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‘American Sniper’ vs. ‘Selma’: Hollywood Takes Sides, Aim

'American Sniper' vs. 'Selma': Hollywood Takes Sides, Aim

Like the lethal sharpshooter that is the film’s subject, Clint Eastwood’s war drama “American Sniper” snuck into the awards derby and unexpectedly inched Ava DuVernay out of the DGA running, David Oyelowo out of the Best Actor race, racked up six Oscar nominations including Best Picture and became a box office phenomenon that garnered $90 million over its first wide weekend. (We break down why here.)

But is this account of controversial, real-life, Texas-born Navy SEAL Chris Kyle a film of flag-flying jingoism or morally ambiguous, PTSD-sufferer sympathy? “Sniper” has drawn a swift line in the sand, and celebrities are taking sides, and aim.

Politically emboldened by “The Interview,” which went from tepid-looking Christmas comedy to must-see patriotic imperative, Seth Rogen took to the Twitterverse to decry the Eastwood pic.

That “movie” within the movie he’s referring to is a Nazi propaganda film of a German sniper picking off some 200 Allies that Melanie Laurent’s character uses to lure Germans to their fiery doom. Meanwhile, pot-stirring documentary filmmaker Michael Moore, in less dramatic fashion, hinted at his feelings about the film in this tweet:

But the hotheaded filmmaker then clarified on Facebook: “Awesome performance from Bradley Cooper. One of the best of the year. Great editing. Costumes, hair, makeup superb! Oh… and too bad Clint gets Vietnam and Iraq confused in his storytelling. And that he has his characters calling Iraqis “savages” throughout the film. But there is also anti-war sentiment expressed in the movie. And there’s a touching ending as the main character is remembered after being gunned down by a fellow American vet with PTSD who was given a gun at a gun range back home in Texas — and then used it to kill the man who called himself the ‘America Sniper’.”

So all in all it seems that this film has the Moore seal of approval.

In a Daily Beast interview with Bradley Cooper, the thrice Oscar-nominated leading man reveals that “American Sniper,” which aims to explore the psychological impact of war, apparently made Joe Biden cry. But feminist critic Lindy West, writing for The Guardian, is not taken with the film’s perceived machismo-stroking, freedom-fries-loving mentality:

Likewise, much of the US right wing appears to have seized upon American Sniper with similarly shallow comprehension – treating it with the same unconsidered, rah-rah reverence that they would the national anthem or the flag itself. Only a few weeks into its release, the film has been flattened into a symbol to serve the interests of an ideology that, arguably, runs counter to the ethos of the film itself. How much, if at all, should Eastwood concern himself with fans who misunderstand and misuse his work? If he, intentionally or not, makes a hero out of Kyle – who, bare minimum, was a racist who took pleasure in dehumanising and killing brown people – is he responsible for validating racism, murder, and dehumanisation? Is he a propagandist if people use his work as propaganda?

The film clearly has inspired articulate debate. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody, arguing that the film “takes apart the myth of the American warrior,” writesEastwood’s drama isn’t about the effects of a misguided American military adventure on Iraq but about the effects on America—on the United States’s ability to defend itself when the country’s principal defenders are laid waste in a needless war. Eastwood’s film, without expressly challenging so-called American values, raises the question of the abuse of those values in a system that lets armchair warriors send real ones to destruction in vain. He’s not diagnostic—he doesn’t rise to the issue of whether democracy or its perversion is at fault. Whatever American distinctiveness the title may suggest, there’s one thing from which Americans aren’t excepted: war is as devastating for them as for anyone, which makes the notion of political and moral exceptionalism all the more potentially self-destructive.

DuVernay’s “Selma” is also rattling the American moviegoing conscious. Over the weekend, The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd took to task the film’s perceived-to-be-false vilification of Lyndon B. Johnson, who serves as the DC albatross to MLK’s fight for civil rights: “…the director’s talent makes her distortion of L.B.J. more egregious. Artful falsehood is more dangerous than artless falsehood, because fewer people see through it.”

NYT’s Dave Carr addressed “Selma”‘s Oscar snub in categories outside Picture and Song: “As someone who once spent a great deal of time reporting on the ins and outs of the Oscars, I know that the snub is not some overt racial conspiracy at work.” If you follow any awards season pundits and writers on Twitter, including Sasha Stone, Jeff Wells, David Poland, Glenn Kenny among them, you know what a contentious, vitriol-fueled debate this Academy oversight has caused.

Back in December 2014, Manohla Dargis published an extensive NYT interview with DuVernay that surely helped raise the film’s profile, even if it didn’t land the Oscar nominations many were hoping for. We assessed the film’s Oscar fate, which was in part due to the film’s arguably revisionist narrative but also due to Paramount’s late-breaking awards campaign. Many Oscar voters never watched the film with their families over the holidays. Some see it as a history lesson. Wesley Morris offers a must-read, impassioned defense of the film here.

So what does this all mean at the end of the day? Like them or not, the movies are doing their job.

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