly feel about the war and the 100+ people he killed. Is he, in fact, a racist? A different movie, yes. But not necessarily a better one. 

Instead of cracking Kyle open, Eastwood and Hall pull the more subtle effect of allowing him to remain static and then thrusting a world of opposition against him. Kyle in the movie never relents from his belief that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are justified. He never openly views those he killed as anything but savages. But notice the quiver in Cooper's voice when a PTSD therapist asks if he feels he can answer to God for what he did overseas. Notice the flickering, barely-there pain in his eyes when Miller begs him to stay home. It's a highly subjective experience that trusts Cooper to convey a massive amount of emotional weight with barely any indicating dialogue.

Of all people, Steven Spielberg originally agreed to direct "American Sniper," and who knows how his movie would turn out, although a betting man might use the word "sentimental." In the hands of Eastwood, though, it's a fascinating look at a man holding steadfast to a worldview even as that worldview takes a brutal moral toll on him, and the violence that corrodes his soul as he welcomes it with open arms. Notice the movie's climatic kill, which oddly drew cheers from my screening audience, but plays in context as a bleak moment of deflated glory. All the more impressive is how Eastwood never spoon feeds this to us, letting the game his movie's playing lie in plain sight, trusting us to find it.

You are not required to like "American Sniper." You are not required to even see "American Sniper." But to dismiss it either for what you think it is or what you wanted it to be, I feel, does it a great disservice. "Saving Private Ryan" offered a more visceral portrayal of war. "The Hurt Locker" delved better into the moral quandary of needing war to function when homelife just doesn't cut it anymore. That doesn't mean there isn't a place for "American Sniper" too, and that place isn't as the lightning rod for bickering cultural extremes.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

SELMA Cuts With Powerful, Tragic Timelessness

SELMA (directed by Ava DuVernay, 2014)

We've all heard or said variations of the phrase at some point - "Despite great strides, we still have a long way to go." Those fallback words to spout when we want to participate in a conversation about race despite having nothing of value to, you know, add. It helps us seem smart and clued in, a cliche no one can really argue against.

Now Ferguson. Now Staten Island. Now voting rights for minorities at risk in Texas and North Carolina and elsewhere. And now "Selma." Director Ava DuVernay didn't ask for her movie to mingle among these events of 2014, but that's the way things turned out and here we are. Sometimes life has a way of working out, just not in the ways we hoped, and what would already be a fascinating picture becomes an act of conscience and unwavering immediacy. A wounded cry from the past haunting the soul of today.

DuVernay and screenwriter Paul Webb's masterstroke is stripping away everything we think we know Martin Luther King Jr. and rebuilding from scratch. Like Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln," it shuns iconography in favor of the nuts and bolts, telling a sweeping story by focusing on the micro. "Lincoln" had the creation of the 13th Amendment. "Selma" has the civil rights marches from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, that helped lead to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Gone, then, is the March On Washington. Gone is "I have a dream." Gone are any of the easy markers that we repeated during February in elementary school and would expect from a traditional "greatest hits" biopic. What DuVernay gives us instead is a far greater gift: the intimacy of being in the same room at the same time. I'm 28 years old, born in 1986. The Civil Rights Movement remains less of a series of events that happened and more of a concept - something that happened to materialize during those years.

One of the key epiphanies of "Selma," then (one that feels stunning in its obviousness) is everything surrounding the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, and indeed everything surrounding the Civil Rights Movement, was orchestrated by people. We see King (magnificently played by David Oyelowo) sitting in bed the night before a speech, stressing over last minute word choices. We see him stage rallies and marches specifically for their theatrics, knowing Selma's notoriously corrupt Sheriff Jim Clark will play like a villain allowing for primetime television coverage. And we see him afterward, weighing the guilt of knowing those theatrics led to protestors getting injured and killed. DuVernay expertly stages rallies with an eye for the micro and the macro, often starting a scene with a close-up of King's or someone else's face before slowing panning back to reveal vast crowds, suggesting an even grander story beyond the specific one she's telling.

"Selma" lobs searing support for protest as a force for change, as an act of civil responsibility, like few movies I can think of. It also offers the potent reminder that such events only happen when people get together in some place and will it into existence.

Yet the movie transcends the stiff bounds of something you're "supposed" to see so you can say you did at social gatherings. When I watch typical historical dramas this time of year, be it "The Theory Of Everything" or "The Imitation Game" or whichever of those bland "Dylan McDermott or Durmot Mulroney?" titles is which, I'm watching a museum piece. I'm watching something blatantly orchestrated to elicit maximum emotional impact. You never catch "Selma" quivering with anticipation of class syllabus placement. You never catch it approaching that level of "watch this to feel less guilty" chore.

Instead DuVernay crafted a work teeming with life and honesty, at times unbearably harrowing (few scenes from 2014 left me as shaken as the foggy, tear gas infused attacks of Bloody Sunday). It's a movie of its specific moment, and it's a movie for all. That's why the recent controversy surrounding historical inaccuracies so sorely misses the point. "Selma" presents a President Lyndon Johnson (carefully played by Tom Wilkinson) who doesn't so much oppose voting rights as wanting to delay them, seeing a Voting Rights Act as politically nonviable and serving for the bulk of the movie as a force against King. Yes, in real life, LBJ more actively spearheaded the Act, viewing it as a moral necessity to be pushed through Congress as quickly as possible, and yes, "Selma" somewhat twists his views to create a dramatic arc.

Our conversation, though, should be less an antagonistic "No!" and more a curious "Why?". Lets put aside the fact that "Selma" still ultimately portrays Johnson as a critical friend of civil rights, and no reasonable person will leave this movie with scorn for him (indeed, the audience at my screening burst into applause at his use of, "We shall overcome," during a climatic hero speech). Name on two hands movies about civil rights lacking a white savior. Maybe even one hand. Roger Ebert called movies windows through our boxes of space and time, and "Selma" is the rare mainstream movie that completely channels the Civil Rights Movement through the black experience.

Isn't there value in getting shaken by a viewpoint not entirely our own?

"Selma" suffers minor pacing issues in the first act as we meet critical characters, bookended with an ending that feels maybe slightly rushed. But these are admittedly minor quibbles about an incredibly skilled movie that treads the tightrope between hero worship and "warts and all," giving us a King who wasn't so much flawed as he was human, and who recognized a moment in history that required a tactician just as much as inspiration. 

If the movie brings history alive, it also brings the unfortunate reminder that history tends to repeat itself.