Oscars Week: AMERICAN SNIPER + SELMA

Say what you want about American Sniper, but it’s not a pro-war film. Clint Eastwood’s pro-troops movie shouldn’t be confused with pro-Iraq. Many critics are reading through Eastwood’s conservative politics; but it’s so easy to polarize this movie and neglect the deep uncertainty at its core.

I do believe Eastwood wants to depict Chris Kyle, who amassed 160 confirmed kills in Iraq, as a hero. Kyle in the movie is unshakably straightforward upholding America’s superiority. In his worldview, we are the good guys, and they are the other. Bradley Cooper matches that directness; all his irrepressible American Hustle energy is contained to play Kyle. So Eastwood taps into the ambiguity of war through everyone around Kyle: his wife Taya, who can’t understand why he reenlists; his fellow servicemen, who don’t see heroes and villains so readily; a therapist who wonders if he’s haunted by what he’s seen. “I’m willing to meet my Creator and answer for every shot I took,” Kyle responds.

This is the next in a continuous tradition of veteran movies, from the ironic The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946, with three World War II soldiers displaced back at home, to 2009’s The Hurt Locker, where Jeremy Renner can’t shed the adrenaline of the bomb. American Sniper covers the same territory without finding much compelling about Chris Kyle himself.

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Ava DuVernay’s Selma also takes up the challenge of dramatizing an American figure, and captures both the rich oratory of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words and the conflicted man behind the podium. Paul Webb’s script smartly focuses on one moment in King’s legacy: his advocacy for voting rights legislation, leading to the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. Like American Sniper, the violence is devastating. Police brutality feels familiar now.

It’s a shame that this depiction of King was unable to license the reverend’s actual speeches. But the slightly changed rewritings that David Oyelowo delivers sound right in his voice. Oyelowo makes a thoughtful King, who weighs the responsibility of his fellow men and women heavily. He has an expressive stillness; I was struck by his halting admission of his infidelities to Coretta King (in a small but strong performance by Carmen Ejogo). In his negotiations with Lyndon B. Johnson, it’s not accidental how small King looks in the Oval Office. He was a radical, a rabble-rouser; there must be truth in Washington trying to minimize his outreach.

As the march completes its journey to Montgomery, the music swells like a great big Hollywood ending. But DuVernay wisely undercuts that grandeur. She wants to inspire while keeping us aware of the men in the crowd who aren’t fighting with King. She’s directed a moving biopic of a passionate man at a turning point—a uniting point for many. If only the oppression that led to Montgomery were just history—but we know better.

For Your Consideration: Selma for Best Picture, Ava DuVernay (Director), Paul Webb (Screenplay), David Oyelowo.

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