Will controversy around ‘American Sniper’ affect its Oscar chances?

23 Jan 2015 | Author: | No comments yet »

How Accurate Is American Sniper?.

will likely be the most controversial and divisive movie of 2015, and it’s mid-January. NEW YORK – This year’s Academy Awards race for Best Picture is stiff competition, but this week all the movie aficionados have been buzzing about the controversy surrounding “American Sniper,” a true story about former Navy Seal Chris Kyle, dubbed the most lethal snipers in U.S. military history. From concerns over the baldly anti-Muslim social-media rants it has inspired to titular real-life protagonist Chris Kyle’s debatable status as a hero to his notorious unreliability as a non-fiction narrator to the confusing use of a robot doll rather than a human baby, the film has inspired both harsh criticism and lavish praise.

Celebs like Michael Moore and Seth Rogen have spoken out against the military flick, labeling it “propaganda” and calling snipers “cowards.” There has also been what seems to be an equal amount of support and praise from people like actor Dean Cain, country crooner Blake Shelton and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who have all fired back. The musician took particular umbrage with the Bowling for Columbine director’s statement that Moore’s uncle was killed by a sniper in World War II and that he was raised to believe snipers were cowards. “Fuck you Michael Moore, you’re a piece of shit and your uncle would be ashamed of you,” Kid Rock wrote on his website. “Seth Rogen, your uncle probably molested you.

Gary Pettus, a columnist for The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, suggests that if the state wants to dabble in symbolic bills, some other states have better ideas. Steve Pond, Awards Editor at entertainment site TheWrap.com, said Academy voters may be swayed by headlines but their vote more likely depends on which side of the criticism they side. “If Academy members are passing around articles that are critical of Chris Kyle, which I know some of them are, it has the potential to make some of them a little less likely to vote for the film,” he told FOX411. “But it also could make those who feel the criticisms are unfair to support it even more strongly.” Tim Gray, Senior Awards Editor at Variety, said accusations against fact-based films happen every year and don’t often negatively effect the outcome, citing Best Picture winners “A Beautiful Mind,” “The King’s Speech” and “12 Years A Slave” as examples. I hope both of you catch a fist to the face soon.” He also paid his respects to the deceased Navy SEAL whose story was the basis of the movie. “God bless you Chris Kyle,” he wrote. “Thank you for your service.” On the movie’s opening weekend, Moore tweeted his comments and added, “Snipers aren’t heroes, and invaders are worse.” He later claimed that his tweet wasn’t about American Sniper in particular and posted a lengthy Facebook missive to clarify his thoughts. You either love this movie or you hate it, and by extension director Clint Eastwood, star Bradley Cooper, and especially Kyle himself; there isn’t much room for dialogue between the two positions.

In 2013, “Zero Dark Thirty” came under fire with accusations that the filmmakers betrayed classified information but the movie still took home Best Picture with Jessica Chastain accepting the award for Best Actress. “The mark of a good piece of art is when people can have different interpretations,” Gray said. “So I think it’s entirely possible that people on the right and the left will both vote for it. Controversy over Kyle’s credibility casts doubts on the film, however—claims that he engaged in a bar fight with former Minnesota governor and pro wrestler Jesse Ventura, sniped looters in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and killed two carjackers all remain unsubstantiated. (The first was the subject of a $1.845 million defamation lawsuit Ventura brought and won against Kyle.) This, coupled with a New Yorker piece exploring Kyle’s tendency for embellishment, may make audiences ask: Does Eastwood’s American Sniper stick to the narrative as presented by Chris Kyle or to the known facts—or does it blend the two? I haven’t seen the film, so I don’t have any opinion about its content (though this lengthy IMDB summary explains the plot scene-by-scene if you’re interested).

Why audiences are hungry to see it, and what, exactly, they think they’re seeing are different, less settled questions. “American Sniper” is a complicated animal, one I think quite brilliantly shows how a fighting man’s certainty can founder on the actuality of dead women and children, the thirst for vengeance, and an increasingly clouded mission. But let’s accept that at least some of people who went to see American Sniper over the weekend chose that film because they perceived it as a patriotic act. If anything, I think people in Hollywood are encouraged — after the box office dropped in 2014 — that a January movie can make this money.” Grey is referring to the $107.2 million the movie brought in during its opening weekend, making “American Sniper” the biggest January box office opening of all time — something Pond says is not enough on its own to guarantee an Oscar win. “Oscar voters like a winner, but that can mean going for the little movie that is beating the big movie at all the guild awards,” Grey explained. “For example ‘The Hurt Locker’ over ‘Avatar’ in 2010, rather than automatically going for the biggest moneymaker.” If the controversy won’t directly hurt the film’s Oscar chances, does that mean it will help it?

As sympathetic as it is to the film’s title character, the late Chris Kyle, it’s a hero’s tale that questions what heroism means and that finds the usual definitions painfully lacking. Not exactly, says Pond, who says it’s important to first look at the movie’s chances of winning in spite of the attention surrounding it, and “Sniper” by many people’s predictions is not favored.

This weekend, The Oregonian/OregonLive editorial board will publish an editorial on some of the wackiest bills filed in advance of the 2015 session, and over the next several weeks we will ask you to vote on them. But because the movie has landed in the midst of a polarized cultural landscape, its message has been simplified and misunderstood on both sides of the divide.

Meanwhile, Mike Huckabee, who it seems will be basing his presidential campaign on making himself the tribune of those burning with conservative cultural resentment, is out criticizing Beyoncé for dancing suggestively and singing lyrics that amount to “mental poison.” Few things are more edifying than politicians telling us what music we should be listening to or movies we should see. Politics notwithstanding, those who’ve seen it tend to describe the experience in religious terms: awe-struck congregations of Americans seeing the Iraq War the way it happened, traveling down the path to PTSD together. Despite those compliments, he criticized the way the movie’s characters call Iraqis “savages” and alleges that Clint confused Iraq for Vietnam with his movie. Eastwood de-emphasizes training and non-Iraq sequences to grant breathing room to a handful of military operations, building a film around Kyle’s tense decisions to pull the trigger or grant mercy. Ask around: Be it Texas or Williamsburg, it’s not uncommon to hear of packed theaters with the patrons filing out in reverent silence after the closing credits.

For “Best Actor,” Bradley Cooper is up against stiff competition — Michael Keaton for “Birdman” and Eddie Redmayne for “The Theory of Everything,” so he already has a tough fight. Rogen sparked Kid Rock’s ire by comparing the movie to the fictional Nazi propaganda film, Nation’s Pride, screened within Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. Great [expletive] movie and now I really want to kill some [expletive] ragheads.” From @dezmondharmon (since deleted), “American sniper makes me wanna go shoot some [expletive] Arabs,” with three cute little handgun emojis.

The editorial doesn’t mention filmmaker Michael Moore, but he has been a critic and he shouldn’t need to be reminded that films often stray from reality. This is the possible tip of an iceberg of a sizable percentage of “American Sniper” viewers who, confronted with the film’s intentionally conflicting signals — the fellow soldier whose letter home mourns a country that has lost its way, the mounting distress of Kyle’s wife and brother, the abject pain and anger reflected in Bradley Cooper’s body language and eyes as his tours grind on — retreat into the comfort of simpler pieties.

Groused one commenter on Metacritic.com, “I watched this in amazement, was he supposed to be a hero?” No and yes; yes and no — you’re supposed to figure it out for yourself, fella. For instance, there’s almost an entire subgenre of country music devoted to singing the praises of country life and telling city folk where they can stick it. Merle Haggard’s 1969 song “Okie From Muskogee” (“We don’t let our hair grow long and shaggy/like the hippies out in San Francisco do”) is the urtext of the genre. Or the clueless snobbery of The New York Times box office analyst who dismissed the film as “patriotic” “pro-family” fluff that only played well in the heartland. (A. The spiritual and emotional progress of the characters is limited to basic states of existence (good or bad, alive or dead), and none of them evolve despite numerous encounters with tragedy and misfortune.

While Chris Kyle participated in “saddle bronco bustin’” from high school into college, his rodeo career ended when a bronco flipped and left him with pins in his wrists, broken ribs, and other injuries. It sounds like he didn’t see the movie.) Worse was a writer for The New Republic, Dennis Jett, who spent four paragraphs trashing the movie before getting to this: “I have not seen ‘American Sniper.’ But if the trailer is any indication. . . .” To any responsible journalist, that’s grounds for dismissal. Neither his brother nor an unfaithful girlfriend are mentioned in the book, but he did become a ranch hand to pay the bills after partying with rodeo groupies drained his income. Even Kyle, who regarded himself as a sheepdog guarding sheep against wolves—in the film, strangely, the sheep are either American citizens or Marines, or both—never sways from that belief. Jay Inslee effectively ended the death penalty, at least while he is in office, by refusing to sign any death warrants,” The Times writes. “He and the Legislature should go further and end capital punishment altogether, hopefully before King County jurors add more to death row.” The Daily Astorian praised President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address. “Does his wide-ranging optimism — “the shadow of crisis has passed” — reflect the reality of America in 2015?” The Astorian asks in an editorial. “We believe it does.

During this time, he approached the recruitment office to enlist—not, as the movie suggests, because he witnessed American lives lost on the news, but because he had always intended to join the military following school. But the real question is whether partisan bickering in Congress will stymie true progress during Obama’s final two years.” The editorial board offers its support to Lake Oswego’s fledgling efforts to create a bike and pedestrian path along the Willamette Shore Trolley right of way. On the other hand, an advocate of unfettered gun rights couldn’t be happier with how often Hollywood sends the message that serious problems always have solutions that involve the righteous use of firearms. Memo to all those patriotic online thugs: Threatening to put a cap in someone you disagree with actually makes you one of “the bad guys.” ‘Sniper’ is a story told strictly from an American soldier’s point of view, with the relevant honesty, blind spots, dissonances, defensiveness, pride, professionalism, and self-loathing put out there for all to see.

In most cases, those decisions are made not to make a point but because of more mundane considerations, like how to maximize the audiences advertisers want to reach. In a guest opinion, Mark David Hall, a George Fox University politics professor, writes about a recent Supreme Court decision on religious liberty and how it should be applied to the Oregon case involving Sweet Cakes by Melissa bakery. In the movie, this waffling is glossed over to make his enlistment seem like a streamlined response to injustice—Kyle goes straight from busting broncos to SEAL training.

This puts the movie in a box with “Rambo: First Blood II” and other revisionist pop artifacts that seem specifically engineered to banish doubt and let us feel good about ourselves again. (And if there’s one thing that makes American audiences uncomfortable, it’s not feeling good about ourselves.) I disagree, even as I don’t dispute parts of this countervailing long view. In memoir and movie, Chris Kyle and Taya (Sienna Miller) begin their relationship not long after his SEAL training, and Eastwood’s film is painstakingly accurate to their real-life meet-cute—drunken vomiting and dodged calls included. But if you live in a small town in what you consider the heartland, you can take comfort in the fact that even if Hollywood doesn’t set too many dramas in towns like yours, everyone in politics will rush to exalt you, your superior values, and the place you live.

Late in the film, this leads to his generously sharing his time and energy with other combat veterans suffering from the grievous injuries they sustained in combat; this seems like progress, and is satisfying to watch and feel. True, “Sniper” never questions the assumptions and faulty information that put us in Iraq in the first place, and for some that is reason enough to ignore or scorn the film. Which hasn’t stopped us from using “American Sniper” as a hankie to weep uncomplicatedly in or a stick with which to bludgeon others, both responses at the expense of the mixed messages its maker intuitively and (I believe) consciously put there.

So many audiences are coming to this movie to have their beliefs mirrored and reconfirmed, holding on to the parts that jibe with what they want to see and tossing out the rest. Whether you’re listening to a neo-punk band you insist no one’s ever heard of or blasting the same Tim McGraw song coming out of every other pickup truck in a hundred-mile radius, you’re making a statement of identity you want others to hear. At the end of the film, Taya speaks with Kyle the day he travels to the shooting range with Routh, letting him know how grateful she is that he’s returned. And if you feel that the dominant pop culture isn’t about you, you’ll be particularly interested in whatever you can find that is, or makes a statement you’d like to support.

This is not in Kyle’s memoir, for obvious reasons, but screenwriter Jason Hall writes in an addendum to the new edition of the book that Taya told him she had this conversation with Kyle a month before his death. Film and memoir begin with near-identical opening sequences: Kyle sees a woman and a few children on the otherwise-empty street of an Iraqi town through his sniper scope. It’s interesting that the literary and cinematic history of snipers goes unaddressed in the film; up until the 1990s or so, it’s difficult to find them mentioned in valorous or positive terms. (America’s first unequivocal sniper heroes were Randy Shughart and Gary Gordon, the Delta duo who insisted on landing amid hundreds of hostile Somalis during the Battle of Mogadishu, sacrificing themselves to save a wounded comrade during the events portrayed in both the book and the film Black Hawk Down). However, according to the memoir, Kyle shot only a woman that day, not a child, and he felt no guilt about it: “It was my duty to shoot, and I don’t regret it.” It was his first kill with a sniper rifle, though he had not yet completed his sniper training. But paradoxically, he’s nonetheless more at home in this fairly simplistic movie than Kyle himself, building upon a long legacy of Hollywood sniper-villains.

However, when Kyle inspects the house more carefully, he finds WMDs hidden beneath the floorboards, and outs the family as pro-insurgency, beginning a firefight. Greeks, relatively primitive when it came to almost every conceivable measure of analysis, seem to have been more capable of seeing sophistication in their enemies than the type of American who cannot stand any villain with more than one dimension.

Kyle believes this lack of faith in the war caused his death; Taya disagrees and they debate that point, focusing on a letter Lee wrote his mother, at the memorial service. The real-life person who is proud of his identity as a sniper, and his actions in that position—the flawed but valorous character Bradley Cooper so admires, and portrays so admirably? In truth, these three milestones—defeating his sniper adversary, avenging Biggles, and achieving his longest successful shot—did not align in one moment. Older generations familiar with the genre recall its reliance on a basic plot: Good gunslingers representing law, order, and mercy are outnumbered by bad gunslingers representing the opposite.

Mustafa existed but only merits this brief mention in Kyle’s memoir: While we were on the berm watching the city, we were also watching warily for an Iraqi sniper known as Mustafa. The good guys then win through the judicious and socially sanctioned application of violence, aka “The Showdown.” But while the movie version of Kyle encounters and defeats plenty of enemies who, for the sake of argument, we’ll say pose a direct threat to America and Americans, one doesn’t get the same sense of urgency or necessity that one would in a Western.

Wouldn’t Eastwood’s own Unforgiven be less compelling if William Munny rode into town for vengeance at the head of a convoy of tanks and soldiers, jets screaming overhead? What’s heroic or courageous in one situation becomes absurd in another, all the more in this case because the absurdity is buried under what every American viewer already knows about American Sniper’s larger story: Within a few years of our departure, ISIS emerged from Syria and took over the battlegrounds in which Kyle and other Americans fought. No $180,000 bounty was placed on his head or posters circulated bearing illustrations of his tattoos, as in the film—instead, $20,000 to $80,000 was the reward for killing any American sniper. Restrepo, a 2010 documentary detailing the deployment of Army paratroopers to Afghanistan, is the finest project to emerge thus far, but documentary is designed to deliver fact, to present reality.

This horrible anecdote is absent from Kyle’s memoir, and “The Butcher” is not mentioned at all, though some suggest his origins lie in real-life Shia warlord Abu Deraa. “The Butcher” and Mustafa’s roles seem exaggerated primarily to heighten Chris Kyle’s sense of purpose in combat: Every kill becomes justified when the murdered possess supernatural evil. And ultimately, it’s far more important to me and other veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan that our fellow citizens sit down and witness the emotional reality of war, that we as a nation honestly confront our ongoing actions overseas. If this film inspires conversations about cultural imperialism—and how simplistic and reductive philosophy, combined with exposure to violence and moral injury, can twist and distort a decent human being—so be it.

Adrian Bonenberger deployed twice to Afghanistan as an infantry officer, and feels sad that America doesn’t use its extraordinary wealth and strength to do more good overseas.

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