The people who made “Selma” have no reason to feel snubbed by the Oscars. The picture shouldn’t have been released to theatres in the first place. It is a solid piece of television drama, and had it made its premiere on television, it might have won some deserved Emmys. The person who should be truly offended by the Academy is Clint Eastwood, who was not nominated for Best Director, even though “American Sniper” is the most expertly directed of this year’s Best Picture nominees.
Eastwood has never been one to impose moral judgments on his characters, and his objectivity in the telling of mass murderer Chris Kyle’s story has made him a Hollywood pariah. And when I use the word Hollywood as an adjective, I do so in derision. The people who condemn “American Sniper” as fascist propaganda are the same people who championed Kathryn Bigelow’s “The Hurt Locker” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” the former a characterless study of a knucklehead who defuses bombs in Baghdad and the latter a balls-out celebration of American fascism that justifies torture and murder in the inquisition methods of those on the trail of Osama bin Laden. Now these Hollywood hypocrites are spreading lies to demonize Eastwood’s clear-eyed portrait of a clean-cut kid who has been turned into a killer by the war culture in which he has been raised to believe that evil is something that can be localized and eliminated. From this, one Facebook poster complains that he does not need Eastwood to tell him where evil is to be found. But Eastwood has never pretended to tell anyone any such thing. In the film, when Kyle tells a fellow soldier that he does what he does “because evil is here,” the other character replies that “evil is everywhere.”
And so it is. The military presence of the Americans in Iraq is an evil that engenders evil. There would be no snipers like Chris Kyle picking off suicide bombers and sharpshooters to protect his fellow soldiers if those soldiers were not there in the streets making targets of themselves. This is not war; it is a skirmish of street gangs, just like the crap going on between the Palestinians and Israeli’s. If such barbaric imbecilities threatened the white suburbs of America, the offending parties on both sides would be arrested, tried, and imprisoned. Eastwood is not being snubbed and slandered for perpetuating American myths, but for shattering them. “American Sniper” is not a box-office smash because the American people enjoy watching a marksman pick off women and children from a comfortable distance, but because the country is feeling the weight of the return of these traumatized psychos into civilized society, and wants to understand who they are and how they got that way. Every time Kyle makes the the call to pull that trigger, he kills another piece of himself, and in doing so he kills something in the spirit of those back home, those who bear the unconscious guilt of every trigger that has been pulled in the building and sustaining of the American empire.
They are also buying tickets because “American Sniper” is an exceptional movie. Anybody can create suspense by showing a nervous guy trying to defuse a bomb before it blows up in his face, but only a master director can keep an audience biting its fingers by showing a man deciding whether or not to pull the trigger on a child who may or may not intend to die as a suicide bomber. Eastwood keeps actor Bradley Cooper in tight close-up, the slightest movement of his trigger finger causing their hearts of those in the audience to tighten up, some begging him to hurry up and kill the kid, others praying he doesn’t do it. Cooper’s deep simplicity stands out among the hyper-active performances by the other nominated actors, and surely deserves the Oscar he will probably. go home without. In the course of the movie, we see his body growing rigid like a stiffening corpse. He can hardly even move his mouth, especially when he is asked how if feels to be a legend. This is a human being who has been spiritually gutted by his belief that killing is synonymous with protecting. He is so thoroughly brainwashed that he cannot escape the conviction of the rightness of his actions, no matter how intensely he feels the effect of that wrongness. There are those who say Eastwood fails to tell us enough about Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome, but he doesn’t have to expound on it. He shows it, and that is more than the Hollywood hypocrites can handle.
But that is not the whole of it. Eastwood gives equal attention to Sienna Miller’s performance as Kyle’s wife. “American Sniper” never loses focus on the relationship between the soldier in Iraq and his wife back home. They are constantly in touch, his telephone calls to her in times of combat providing effective contrasts between their divergent realities. Most war movies dispense with this element by a letter or two, but Eastwood is explicit in delineating the demarcation between civilian and military life. We never forget Kyle’s neglect of his family because Eastwood neither ignores nor forgets their place in the story. Whether on or off screen, they are always present. Also, Miller does not play a stereotypical wife. Her actions are those of an individual, not a type, which makes it more difficult for some audiences to accept her devotion to a man who does not always act in her best interests.
Another thing Eastwood never lets us forget is the physical fact of bullets. When someone is fired upon, he does does not pretend to duck bullets that are represented only through sound effects. We see the effect of the bullet hitting the wall just inches from the target’s head and feel how close everyone is to sudden death.
2014 was a good year for the movies, and most of those nominated are pretty decent pictures. Nevertheless, there is something a little bit phony about all of them. In order to get behind them, one has to buy into the promotional mendacity that has elevated them above better movies. . With the exception of Eastwood, none of the directors is master of the craft. Each has a shell game going with the public. A second viewing of “Birdman” exposes its fraudulent. technique. The idea of a 12-year shooting period disguises the triviality of most of “Boyhood’s” script. The ferocious adversity between characters makes us forget “Whiplash” is a retread of the “push yourself to the limit” showbiz melodrama. The excellence of the acting in “The Imitation Game” supersedes the fact that this story based on true events is grossly inaccurate in historical terms. Of all the nominees, only “American Sniper” boasts an honesty of intent and a clarity of execution. For that, Eastwood is snubbed by the Academy. He is being treated as one who has been caught red-handed with an illicit copy of “Atlas Shrugged.” But unlike an Ayn Rand acolyte, Eastwood is no mediocrity with pretenses to greatness. He is the real thing.