Feb 032015

American Sniper surprisingly broke Hollywood box office records during Super Bowl weekend.

You know it’s America in 2015, heading into an election year, when not even the Super Bowl can conclude without some brawl erupting in the end zone.

Long after Katy Perry capped her halftime cheerleader routine, and just as the New England Patriots were within 20 seconds of another trophy, the fists started flying — Seattle and New England in a full-on rumble over an unexpected turnover. Yes, we truly are a nation divided.

You can tell that by our war movies too, such as Oscar nominee American Sniper, which wears confusing camouflage at times — some see Clint Eastwood’s story of noted sharpshooter Chris Kyle as pro-American, some see it as an indictment of the military system. Others see it simply as a movie. Director Eastwood is better here than in recent efforts, and it’s worth remembering that the noted Republican is usually more critical about America than his right-wing cheerleaders tend to think. Gran Torino (2008) was about a racist Korean War vet who tries to diffuse violence between warring Hmong in a Michigan suburb; he takes a bullet rather than going full Dirty Harry. Even 2004’s Million Dollar Baby hid a liberal view on the right to die behind a conservative, come-from-behind boxer’s tale.

So you never know with Clint. Of course, the bigger battle wages ahead at the Oscars, so it’s probably a good time to look at some recent movies that focus on wartime — not so strange to those who view the NFL showdown as a reflection of America’s aggressive underbelly.

That underbelly was on display when mixed reactions erupted on the webs over American Sniper, which stars Bradley Cooper as Navy SEAL Kyle, said to be the deadliest sharpshooter in American history. The controversy naturally focuses on whether Kyle was a hero or not, which is really beside the point — in war, that distinction is really an afterthought; Kyle was a soldier, first and foremost.

You know it’s gonna be a fight, though, when Hollywood types are the first to drop tweets. Filmmaker Michael Moore caught flak for condemning the movie and snipers in general as “cowards.” He had to backpedal a bit when the usual U-S-A bromides started erupting. See, Americans always back their soldiers. Until they come home and try to receive their veteran benefits, of course.

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Then Seth Rogen, already in hot water after picking a fight with North Korea with his comedy The Interview (which also featured Katy Perry music… Hey!), made some witless remark on Twitter about American Sniper reminding him of the sniper scene in Inglourious Basterds. He also backpedaled, saying “reminding” wasn’t the same as “resembling.” Um, right. It’s a lesson to young Hollywood: don’t bong and tweet.

Both these comments spawned a not-surprising amount of hate from “true Americans” who troll the Internet. (Including noted knucklehead Kid Rock, who publicly hoped that Moore and Rogen caught a “fist to the face” soon.) And, since a presidential election looms in 2016, it’s probably not surprising that a number of people from either side would like to use American Sniper as a political football.

As with most things, though, a film is more than just one thing, so it’s probably wise to view the overall arc of American Sniper as a critique rather than a flag-waving salute. After all, (SPOILER!) Kyle did develop post-traumatic stress disorder and was eventually gunned down by another soldier.

Other war movies came out in 2014, some making it to the Oscars, some not. The Imitation Game followed the WWII efforts of Alan Turing (Bennedict Cumberbatch) and other British cryptographers embedded well behind enemy lines in bucolic Bletchley Park, England, trying to break the Nazis’ Enigma code (and simultaneously invent the first computer). As war movies go, it’s told from a safe distance, the only incursions visible to us on a map showing the location of enemy nautical vessels.

More into the fray was Angelina Jolie’s Unbroken, which told the true story of WWII hero Louis Zamperini who survived life in various Japanese labor camps during the Pacific War. While Jolie’s first directorial effort reminded us at times of, oh, about a half dozen other movies (Schindler’s List crossed with Chariots of Fire crossed with Life of Pi crossed with Empire of the Sun with a little Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence thrown in towards the end), it was actually gritty and grueling, and ends with a bit of Hollywood flourish: Zamperini, it turns out, became the oldest Olympic athlete to run the torch relay, at age 81, during the Winter Games in Nangano, Japan. So forgiveness was the theme. It’s the kind of story that Oscar likes to reward.

One film that didn’t get an Oscar nod was the gripping tank drama Fury starring Jolie’s partner, Brad Pitt. David Ayer, who wrote Training Day and action films like Fast and the Furious and S.W.A.T., delivered a movie that takes on a lot of complexities of war — why young men are attracted to them, for instance — which Oscar typically does not like to dwell upon too much. With its blown-up Nazi body parts, severed limbs and sheared-off faces, it’s somewhat closer to Saw than Saving Private Ryan. But it approaches the innocence-to-experience dimension of war better than any film since Oliver Stone’s Platoon.

Pitt plays Don “Wardaddy” Collier, a seasoned vet who has led his tank patrol from Northern Africa all the way to Germany, where he is assigned a green private (Logan Lorman) as his new co-driver. Fury doesn’t shy away from the gritty necessities of war — kill or be killed — that occurred even in what was later known as “The Good War.” He forces Lorman to shoot a captured Nazi in the back, simply to pop his war cherry and make him a more effective soldier. (Later, he gets the young private laid.) The ensemble — including Shia LaBeouf, Michael Peña and John Cornthal — is excellent, especially in the confines of their battered Sherman tank (christened “Fury”), and the action itself is, well, fast and furious. Pitt seems beyond seeking an Oscar nod here, just telling a story through his world-weary character about the relentless nature of war, and letting others pick up the prizes later. Indeed, a movie neither has to celebrate war nor condemn it to tell us something of the truth about it.

And, like the Super Bowl death match, it’s worth remembering something else about these Oscar picks and Oscar overlooks: in the end, all we can say is someone has to win, and someone has to lose.

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