Friday, February 13, 2015

Oscars 2015: The Rest of the "Best"

It's a good thing Bradley Cooper won that teddy bear because he won't be winning any Oscars this year. Zing!

With such a strong year for film last year, I found the nominations for the upcoming Oscars rather disappointing. So much good work seemed to be passed up in favor of mediocrity. I wrote my own disgruntled post responding to the nominees (one which ended up talking a surprising amount about sound mixing...) but I was hardly the only one to find these nominations disappointing. Everyone thought they sucked.

Now that I've had some time to consider these nominations, I've moved through the grieving process and arrived at acceptance. Sure, Selma deserved more nominations, but you know what? It was nominated for Best Picture, and that's the BIG award that everyone wants. Years from now, no one will care about the number of nominations. But "Best Picture Nominee" will still carry a lot of weight. And ultimately, I should really be happy with the Best Picture nominees. Of the eight films nominated for Best Picture, five of them were included in my list of the best pictures of the year. You can read my in-depth write-ups on Selma, Whiplash, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Boyhood, and Birdman by clicking on the titles. But that still leaves three Best Picture nominees. What of them? What are my thoughts on those? That's what I mean to examine in this post. What kept those other three films, deemed worthy by the Academy, from making my own list of acclaim? Well, I've already discussed The Imitation Game briefly. To recap, it's a very well-made movie that simply doesn't ever feel extraordinary. It's a very by-the-books biopic, which glosses over the more tragic parts of Alan Turing's story which actually need to be told, and tells its story in a flashy and well-crafted, but ultimately fleeting way. But it's not a bad film. The other two nominees, however, The Theory of Everything  and American Sniper, are. So let's talk about those.

"Wait, so you..."
"You don't want to talk about my movie?"
"No, Benedict, just go home."

We'll start with The Theory of Everything which, like The Imitation Game, is a stylish and pretty biopic about a British genius. The genius in this case is Stephen Hawking, portrayed by Eddie Redmayne. And, yes, Redmayne is fabulous. He does not just do an impression, he creates a fully realized character that Hawking himself has praised. He has been racking up awards all season and it's not hard to see why. So it's a shame that he has such a weak script to work with. It's not that Stephen Hawking is not deserving of a biopic, but The Theory of Everything goes about telling this story all wrong. It is sometimes said that one should never make a biopic about someone who is still alive, and this film demonstrates why. Perhaps because Hawking is so revered and was so present behind the scenes, the film can never really provide an objective view of its subject. Combined with just how clearly and desperately the film longs for acclaim and accolades, the film and its story become incredibly watered down. Because this is a film that could have really examined a more complete and non-biased view of Stephen Hawking than the one that we know, and missed the opportunity. It is bland beyond belief. Even the things done well--like the score and the production design--feel bland because they feel so typical and generic.

So generic that he even has those two and a half kids that the average family always has. If you count the soccer ball as a half kid, of course. Which I do.

It was not until after I watched the film that I realized it was not adapted from a Stephen Hawking biography, but from the memoirs of his ex-wife Jane Wilde Hawking, played by Felicity Jones in the film. I have a feeling that when this film was first pitched, she was meant to be the main character--what was it like to be the wife of such an esteemed figure? They had a troubled marriage which, of course, ended in divorce, and that perspective could have made a great movie. But, I bet in developing this script, the filmmakers realized something. As interesting as Jane is, Stephen Hawking is infinitely more fascinating. Jane is intelligent and wonderful in her own way, but she is not Stephen Hawking (let us all think back on the film Julie & Julia where, despite having the effortlessly charming Amy Adams playing her, the titular Julie was aggressively uninteresting when contrasted with a presence like Julia Child). And so somewhere along the way, the attention shifted, and it became a film about Stephen Hawking after all. While Jones is nominated in the leading actress category, there is no doubt that she is in a supporting role here. So the film became more of a traditional biopic about Hawking. But one that still partially felt stuck in Jane's story. The result is a muddled and confused film that's not really sure what it wants to do. This is a film that does not have a proper focus or understanding of its main character.

Stephen and Jane Wilde Hawking--the conflicting protagonists of The Theory of Everything

And so, despite being about one of the most fascinating figures of the century, and having a brilliant actor who seemed destined to play him, the film fails to bring said figure to life. It tells his story in the most uninteresting way. At some point Stephen is rushed to the hospital and the film spends a good deal of effort making us think he's going to die. That's all well and good, but we know he's not dead, so the suspense is gone. It's the same as when he's told he'll never walk again and that there's no hope for him, and everyone thinks that's the end. We know about how Stephen can communicate, so despite Redmayne's emoting, the situation never feels as hopeless as the film is relying on it to be.

But the biggest disappointment about the film is that it somehow fails to actually talk about science when telling the story of Stephen Hawking. The science is glossed over. The movie finds it uninteresting, and so the audience cannot truly grasp Stephen's fascination with it, or the true momentous nature of his discoveries.

See? Look how blurry that science on the chalkboard is. Point proven.

My problems with the film can, in fact, be summed up in a single scene, where Stephen is presenting his theory to a group of professors and scientists and generally important smart people who are all old white men (which is probably why the Academy liked this film so much). He arrives at the building and is wheeled into the room. At this point, the scene changes, and cuts to the last minute of his presentation. The film had a perfect chance to explain directly to its audience what Stephen Hawking actually proposed, and chose to show us a hurried summary. The presentation now over without us having heard it, one of the generally important smart people gets up and says "Complete nonsense. Preposterous!" and he and a few others leave. Things are looking bad for Stephen. Will he ever gain respect as a scientist?!?! Yes. We know this. We are not worried. As luck would have it, at that moment, another Professor gets up and introduces himself as a Russian professor and says "As you know, I study the theory of black holes and to be honest, I came here today expecting to hear a lot of nonsense. I go home disappointed. I have to say, the little one here has done it!" Never minding that a bunch of other smart people clearly disagree, and never minding that somehow this professor immediately knows that this brand new theory that has never before been proposed must be correct, and never minding that most of the people in the room had never met Stephen before and were in no way invested in his failures or successes, everyone bursts into applause.

Why does that scene sum up my view of the film? Because it's all about the drama. The applause makes no sense, but it's there because it makes it a more dramatic moment. The filmmakers imagine the audience clapping along with them. According to the filmmakers, the science is not important--we don't need to know what Hawking's research was, we just need to know that he's super smart. These moments feel so manufactured, and so artificial, that the film ends up being little more than a soap opera. A bad soap opera.Without the self-awareness that makes actual soap operas so enjoyable.

"I have something to tell you, Jane. I am not Stephen. I am his twin cousin Salvatore Hawking. Yes, the one who died in that yacht fire three years ago!"

I couldn't think of a good segue to connect these films's a picture from the movie Love is Strange which came out this year. It was good, not amazing, but definitely good. Certainly better than both The Theory of Everything and American Sniper.

Segue achieved!

I must admit that I did not have high expectations going in to see American Sniper and was ready to absolutely hate it. After seeing the film, I can't say that it was the worst film I'd ever seen, and in terms of objective quality, I'd rank it higher than The Theory of Everything when looking at this year's nominees. But the film is nonetheless deeply flawed. And, no, I'm not just referring to the incredibly fake baby, although that is indeed hilarious.

This is the best part of the film, to be honest.

I'll get to the film's faults in just a second, but first I'd like to discuss what American Sniper does well, because it is not without its merits. First, credit is due for Bradley Cooper, in his performance as the titular sniper Chris Kyle. His nomination for best leading actor came out of nowhere, and while I would not have chosen to nominate him, it is definitely a strong performance, and a very different performance from Cooper which shows his versatility. It would be a good performance coming from anyone, but coming from Cooper it was very unexpected--it's a quiet performance which shows a lot of restraint. He imbues Chris Kyle with a grounded strength. For a character who is written as somewhat annoyingly perfect, Cooper makes him feel very real, giving him sensitivity, pain, and dimension that a weaker actor would not have been able to accomplish.

Bradley Cooper as sniper Chris Kyle

Aside from Cooper, the film's greatest strength is that it serves as a very strong and thoughtful examination on the subject of war itself. From reading about American Sniper before going into it, I was ready for a shoot-em-up free-for-all flick glorifying the violence of war. But it was absolutely nothing like this, to the point that I'm rather amazed anyone could come out of the theater and not think that its message was profoundly anti-war. I shouldn't be too surprised, though; as with director Clint Eastwood's previous war films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, his own well-documented anti-war stance assures that the acts of violence are never glorified. He doesn't condescend the soldiers, but also comments on how difficult the lifestyle is, and how the mentality soldiers are conditioned to develop can be harmful. When Chris is home from the war and clearly undergoing PTSD attacks, he never can acknowledge this reality. In one of the better scenes, a psychiatrist asks Chris whether killing 200 people might have taken a toll on him. Chris seems to not even understand the question. The best lesson to take away from American Sniper is the consistently subpar way that our veterans are treated, and how so many are completely unprepared for the harsh realities of war. Even Chris, who from purely a technical standpoint is an all-American supersoldier and epitome of a macho man, experiences what those of us who do not serve can only imagine. Eastwood admirably does not place blame on the soldiers themselves, but also does not shy away from displaying the harsh realities of what soldiers must do, and explores the mindset and the conditioning of the modern American soldier. When he does so, the film is at its strongest. And I wish he had explored these issues deeper than he did.

Bradley Cooper is thinking so hard right now.

But, as well and as tactfully as Eastwood presents the realities of war, he fails when it comes to depicting his Iraqi characters. And that is a flaw that simply cannot be overlooked--it is not just a flaw in terms of technical storytelling, but one which is simply inexcusable. The rest of the film could be the best movie ever, and would still be a failure based on this flaw. It would be a stretch to say that this is the worst portrayal of Iraqis I've seen, but in a world that is already rife with Islamophobia, the film's own use of it is wholly unnecessary. Not only is it hateful, but it makes the film feel useless and ireelevant. And while I get that it was depicting wartime the film seemed to go out of its way to portray all Iraqis as terrorists. The very first scene is of Kyle shooting an innocent-seeming woman and child once it becomes clear they are carrying a grenade. Then there's the family whose house is invaded by the U.S. soldiers and forcibly told they'll be using his house as their base. The head of the house seems friendly, and invites all of the soldiers to dinner, only for Chris to discover that (surprise) the family has lots of guns in its possession and is in league with the bad guys. The father gets shot later. There is one civilian who is non-violent and attempts to help them, but only does so when they pay him a hefty amount of money. He too gets shot later. They are not treated like characters, they are treated like targets. Especially for a film that touches on the impacts a soldier's job can have on them, the fact that anyone of Middle Eastern descent is treated in such a way is blatantly reprehensible. They are treated about as humanly as the deer that Chris shoots as a kid in an early scene. they are filmed in basically the same way as the paper targets that he practices on. It's disgusting. I mean, even in WWII films, you typically have that one nice Nazi who actually helps out. Not in American Sniper.

What I'm saying is, it's racist.

Mustafa, a potentially interesting character whose potential was wasted in exchange for more racism!

The potential for this film to not be racist is perhaps most wasted when it comes to a character known only as Mustafa (Sammy Sheik). Chris is not just a sniper, he is the best sniper in the history of the American military, and Mustafa is set up as very much a counterpart to him. He's a sniper for the Iraqi army and appears just as legendary and as deadly as Chris himself. Mustafa, by the way, is almost entirely a fictional character. He existed, sure, but Chris Kyle only devotes a sentence or to to Mustafa in his book--in the film, he becomes a major presence. Given that they were already taking creative liberties (more on that in a second) the filmmakers could have drawn a really interesting parallel here. Perhaps we could see that Mustafa is human too, and that he is dealing with the same things Chris is. Perhaps he has a family too? Perhaps he too is dealing with the struggles of being a killer for a living? Of the characters in the film, he is after all, the only one that we learn a little bit of backstory about. Of all of Chris' fellow soldiers, we don't ever learn any of their stories, and even his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) is left startlingly unexplained. We don't even know what her job is, if she has one at all. But with Mustafa, we're given the intriguing bit of information that he had previously been an Olympic gold medalist for Syria. So, unlike everyone except Chris, he has a backstory! He too is a national hero. But the film decides to do absolutely nothing with this information, and Mustafa is played primarily as a supervillain. He hops from roof to roof like a ninja, never speaking, simply shooting at soldiers. He becomes this silent enigma, meant only to further the idea of the savage, mysterious, and violent Muslim. He's cartoonishly absurd. I found the depiction of this character, frankly, hilarious, up until and including the moment where Chris fired a bullet and the movie went into Matrix-style slo-mo to show us the bullet for absolutely no reason. The moment where Chris shoots Mustafa is clearly meant to be important in his life. After the shooting, he for the first time says he wants to go home, and a friend of his (who, if he was given a name, it was completely lost on me) says "Mission Accomplished." Which always means one's work is done. But this doesn't feel momentous to those watching the film. A relationship between the two--whether it's rivalry or perverse respect--is never set up.

And this is the core of the film's problems as a piece of cinema--relationships are simply not defined. The only actual name I can think of for another character is Biggles, one of the soldiers whose face is partially blown off. He is meant to be Chris' friend, but we don't see any connection between them. Their relationship doesn't feel true, and I don't believe they've ever spent a day together, let alone gone through a war together. Other than Chris, no character is fleshed out at all including, as mentioned before, Chris' wife Taya. Their relationship too is rather briskly glossed over. They meet, and one phone call later, they suddenly get married. Poor Sienna Miller struggles to bring any characterization to Taya, but is unable to thanks to a weak script. At first, she is a rather clumsy characterization of the "independent woman" trope, who swears off men until Chris wins her over immediately. Then she is the devoted wife, who clearly cares about Chris, but we don't really understand why since we don't actually see a connection between them. Then, later in the film, they're fighting, but again, it feels unearned. We don't know their relationship well enough to believe it exists at all, or to believe it when it begins to sour.

Chris and Taya gaze at each other lovingly on their wedding day.

But the characters are not the only things that feel unrealistic. Many of the scenes themselves feel unrealistic. And do you know why? Because they're not real. They didn't happen. I haven't read the book so I don't know exactly how much is made up, but here's a video of a guy named Brett who goes over how much of the film is actually truthful. It's less than a minute long and you should watch it. And so, the things that seem incredibly over the top and unbelievable are that way because they are completely made up by screenwriter Jason Hall. The aforementioned sniper Mustafa? Made up. The fact that Chris talks to his wife on a cell phone WHILE IN THE MIDDLE OF COMBAT which leads to her thinking he's died when he unsurprisingly gets fired on? Totally made up. The unrealistic Bond villainesque Iraqi general who likes to drill holes in kids' heads for fun? Made up AND racist. Even the one thing I liked in the film--Chris' difficulties with coming to terms with what he's done--was totally made up (follow that link, by the way, to read a more thorough rundown of everything the film gets wrong). American Sniper's fellow Best Picture nominees The Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, and Selma are all based on true events and have similarly come under some fire for fictionalizing some true events. Here's the thing, one is never going to be able to depict events exactly as they happened in film. It's just not going to happen, in the interest of story and in the realm of reality. But the changes these films make, whether good or not, make sense. In American Sniper, the events are not only blatantly made up, but they're stupid. This whole screenplay is stupid, filled with many moments of unintentional comedy from its overly cheesy and machismo writing (such as Chris' father's idiotic speech about sheepdogs at the beginning) which paints a wholly unrealistic painting of the war and the work of a sniper.

As I said before, I did like the film more than I thought I would. It is technically well-made, and Cooper really does give a great performance. But, racism really does ruin the whole thing. And lest one say that it isn't that bad, or that it's unimportant, it is incredibly vital. Many have attacked comments made by Michael Moore and Seth Rogen as being unpatriotic after they criticized Chris Kyle, but there has been less coverage of some of the really horrible tweets made in response to the film. Since the film's popular release, the rate of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim threats has tripled. And, considering the tragic events in Chapel Hill this past week, this film is fueling an all-too present hatred in a way that is irresponsible. I can't help but think of the film Breakfast at Tiffany's. It's mostly a wonderful film, but Mickey Rooney's incredibly racist portrayal of a Japanese landlord will forever be a blight it cannot erase--the film may be a classic but it simply does not hold up. I can only imagine that American Sniper will face the same fate. History will not be kind to this film. Years from now, it will be looked on as the racist film which somehow was named one of the best pictures of the year. The Academy is certainly flawed. It makes mistakes. And nominating American Sniper is undoubtedly one of those mistakes.

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