American Sniper is a film that provokes strong reactions. If a viewer is opposed to machismo and militarism, they are likely to be angered. If a viewer is inclined towards firearms and US patriotism, they may find the film laudable. But the evidence for either reaction is problematic because of the film’s stripped-down, character-centred approach, typical of director Clint Eastwood’s oeuvre.
American Sniper depicts the life and career of Chris Kyle (played by a bulked-up Bradley Cooper), the deadliest sniper in US military history. The ethics of Kyle’s actions are never questioned and the conservative upbringing that he received is not problematised. Nor is the viewer treated to a nuanced view of US military action in Iraq. Kyle joins the Navy SEALs to serve what he believes is “the greatest country in the world”; he embraces military ideology, follows orders and protects his fellow soldiers, and he has a ruthless willingness to kill the enemy. However, the film does not present Kyle’s actions as noble or profound, denying any sense of triumph in his military exploits. There are moments in the film, particularly towards the end, that are ripe for patriotic sentimentality, but Eastwood steadfastly avoids manipulative reconstruction in favour of stock footage and utilises silence rather than stirring music. War is hell, but it is not grandiose or Wagnerian, Kyle and his fellow soldiers presented as dedicated professionals doing their (extremely dangerous) job. Whatever value may be ascribed to this job comes from the viewer rather than the film. Kyle is only a hero in the eyes of other characters, and his neglect of his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) in favour of his “duty to his country” is presented matter-of-factly rather than with an emotional, ethical or political inflection. The film therefore presents Kyle’s life and career, with intricate production design, intense action sequences and powerful performances, often creating a visceral and nerve-wracking experience. The presentation, however, does not offer explicit judgement in either direction.
It is tempting to see this lack of judgment as an implicit affirmation of the philosophy Kyle lives (and, if taken as a true story, actually lived) by. But the film includes Kyle’s post-traumatic stress, his inability to leave the war behind and his encounters with other veterans who were badly injured. The film therefore depicts the cost of war and the suffering of those who fight, and barely touches on the plight of Iraqi civilians, while Iraqi combatants are largely presented as cyphers, their identities irrelevant because they are simply “the enemy”. Again, this comes back to the film’s focus on its central character – the film is about Chris Kyle, not the Iraq War or American machismo or patriotism. Nor do we necessarily gain an in-depth understanding of our protagonist, as Kyle remains largely impenetrable, only his actions apparent. This inflects the film as a whole, the events of the narrative presented without explanation or commentary. American Sniper therefore treats its audience with great respect, allowing us to decide its meaning without guidance or manipulation, offering itself (successfully) as a topic for debate and discussion.
Continuing my response to the response to Oscar nominations, it is worth noting that there are certain types of film that are consistently honoured by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. This type is determined more by content than anything else. I have seen the accusation that the Academy is more interested in rewarding financial than artistic success. In the case of the current crop of nominees, this is patently nonsense, as the eight films nominated for Best Picture are the lowest earning group of nominees in recent years. The combined box office gross of the eight Best Picture nominees came to $203.1 million before the announcement of the nominees, and there is little time before the ceremony for this to increase significantly (although American Sniper is doing very well). Furthermore, look at the earnings of other films, including nominees in other categories. In an act of remarkable brashness, Paramount submitted one of the year’s highest earners, Transformers: Age of Extinction, for consideration as Best Picture. Shockingly, it was not nominated in that category or indeed any other, but the five films nominated for Best Visual Effects (the category Transformers: Age of Extinction had a chance in) have a combined box office gross of $3.6 billion worldwide. So to say that AMPAS only rewards box office winners is simply untrue.
It is typical that the Academy Award for Visual Effects goes to commercially successful films, often along with other post-production categories such as Sound Editing and Sound Mixing. What irritates me about this is the perpetuation of the art/entertainment divide – movies make money and might win an award for their effects; films are “art” and win awards for being “artistic”. It is an utterly nonsensical division that I love to see occasionally challenged, such as when genre films like Avatar (2009) and Inception (2010) are nominated for Best Picture (unsurprisingly, neither won that award although both won Best Visual Effects, as well as Cinematography). There are exceptions that straddle the divide, earn vast box office receipts and pick up multiple awards as well, but these are few and far between. The best example is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003), a fantasy blockbuster that won all eleven Oscars for which it was nominated. Although they did not win, other unusual nominees include The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) and The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002), as well as Jaws (1975), Star Wars (1977), E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial (1982), the occasional animated film such as Toy Story (2010), Up (2009) and Beauty and the Beast (1991), and especially Gravity (2013).
An interesting comparison can be made between Gravity, which won seven Oscars including Best Director, and Titanic (1997), which tied the record of eleven awards set by Ben-Hur (1959) (a feat later achieved by The Return of the King). Both Gravity and Titanic were commercially successful, and both are disaster movies with very high production values. Yet Titanic was more honoured than Gravity, picking up Best Picture whereas Gravity lost out to 12 Years A Slave. The common factor between 12 Years A Slave and Titanic is the factor that the Academy consistently rewards – history.
Look over these Best Picture winners of the last three decades:
2013 – 12 Years A Slave
2012 – Argo
2011 – The Artist
2010 – The King’s Speech
2009 – The Hurt Locker
2008 – Slumdog Millionaire
2007 – No Country for Old Men
2006 – The Departed
2005 – Crash
2004 – Million Dollar Baby
2003 – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King
2002 – Chicago
2001 – A Beautiful Mind
2000 – Gladiator
1999 – American Beauty
1998 – Shakespeare in Love
1997 – Titanic
1996 – The English Patient
1995 – Braveheart
1994 – Forrest Gump
1993 – Schindler’s List
1992 – Unforgiven
1991 – The Silence of the Lambs
1990 – Dances With Wolves
1989 – Driving Miss Daisy
1988 – Rain Man
1987 – The Last Emperor
1986 – Platoon
1985 – Out of Africa
1984 – Amadeus
Only eight (26.6%) of these thirty Best Picture winners have a setting contemporary to the time of their release, whereas twenty-one (70%) have a historical setting, ranging from 18th century Vienna to ancient Rome, 13th century Scotland to various points in the 20th century. Many of the films feature significant historical events, including World War II (four), Vietnam (three), the Middle East (two) and the US Civil Rights Movement (the anomaly is The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King). Ten of these films (33.3%) are based on specific historical events or people, making them “true” stories.
The Academy consistently rewards the depiction of history, both in terms of period setting and significant events. Unsuccessful nominees have the same features – Saving Private Ryan, L. A. Confidential, Quiz Show, The Cider House Rules, Dangerous Liaisons, Mississippi Burning – demonstrating that a significant proportion of nominees depict historical subjects. One can interpret this historical dimension as adding (in the minds of some) an element of gravitas, a quality that makes the film seem “important”. If we accept that AMPAS is an institution devoted to the development, promotion and cultural significance of motion pictures, then it follows that this institution would reward films that make the effort to engage with significant socio-cultural concerns and events. “History” can be considered a short-hand for this, the Academy honouring films that depict “history” because this subject matter is worthy of reward. Equally, it is rare for a contemporary-set thriller to win Best Picture (only The Silence of the Lambs and The Departed in the last 30 years – Argo and No Country for Old Men have thriller narratives, but both are historical and the former is based on a true story) and unheard of for a science fiction film to win. Gravity came closest and I had hopes for Interstellar this year, but no such luck for Christopher Nolan’s science fiction epic. Surprise, surprise though, Interstellar is nominated for Visual Effects.
This goes back to the art/entertainment divide, a form of cultural elitism that goes far beyond the Academy Awards. The Booker Prize and the Pulitzer Prize for literature rarely (if ever) go to science fiction, fantasy or thriller novels, and there remains the nonsensical view that literature and theatre are “art” and therefore somehow superior to cinema which is “only entertainment”. Interestingly, one of this year’s nominees, Birdman, engages with this elitism through its portrayal of a former movie star struggling for credibility in the face of immense cultural prejudice, including a scene where a theatre critic lambasts the entire practice of Hollywood cinema for being too commercial and giving awards for “cartoons and pornography”. The great irony of AMPAS is that it perpetuates this bizarre double standard within its own medium, for the most part ignoring genre films and those with a contemporary or (God forbid) future setting and consistently rewarding historical dramas of “importance”.
While I am frustrated by this practice of AMPAS, it would be unfair to entirely blame AMPAS, because the cultural attitudes at work here go far beyond a single institution. But I will blame the Academy members for their general conservatism and reluctance to honour films that differ from the typical pattern. Nominees like Gravity and Avatar, and the extraordinary success of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, are especially gratifying because films like these develop the cinematic medium, creating fantasy worlds and taking audiences to new and exciting places. The challenges and innovations of these films are often expensive and the only way they can pay for themselves is through commercial success, therefore by honouring such films the Academy honours and encourages the development and continuance of cinema itself. That is what I would like to see more of in the future, though I am not optimistic as year on year the Academy instead rewards subject matter rather than innovation, perpetuating an unnecessary cultural elitism.
Perhaps I’m naïve, but responses to the Oscars, both nominees and winners, never cease to surprise me. Never mind within hours, within one hour of the nominees for the 87th Annual Academy Awards announcement (bit of a mouthful), the Internet was awash with ridicule, condemnation and insistence that the Academy had got it wrong yet again. Why do non-Academy members find it so hard to accept that the position of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is different but possibly just as valid to their own position? Why will we not accept that this is a bunch of films that AMPAS choose to honour, and that the Academy is allowed a different position to our own? Come the end of the year, many film fans post lists of their top films of the year, and these lists vary widely. We can disagree, but we do so respectfully, whether it is on online or in person. The level of vitriol and contempt directed against AMPAS every year seems excessive, dubious and downright arrogant. A Bunch of Dry Old Men? I am also irritated by the way the uninformed describe the award givers, referring to AMPAS as if it were a secret cabal or committee whose members meet, look over the films their friends made, puff their cigars and sip their whiskey, before voting for the films that made the most money. The Academy has over 5000 voting members, divided into 15 branches relating to the Academy’s various categories (acting, directing, cinematography, etc.). Each member of a particular branch picks nominees in their category from the films eligible for consideration, which can be any theatrical release that plays for seven days in Los Angeles between 1st January and 31st December of the previous year. Voting decisions can therefore be made individually and not necessarily because of others’ influence. This is not to say that personal and financial relationships do not influence decisions, or that no decisions are made by voters going “Eeny-meeny-miny-mo” on the list of candidates, but let’s have some perspective on the sheer size of the institution involved. To be fair, this institution is far from diverse. According to a report published in the Los Angeles Times, over 90% of the voting members of AMPAS are Caucasian, over 70% are male, and at least 50% are over the age of 60. Furthermore, over 30% of voting members are former nominees and winners. The stereotype of the Academy voter being an old white man does therefore have some validity. Nonetheless, while this demonstrates that women and people of colour are severely under-presented in the Academy, it does not mean that anyone else necessarily knows what these old white men enjoy, respect and reward. We can speculate about their preferences and whether they will be more swayed by a gold watch from Rolex or Chopard, but we do not ultimately know. Furthermore, what makes your opinion or mine more valid than theirs? Granted, the opinions of this largely homogenous institution do lead to a great deal of Hollywood hoopla and one of the grandest shows of the entertainment calendar. The fact that these are the film industry’s awards and that the manner of their presentation is so ostentatious can appear crass and excessive. If that is your reaction, that the actual institution of the Oscar ceremony is offensive, why take any interest in the awards at all? And if you do take an interest, consider this: if the resources were suddenly made available for the [insert your name here] Film Awards, would you not make a big fuss about it as well? And if you were suddenly appointed the arbiter of cinematic quality, able to dole out awards to the film artists that you deemed worthy, would you be so different from AMPAS? What performances, scripts, special effects, cinematography, editing, sound mixing, sound editing, costume design, production design, hair and make-up, directors and, oh yes, films overall, would I vote for to win? But then again, what do we know about cinematography, sound mixing, sound editing, costume design, production design, etc? Are the people who actually work in these areas not somewhat qualified at deciding on high quality work? Of course, strong reactions tend to relate to particular categories, mainly Best Picture. This leads me to what I would like to see: a reasoned response to Oscar nominations that respectfully disagrees and does not declare that a few thousand total strangers are idiots. I may not agree that the films nominated each year are the finest examples of cinematic art that the previous twelve months have produced, but that does not mean my opinion is more valid than anyone else. Were I a member of AMPAS, and nothing I voted for was nominated simply due to number of votes, it would make my opinion a minority. The demographics may be narrow, but it is a democratic process rather than the dictatorship that negative responses infer: “the Academy members are wrong and I, the arbiter of all that is quality, am right”. It sounds different that way, doesn’t it?
My question, therefore, is why is the opinion of anyone who derides the Oscar nomination decisions more valid than those of the combined beliefs of the members of AMPAS? Who is really qualified to give awards for filmmaking? Perhaps the people that spend the most time actually watching and assessing films, i.e. critics. Critics are among the first to give awards, presented before the Golden Globes, BAFTAs and Oscars take place. Indeed, the films honoured by the National Board of Review, the New York Film Critics Circle and other such organisations often go on to receive awards from the industry as well, which suggests that the Academy voters may take some guidance from the critics. Of course, if you don’t value reviews either, then you’re still going to be annoyed, perhaps by the type of films that are honoured. I will return to this in my next post.
Stephen Hawking is one of the most eminent minds of the last century, yet he may be as famous for coping with disability as he is for expounding on the universe. A similar tension runs through James Marsh’s adaptation of Jane Hawking’s autobiography. Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the source material, Stephen’s scientific breakthroughs receive relatively little screentime, the film’s focus being on Stephen and Jane’s relationship. The sequences between Jane and Stephen are often touching without being mawkish, and at no point does Stephen appear simply as an invalid. Equally, however, his condition is not glossed over – Jane’s care for Stephen is an integral part of their lives. Some sequences emphasise Stephen’s physical difficulties as well as Jane’s courage and resolve to help him, and the portrayal of managing disability makes the story of the Hawking’s bond believable and compelling. Much of this is down to the committed performances of Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones. Redmayne has already received a Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Drama and is a strong contender to win both the BAFTA and the Oscar. His is the type of performance award givers love: a real person who overcomes great adversity in the form of a disability that requires a difficult physical performance. Redmayne achieves a remarkable transformation, his motions and speech steadily becoming restricted as Stephen’s motor neuron disease progresses. Over the film’s narrative of forty years, Redmayne also ages into the role, becoming indistinguishable from popular images of Hawking, his face and body eventually fixed in a recognisable but not caricatured contortion. Redmayne continues to perform Stephen’s soul as well, his eyes speaking volumes of intelligence, sorrow and humour in the later scenes when Stephen becomes mute. But while Redmayne attracts the awards buzz, the equally-nominated Felicity Jones is just as impressive in the less showy role of Jane, and Jones shines in the role of a woman dealing with extraordinary pressure, enormous demands and difficult choices. Her performance is more subtle and restrained, never erupts into histrionics and generates significant empathy.
Perhaps ironically for a film about a scientist, the less effective aspects of The Theory of Everything relate to artistic choices about the science, both narratively and technically. Most grating is the cinematography: early sequences have a distracting blue filter, and many sequences are overexposed, the excessive light in the frame becoming off-putting, while a scene that should be a moving reunion is spoiled by an obvious and clumsy increase of sunlight. Many scenes are shot in soft focus, people’s faces as well as objects given an indistinct edge that makes the substance of the film too nostalgic, the inclusion of home movie footage adding to this unnecessary irritation. It is also disappointing that little is made of Stephen’s discoveries – mathematical equations may not be the most dramatic material, but scientific breakthroughs and Eureka moments can be, clichéd though they are (see Interstellar for an instance of using this cliché effectively). The film’s climax uses reversed action, echoing Jane’s earlier summary of Stephen’s research as “turn back the clock”, and this is also clunky and unconvincing. Overall, The Theory of Everything is an unbalanced equation: the human side of the story is well written and very well acted, but the science is less convincing, constituting both an underdeveloped narrative thread and distracting stylistic flashes.
Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Birdman is acerbic, scathing and merciless. It’s also quite brilliant, excelling in every area including script, production design, cinematography, editing, music and performance. Every character bares their banality, pretentiousness and insecurity, none more so than protagonist Riggan Thomson (Michael Keaton, never better), former star of the superhero franchise Birdman, trying to regain artistic credibility with a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, which he also directs and stars in. Riggan’s protracted expostulations, combined with an internal monologue from the Birdman character, steadily dissect popular culture and highlight Riggan’s failures while also proclaiming his continued value and relevance. Not only is Riggan at war with himself, he also clashes with everyone around him: his best friend and lawyer Jake (Zach Galifianakis), who constantly tries to keep Riggan and the play up and running; his recently-out-of-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone), who understands the fickle nature of the Twitter generation and is endlessly frustrated at her father’s refusal to face reality. More ludicrous are Riggan’s clashes with his fellow actors: Broadway artiste Mike (Edward Norton), whose attitude towards the art of theatre acting satirises Norton’s own reputation for perfection; Riggan’s lover/co-star Laura (Andrea Riseborough), who cannot keep her personal and professional issues separate any better than Riggan; Lesley (Naomi Watts), wrestling with her own insecurities as an actor as well as a strained relationship with Mike. Only with his ex-wife Sylvia (Amy Ryan) does Riggan appear to have some measure of peace, though it is clear his own self-absorption ruined this relationship as well.
The relentlessness of Riggan’s trail of destruction is manifested by the film’s extraordinary style, Iñárritu and DOP Emmanuel Lubezki appearing to capture almost the entire film in a single shot. The continuous shot takes the viewer on a breathtaking ride through the theatre as well as the surrounding streets in several bravura sequences, one of which is a nightmare for many actors and another that takes the film into the realm of magical realism. These technical flourishes are never extraneously flashy but help pull the viewer into Riggan’s skewed world, ensuring that the extreme characters are never bereft of sympathy. Riggan is frequently (and fairly) described as an “asshole”, yet the viewer is drawn into the exposure of Riggan’s soul. Meanwhile, discourses including celebrity culture, art VS entertainment, critics and relationships are all drawn into the personal dramas. Yet despite its biting satire, this lampoon of the superhero film never feels mean-spirited, the laughter tinged with sadness throughout, right up to the denouement that even manages to include the fundamental theme of superhero narratives, that of hope. Amongst all its scabrous energy, Birdman finds time for warmth and a deep affection for the special kind of madness that drives people to create.