For prognosticators, it wasn’t much of a surprise that “American Sniper” failed to win anything more than Best Sound Editing at this Sunday’s Oscars. Despite becoming a box office hit over the last two months, Clint Eastwood’s war drama about Chris Kyle (the most lethal sniper in U.S. history, according to the posters) racked up a fair number of nominations at the various awards fests, yet had failed to move the needle toward any actual wins.
The reason for that is likely due not to Eastwood’s craftsmanship as a director or Bradley Cooper’s performance, but because of one of the primary criticisms hurled at the film: the way it seems to gloss over the reality of Kyle’s experience as a war veteran and the trauma he experienced. As the Chicago Tribune’s Michael Phillips wrote:
“Eastwood honors his subject without really getting under his skin… there’s a difference between a film about a man reluctant to acknowledge the psychological toll of what he endured and a movie that basically doesn’t want to talk about it or question it, or think about it, period.”
And that’s brought into sharp relief by the fact that the most interesting part of “American Sniper” is the part the film doesn’t even really touch — the real life irony of Kyle’s death. Shot to death by fellow veteran Eddie Ray Routh at a gun range, it’s a senseless tragedy incorporated with blunt force into the film’s final minutes. That choice might have been due in part to the fact that Routh was only just today officially convicted of Kyle’s murder, but the choice also fit with the film’s structure and tone, a sequence of vignettes capturing Kyle’s life, but from a distance.
Which is what makes it so interesting to contrast it with, of all things, ABC’s action drama “Agent Carter.” Yes, the TV show about Captain America’s girlfriend.
Marking the first time Chris Evans (via footage from the first film) has appeared in a network drama since the 2003 Fox series “Skin,” “Agent Carter” focuses on Captain America’s love interest from the films, Peggy, as she seeks to find her own way as a secret agent in New York City circa 1946.
Peggy technically lives in a comic book world, filled with devices of supernatural ability and fights villains with hypnotic powers or enhanced abilities, but the show’s post-World War II period setting is a grounding influence and a source of fantastic visual flare (the sharp ’40s fashions are so much a part of the show’s dynamic that compliments about Peggy Carter’s hats weren’t just written into the dialogue, they were part of the show’s ad campaign).
And the use of the time period goes way beyond hats. On the surface, “Carter” technically has a lot in common with the 2001-2006 ABC series “Alias” (coincidentally enough, Bradley Cooper’s first major role). Both shows might be defined as action-heavy, female-led ensemble dramas with genre audience appeal. But while star Hayley Atwell is a captivating anchor, the show’s interests go beyond her, digging into the effect the war had on Carter’s fellow male agents, both psychologically and physically.
While never absent from the frame (especially when amputee Agent Souza, played beautifully by “Dollhouse” breakout Enver Gjokaj, is on screen), the reality of post-war life for soldiers came to the forefront a bit over halfway through “Agent Carter’s” eight-episode run, during the episode “The Iron Ceiling.” In a quiet yet startling scene towards the end of the episode, the usually unflappable Agent Thompson (Chad Michael Murray) confesses that during the war he won a medal after committing a tragic mistake and burying the evidence.
It’s a moment of vulnerability that’s an earned and memorable landmark for the series. But what’s so striking about it, upon further reflection, is its historical context. Unlike the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that wrecked havoc not just on the regions, but on Kyle and his fellow soldiers, World War II is a relatively uncontroversial conflict; while the United States was slow to enter it, there’s no doubt in our collective consciousness that it was a righteous battle. So to have a soldier of that era — a soldier of what we literally refer to as The Greatest Generation — admit to guilt, fault and trauma over his actions is a stirring statement about the effects of war, any war, on a person.
And it creates a depth of statement that “American Sniper” never achieves. “American Sniper” shows us war, but, for a movie that is all about one man, it only very rarely lets us see the impact of conflict upon him. Meanwhile, “Agent Carter” proves actually invested in the inner life of its characters, most especially the men left damaged, outward and in, by their time as soldiers.
“Agent Carter” may be Marvel’s best-yet work with the television format (a title it’ll hold onto for at least another month, before the Netflix series “Daredevil” premieres) and seems a likely candidate for a second season. (After all, if “Agents of SHIELD” could get a second chance…) Thanks to the current great explosion of current great television, it’s unlikely to contend for any major awards. But it not only recreated a long-ago era, “Agent Carter” also made it feel relevant to our current age.