Two late awards entrants set for Christmas Day release world-premiered Tuesday night at the AFI Fest. The first, Ava DuVernay’s “Selma,” was initially billed as a “work in progress,” but The Hollywood Reporter ran a review and the overall reaction was so positive–a standing ovation for the film, especially star David Oyelowo, who gives a towering performance as Dr. Martin Luther King–that Paramount opened the review floodgates. This movie now advances into the Oscar race, most likely for Oyelowo, who will compete for the fifth Best Actor slot with a number of robust competitors.
The second film at the Egyptian, the Secret Screening, was predictably Clint Eastwood’s recently finalized Warner Bros. Christmas release “American Sniper,” another straightforward biopic focused on the true story of ace Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle, who saves countless soldiers’ lives and returns intact after four tours in Iraq to put his life and family back together.
While Bradley Cooper gives a dazzling and sympathetic performance –accompanied by dramatic weight gain, mostly muscle mass–the movie marks yet another efficiently lensed war film from Eastwood, with superb edge-of-your-seat, immersive battle sequences. But Kyle’s return home to his concerned wife (one-note Sienna Miller) and children is rote and unremarkable. While the film may play for the masses, it doesn’t compare to similar “The Hurt Locker,” and is coming from behind in the awards derby. Warners will push hard.
Like “The Butler,” earnest Civil Rights biopic “Selma”–focused on the 1965 actions in Selma, Alabama that forced President Lyndon Baines Johnson to put through the Voting Rights Act–will be a huge transformative hit with African American audiences. This one, backed by Brad Pitt’s Plan B (“12 Years a Slave”) was also a labor of love for producers Dede Gardner and Jeremy Kleiner, who developed it for seven years before finding the right director, Ava DuVernay, whose 2012 Sundance director-prize-winning “Middle of Nowhere” also starred Oyelowo, who had long felt destined to play Dr. King.
Oyelowo ably carries the film as the driven Civil Rights leader who is determined to hold the president hostage via peaceful demonstrations –marred by hideous trauma and violence from Governor George Wallace-controlled troopers and local police which was covered by the media. It’s exhilarating to see King stand up to the president, played by Tom Wilkinson with no pretense at a legitimate Texas drawl. (Fellow Brit Tim Roth actually does better as Wallace.) The entire supporting cast is strong, from Common to Oprah Winfrey as one of the marchers who is refused the right to vote. But the film really comes to life with King’s soaring oratory. His speeches are as moving and eloquent as ever.
The critics and Oscar voters and the public will root for “Selma,” which is elegantly lensed by rising cinematographer Bradford Young (“A Most Violent Year”), whatever its minor flaws. Finally, it plays. Could the film use a tighter edit and more rousing score? Sure. But it’s a winner.