Monday, April 13, 2015

Catching Up: American Sniper

If Selma sticks to subtlety and inference -- illustration over flat prose -- American Sniper is something of the inverse.  It remains surprising to me how much box office and media attention this film has received since its release.  We know it raked in a tremendous amount of cash, we know that many rallied to argue about Chris Kyle's place as a hero or the film's relationship to a type of nationalist propaganda.  My parents and older relatives were among those who seemed to find the film emotional and moving, even as others I knew dismissed it as an inaccurate portrayal of a man who -- in his own words -- depicted himself as something more superego than patriotic martyr.  To be perfectly honest, I found (and continue to find) it difficult to speak to either experience.  I can't tell you who the real Kyle was, I can't say I found the film to even be particularly patriotic.  All I can judge is that the character on screen, the version of Kyle played by Bradley Cooper, and what I saw did not read as particularly conservative or liberal.  The character may certainly have his own beliefs, but the film felt less like a hero-worshiping construct and more like a ringing antiwar reminder.  Frankly, if American Sniper does anything it makes "serving your country" look downright terrible.

For all of Kyle's "successes" on the field we see just as many failures.  Kids are killed, families are torn apart, he loses friend after friend to injury and PTSD-induced suicide.  Though he's particularly skilled at killing, the repeated refrain of the film seemed to be "hey, look, this guy is kind of messed up, right?"  Cooper plays him as someone struggling, warped, and incapable of living in peaceful spaces. Though Cooper's version of Kyle is often almost unsympathetic, the film's problem is perhaps that the character is given a little less credit than the cinematic moments spent in modern warfare.  There are a surplus of combat/sniping/mission sequences in this film, and as the movie starts to construct a similarly skilled "super villain" sniper for Kyle to square off against, the messages become mixed.  Kyle vs. another sniper is a one-man, one-goal mission that doesn't square well with me.  Though it's possible to read the obsessive nature of Kyle's returns to the military as quietly gesturing toward a larger problem, the film's visible love of the combat sequences seems to ask us to forget how thoroughly messed up Kyle has become and to think of him as a true "army of one."

In these later scenes, the juxtaposition of Kyle's emotionally crippled home life against repeat tours of duty creates a mash up of mixed messages.  Sniper grows sad, weird, and confusing -- disturbing almost because it's just too much, and because it can't decide what Kyle is or how we should view him.  The real truth is that while it may be conflicted, it's not a particularly interesting or unique conflict.  We have a surplus of films that speak to precisely Kyle's dilemma, often without the burden of having to respect a deceased subject.  Facts are the things that get in the way here, and what prevents the film from spending sustained time in one space or another.  The actors are in a choke hold here, and the film is less riveting than uncomfortable.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Catching Up: Selma

Though I'm months divorced from my screening and thousands of pages behind in contributing anything to the cultural commentary surrounding Selma, I can't let it drop.  Many films like Selma - those detailing important sociopolitical events or human rights issues - are examples of vehicles we're told we should find important, but which often feel like problematic films.  Maybe they read too saccharine or maybe they smudge truths in ways that are too pointed, maybe they just aren't cinematic.  By contrast, Selma is a film that may actually be important.  It's a rare film, a mixed biopic that focuses on a pivotal moment associated with its chosen figure (here, of course, Martin Luther King Jr. as played by David Oyelowo) instead of being driven solely by that figure.  What struck me while watching it is how thoroughly the film avoided the "sacred cow" treatment of the man at its center -- something that other films this year (like The Imitation Game) fall just short of

Selma never forgets that the events surrounding the march were not MLK's alone, nor does it build him into a guiding saint.  Instead, the film finds the importance of people, of groups coming together, of politicians in flux and the uncertainties even of the man who found himself leading the charge.  It's a testament to the direction that the film is never a flat MLK memorial and that it doesn't feel like a holy object; stagnant, engraved with gospel truths.  Selma is lived in, real, broken, and filled with miniature portraits of people who complicate and humanize history in a way much different than what we're taught in our textbooks.  As it does this, it's interesting that even towering figures like MLK and LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) almost become afterthoughts, power players overshadowed by the turmoil experienced by regular folks and the violence of that fateful day on the bridge.  Director Ava DuVernay approaches her subjects with a sort of naturalism, elegantly matching thematic pieces and shreds of character so that the viewer understands the consequences of action or inaction.  As she does so, she widens the scope of the story while making it look incredibly easy and true.  Perhaps this is why it was so easy for people to overlook her direction, not to mention David Oyelowo's powerful performance.  They each disappear against the power of the film and the presence of the character, it's almost too perfect, too documentarian to feel like a constructed fiction.  It's no excuse, but that's the only way I can think to even begin to explain the film's relative absence in this year's awards season: Selma just isn't showy enough.  It opts for subtlety, quiet realism, and intelligence.  We forget what kind of work it takes for a film to feel emotionally true.  Not simply dramatic or interesting, but emotionally true.  This is something that Boyhood succeeded at as well, but Selma's "genre" position as a biopic is interesting in its own right: thought the film has something to show us and to teach us, it doesn't hit us over the head with what it wants us to understand.  DuVernay remembers that events involve people, they are not one person, and that a person can be a hero, but is still a person first.
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