Thursday, January 29, 2015

American Sniper and A Most Violent Year

          Ready, Aim, Fire (… repeat … repeat …)

                 Review by Ken Burke

                 American Sniper (Clint Eastwood, 2014)

True story of Iraq War superb marksman Chris Kyle, his victories in the field but the emotional toll they take on him overseas that continue when he’s home with his family.
                       A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor, 2014)

Set in 1981, a struggling home-heating-oil businessman is trying to succeed and expand even as his competitors rip him off and the D.A.’s office is threatening to indict him.
Take care, curious readers, for plot spoilers gallop rampantly throughout the Two Guys’ superbly insightful reviews.  This is how we write, so as to explore what must be said as art transcends commerce (although if anyone wants to pay us for doing this ...); therefore, be warned, beware, and read on when ready to be transported to—well, wherever we end up.  Now, onward to illumination; you may want to protect your eyes from the dazzling brilliance.

 The cinematic subjects of this week’s posting have a reasonable interconnection around the idea of our institutionally-violent society so this will be one of those integrated reviews of both films.

What Happens:  Based largely on Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s book, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History (a title which should easily give you insight into the mindset of this film’s protagonist), Eastwood’s presentation begins with our sharpshooter (Bradley Cooper) having to decide whether an Iraqi woman and her young son are innocent civilians or potentially-deadly-combatants; from there we flashback to young Chris growing up in Texas, learning to be a hunter from his stern father who emphasizes the need to be successful with his shots (acting as a “sheep dog” protecting “sheep” from “wolves”).  As we cut to the present, Kyle’s decision is made when he sees through his long-range-sniper-scope that the Iraqi pair have hand grenades so they’re quickly dispatched by his expert firings.  That’s the essential conflict throughout American Sniper most of the time: who deserves to be shot by a guy so skilled (at least 160 confirmed kills, many others claimed) that his buddies call him “Legend,” while he agonizes over the need to bring sudden death to his combat opponents as well as the constant choices he must make on his own as to whether the target in his sights is truly a dangerous operative or just an innocent guy on a cell phone (as well as guilty trauma about how Iraqis who aid the Americans may be brutally killed by their own countrymen, plus how he's compelled to keep coming back overseas to avenge the deaths of other SEALs).  Along the way we get additional flashbacks within the present flow of action that show us how he met his “I-don’t-date-SEALs”-but-soon-to-be-wife, Taya Renae (Sienna Miller); how he got inspired by the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Tanzania and Kenya, then the 9/11/2001 massacres on NYC and Washington, D.C. citizens, to take his black-or-white-red-white-and-blue-patriotism to the battlefield for revenge (a position you just have to accept as his, whether you find it in yourself or not—I don’t—just as you have to accept that it was his Commander-in-Chief’s decision to extend that revenge into Iraq with virtually no invasion justification, yet it was still Kyle’s duty to prevent his designated opponents from killing American Marines, so ideology becomes less relevant as other snipers, such as Mustafa [Sammy Sheik], are shooting at you); and, ultimately, how the constant, insane stress of war made him a dangerous aspect of his own family when he finally stopped taking new deployments (after 4 tours in Iraq), until work with wounded vets brought him relief from PTSD only to be cut short when an extremely troubled vet suddenly killed him at age 38 in February 2013 (the film concludes with documentary footage of his massive memorial and funeral procession).

 In A Most Violent Year we enter the territory of genuine fiction, although it may reflect the reality of the times in which it is set (in this case, 1981 NYC, a quite unsettling period, even worse than when I lived there in 1972-73, with the nightly news opening each time on a quick count of the murders, rapes, assaults, etc. in the past 24 hours) but isn’t firmly based on some historical record, as is American Sniper (this year’s Best Picture Oscar hopefuls for 2014 releases reflect this situation with an even split: American Sniper, The Imitation Game [Morten Tyldum], Selma [Ava DeVernay], and The Theory of Everything [James Marsh] all are based in fact while Birdman [Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu], Boyhood [Richard Linklater], The Grand Budapest Hotel [Wes Anderson], and Whiplash [Damien Chazelle]* all offer fictional ruminations on historical periods at best).  Instead, what we get in our other featured film for this posting is a grueling meditation on the difficulty of maintaining morality and/or ethics, let alone legal operating procedures, in any profession or endeavor where it’s clear that illegal activities are going on all around you, enhancing the performance of your competitors (something that Chris Kyle was painfully aware of, as are—in lesser degree—baseball sluggers and pitchers who didn’t take steroids while they watched others set lofty records or the Baltimore Colts who didn’t use deflated footballs in their 2015 conference championship game against the victorious New England Patriots—although at least the identified “pumped-up” baseballers have so far been kept out of the Hall of Fame while some more learned football commentators than me have suggested that the Colts needed overinflated balls of another kind entirely if they hoped to top the Pats) while you watch your hopes recede into obscurity.

* Reviews, respectively, in our December 23, 2014; January 15, 2015; November 19, 2014; November 6, 2014; July 31, 2014; April 3, 2014; and October 16, 2014 postings.

 That’s the dilemma facing Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac—and before you complain that yet another Hispanic role went to a person of European ancestry, please note that he’s Guatemalan-born with only a French maternal grandfather not part of his Caribbean-based descent; his full name is Oscar Isaac Hernández), attempting to expand his Standard (home) Heating Oil Company (“We Set the Standard”) without taking help from wife Anna’s (Jessica Chastain) mobster father or brother, even though apparently one of his competitors keeps hijacking his tanker trucks, his drivers (especially previously-beaten Julian [Elyes Gabel]) want to carry illegal guns to ward off their vicious attackers (and are being pressured by their Teamsters bosses to do so), an armed intruder shows up at the Morales’ huge new suburban home (but Abel chases him away), and an overeager Assistant District Attorney (David Oyelowo) is after Abel’s business, even though it’s clear he’s likely one of the cleanest in this “oily” game.  Meanwhile, Abel’s trying to finalize an expensive deal to buy some adjacent property from a group of hard-bargain Hassidic Jews in order to expand his business (bought from his father-in-law) but his bankers back out because of the indictment threats so he’s forced to work with his own sleazy lawyer, Andrew Walsh (Albert Brooks), to get the money by taking out a second mortgage on an apartment building owned by Abel and his “I-don’t-want-anything-to-do-with-your-business”-brother, getting a difficult loan from one of his competitors, discovering who was stealing his trucks (after a wild chase during a hijacking attempt) then demanding restitution from this confronted guy, with the major balance reluctantly coming from a secret account that Anna maintained from skimmed profits (just in case the business failed) after they almost come to blows over her tactics.  In the end, the deal is finalized so that Standard will likely be quite profitable in the future (especially with Abel’s competition put on notice that he won’t tolerate any further intrusions into his territory), Julian killing himself in desperation rather than surrender to the police and rat on fellow (assaulting) drivers, and the Assistant D.A. agreeing to drop his intended charges against Abel in return for future financial support as his own ambitions grow larger.  A less trustworthy bunch you couldn’t imagine, but it all seems to be business as usual in 1981 NY, NY (one of the almost-final-images says it all, with Julian’s lifeless body bleeding in the snow while an even more important liquid for this story—oil—slowly drips from a storage tank where Julian’s suicide bullet ultimately ended up).

So What? It’s a bit of a shame that Bradley Cooper’s marvelous acting in American Sniper (extending his range very nicely beyond even the step-up from those Hangover movies [Todd Phillips; 2009, 2011, 2013] we’ve seen in his notable work with David O. Russell [Silver Linings Playbook, 2012; American Hustle, 2013]—good enough to get him nominated for this round of Best Actor Oscars [as did both of those Russell-directed-roles]; he also bulked-up considerably, presenting himself as a quiet, believable beefy hunk rather than the wiry verbal guy we’ve previously come to know) is being generally overlooked, both by the attention going to Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Michael Keaton in Birdman (with the former recently getting the Best Actor prize from the Screen Actors Guild and both of them being honored with Golden Globes, where there are separate categories for Drama and Comedy or Musical films) and by the ideological controversy about the propaganda intentions of this film where you have commentary from such opinion-givers as Bill Maher and Noam Chomsky (be aware of low audio in the clip contained at this site) that complain American Sniper is too simplistically-pro-war, contributing to our “global assassination program,” vs. the defense by director Eastwood that it’s really an anti-war statement focused on the debilitating impact on the soldiers who risk their lives every minute in a kill-or-be-killed-environment (the detractors also argue that Chris Kyle wasn’t the decent, disturbed family man depicted in Eastwood’s box-office-smash but rather a harsh hater of the Iraqis that he so successfully terminated [not having read the book that this film is largely based on, I’ll leave that argument to the vociferous debaters, but screenwriter Jason Hall says he also fashioned his work’s depiction of “softer” SEAL Chris on hours of conversations with both Kyle and his widow]).

 Still, there are individual vets and many others, from the various Vietnam to Iraq wars, who find great solace in this story so I hope that their often-neglected-opinions—and lives—are also respected, along with those of us stateside film critics who’ve never been in combat (believe it or not, though, while in Ball High School’s large ROTC unit in 1966 I actually won the medal for Outstanding Senior Cadet but that’s as close as I ever got to serving in the military as my total rejection for the premises of the Vietnam War—and the good fortune of drawing #304 of 365 in 1969’s Draft Lottery—led me on another path from what was originally intended as a short-term-post-college-enlistment in order to build up my bank account for some future career).  All of the above extra-filmic-considerations aside, American Sniper does a fine job of showing how surrealistically-brutal wartime conditions are for those doing the fighting (especially when the only way you know for sure who your enemy is comes from seeing a weapon aimed at you), how agonizing it is for the families back home who can easily lose their patriotic fervor when confronted with the daily possibility of death for their loved ones or who curse the politicians who took those spouses/lovers/parents away mentally even if they physically return with massive emotional scars, and how genuinely a soldier can be invested even in an unpopular war if he (or she) is so dedicated to the concept of defense of the homeland or retaliation for deceased buddies that nothing else matters, even as the homeland family is losing all connection.

 As for A Most Violent Year, its impact is based on an amorphous cluster of situational ethics where you easily accept that Abel Morales is the most moral character in the story, but somewhat by default (as with Chris Kyle), given the others he’s dealing with (especially when we find out that he’s being ripped off by his own accountant-wife, but only for their mutual benefit of course).  Chastain is marvelous in this role as the tough-as-nails-but-still-traumatized-by-the-escalating-circumstances-around-her-woman, just barely out of the realm of her mobster family but not that opposed to their methods, particularly when she sees what she and her husband are up against with some of their ruthless competition; I’d easily give her the Best Supporting Actress Oscar nomination belonging to Laura Dern (Wild [Jean-Marc Vallée, 2014; review in our December 11, 2014 posting]), but I’d also like to replace Keira Knightley’s nomination for The Imitation Game (despite the quality performances offered by both her and Dern) with Agata Kulesza as the surprise aunt in Ida (Pawel Pawlikowski, 2014; review in our June 3, 2014 posting), with the final acknowledgement here that I think Uma Thurman has them all (and the other official nominees) beat with her short scene of a scorned wife in Nymphomaniac: Volume I (Lars von Trier, 2014; review in our March 20, 2014 posting) although I’m sure that few in the Academy would even admit they saw this challenging narrative.  Numerous comments have already been made by other reviewers (with the benefits of advance screenings that I rarely share, allowing them into print much sooner than me) of A Most Violent Year’s evocation of the great NYC-based films of Sidney Lumet, such as Serpico (1973), Dog Day Afternoon (1975), and Prince of the City (1981), so all I can do at this point is agree but further note that we’re lucky to have a contemporary filmmaker such as Chandor who’s able to pull off such an accomplishment now that Lumet is no longer with us.  We can only hope that we continue to get such fine work from him, as we’ve briefly seen here, along with Margin Call (2011), and All Is Lost (2013).  (A final note about A Most Violent Year is the dearth of promotional imagery available for it—at least to the unpaid chatterers such as myself—which forced me to use a promo poster above because there were plenty of those, as well as several similar shots of Isaac and Chastain; with all that goes on in this film you’d think that the distributors would offer a bit more to illustrate it, but you’ll just have to make do with Abel’s expensive overcoat and Anna’s expansive bosom.)

Bottom Line Final Comments: While American Sniper doesn’t seem to be a strong contender for Oscar’s Best Picture nor Best Actor, it’s got 4 other chances (Adapted Screenplay, Editing, Sound Mixing, Sound Editing) so it may well be taking home some gold in a statue.  If not, it’s already pulled in plenty of gold at the box-office, raking in an unanticipated $209.6 million in domestic sales after 5 weeks (against a restrained $58.8 million budget), which would have placed it at #10 (likely higher when its run is done) for calendar year 2014 releases, probably also figuring handsomely in the income rankings when the 2015 tallies are done a year from now.  I’m among those who don’t believe that it glorifies war, praises the American military for its racist slaughter of Muslims, nor simplifies the life, convictions, or complexities of Chris Kyle (neither do I think of him as some grand hero simply because he was so adept at killing people from a distance, including Mustafa at 2,100 yards away, putting Kyle at #8 on the unofficial twisted-trivia-list of Confirmed Kills at 1,250 meters [1,367 yds.] or Greater—although I've just seen a news report that challenges the veracity of that shooting, so who knows what to believe at this point).  Instead, I find American Sniper to be an uncompromising portrait of a self-proclaimed-yet-emotionally-damaged-patriot, set in the context of a story that shows how arbitrary, sinister, and grotesque the whole concept of war and its aftermath can be, even if it is justified in the minds of some participants (including me, where the Allied victory in WW II was concerned—abstaining for the moment from the vital related argument over the morality of dropping atomic bombs on Japanese cities), just as Eastwood had done previously in his magnificent point-counterpoint presentation of WW II warring sides in his Flags of Our Fathers (2006) and Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) films (I say this, however, as a guy who had no interest in his "Obama chair act" at the 2012 GOP convention).

  A Most Violent Year has stronger critical acclaim than American Sniper (90% positive for … Year at Rotten Tomatoes vs. 72% for … Sniper, 81% for ... Year vs. another 72% for ... Sniper in the Metacritic tallies [extremely rare for both groups to come up with the same score]; more details below if you like) but is almost nonexistent in income (about $1.3 million in domestic ticket sales after a month in release), as well as striking out completely with Oscar voters (although the respected National Board of Review members gave it their Best Picture of 2014 award, along with their accolades for Best Actor to Isaac [although tied with Keaton for Birdman] and Supporting Actress to Chastain).  The alternate critical voice in our household—my lovely, charming, and talented wife, Nina—wasn’t all that impressed with it, either, but she admitted that with the crime-influenced NYC setting and her perception of Isaac as reminiscent of a much-younger Al Pacino as Michael Corleone confirmed that what she really wanted to see was The Godfather (Francis Ford Coppola, 1972)—hard to argue with that, but in case anyone ever wants to do a remake of that film (Perish the thought!) Isaac might be a strong casting possibility (he could also get away with playing John F. Kennedy Jr., in our mutual opinion).  I, on the other hand, was impressed with this examination of a conscience on the borderline (at least in Abel’s case; Anna and Walsh basically admit they’ve over the line into criminal activities—“standard industry practices” or not—while the Morales competitors, the drivers, and even the D.A. all admit that they play by whatever expeditious “rules” are in vogue, no matter the costs to others), shown in the context of the various negotiations, verbal and otherwise, that go into survival in a “city that never sleeps” where being “king of the hill” requires more than just waking up one day to find you’re “A, number one.”

 So, now that we’ve wandered into Musical Metaphor-closing-number-territory let me suggest for both of these films something that’s more about allusion than description, Willie Nelson’s “Time of the Preacher” suite (from his 1975 Red Headed Stranger album) at watch?v=Mf1w66uijqU&list=PL90282D77CC64751A&index=1 (a YouTube location that allows you to flow right through clips 1-15 to hear the whole original recording—followed by the 4 other tunes that were included on the 2000 reissue—something you’d somewhat need to do anyway to get through clips 2-7 to see how this main narrative of sorrow and revenge plays out and understand why I chose it, then you can continue with the story’s follow-up aspects and musical interludes if you like—sorry about any pop-up ads that disrupt your flow—with clips 8-15 [or 19]).  The melancholy feeling I get from these songs fits in my (strange?) sensibilities with the confused-homicidal-satisfaction that Chris Kyle gets from his battlefield triumphs (and carries over in the grief that accompanies him back to stateside) while it also speaks to the desperate sense of resignation that Abel and Anna Morales confront in trying to weave their way through the constant pressures being put on them by the law and the lawless.  Or, if Willie’s too weird for you in these contexts then maybe you’d prefer a song from A Most Violent Year’s soundtrack, Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” (from the 1971 What’s Going On album) at watch?v=Et-hbNXTWaQ, a live video seemingly from the 1980 Montreux (Switzerland) Jazz Festival (but you might also like the original music video at qEE with black-and-white-inner-city-footage of the concerns being voiced in the song—if the high-pitched-vocals aren’t that clear to you, though, here they are in printed form; however, because I gave you a chance to hear all of Willie’s album here’s Marvin’s at, another true metaphor for the themes of these films and the troubling situations that confront all of their characters, even if the images evoked in the words (or shown in the official “Inner City Blues” video noted above) are symbolic rather than literal of the crises faced by the Kyle and Morales families, although everyone in all of these songs and films could find relevance in the “I’m praying a prayer for each and everyone of you” line from this latter song, which may be something you could use in your life as well so I’ll sign off with that positive wish, then join you again soon with comments on films about a couple of women who’ve almost lost all hope for anything useful about their lives in Cake (Daniel Barnz, 2014) and Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, 2014).  After that, I think I’ll finally be ready for true 2015 releases.
We encourage you to check your tastes against ours with the summary of Two Guys reviews (please note that Two Guys critic Ken Burke is a bit odd—in more ways than one—using a 5-star-rating-system but rarely going to the level of 4 ½ or 5 stars, reserving those rankings for films that have been or should be acknowledged as time-honored masterpieces so that a 4 is about the best you can hope for from star-stingy Ken).  But we ask you to be aware that the links we recommend within our many reviews may have been removed or modified without our knowledge.  Other overall notations for this blog—including Internet formatting craziness—may be found at our Two Guys in the Dark homepage.  

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AND … at least until the Oscars for 2014’s releases have been awarded on Sunday, February 22, 2015 I’m also going to include reminders in each review posting of very informative links where you can get updated tallies of which 2014 films made various individual critic’s Top 10 lists and which ones have been nominated for and/or received various awards.  You may find the diversity among the various critics and the various awards competitions hard to reconcile at times—not to mention the often-significant-gap between critics’ choices and competition-award-winners (which usually pales in comparison to the even-more-noticeable-gap between box-office-success, which you can monitor here, and what wins the awards)—but as that less-than-enthusiastic-patron-of-the-arts, Plato, noted in The Symposium (385-380 BC)—roughly translated, depending on how accurate you wish the actual quote to be—“Beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder,” so your choices are as valid as any of these others, especially if you can offer some rationale for your decisions (unlike many of the awards voters who simply fill out ballots, sometimes for films they’ve never seen).

To save you a little scrolling through the “various awards” list above, here are the Golden Globe winners for films and TV from 2014 and the Oscar nominees for 2014 film releases.
If you’d like to know more about American Sniper here are some suggested links: (an extended trailer at 5:17, done as a wide-screen insert in the video box, though, so you might want to click it into full screen mode) (11:30 exploration by conspirancy-theorist Alex Jones claiming Pentagon manipulation of American troops—even to the point of killing those who challenge the “official story”—for pro-war propaganda, including Chris Kyle’s reputation as a decent guy who was troubled by his participation in the American-led Iraq war actions)

If you’d like to know more about A Most Violent Year here are some suggested links: (26:53 interview with writer-director J.C. Chandor and actors Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain, sponsored by the Screen Actors Guild Foundation)
As noted above, we encourage you to look over our home page (ABOUT THE BLOG), found as the first one in our December 2011 postings, to get more information on what we’re doing and why we’re doing it, including our formatting forewarning about inconsistencies among web browser software which we do our best to correct but may still cause some visual problems beyond our extremely-limited-level of technological control.

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By the way, if you’re ever at The Hotel California knock on my door—but you know what the check out policy is so be prepared to stay for awhile.    Ken

P.S.  Just to show that I haven’t fully flushed Texas out of my system here’s an alternative destination for you, Home in a Texas Bar, with Gary P. Nunn and Jerry Jeff Walker.


  1. Even as a Vietnam era veteran, I agree with your assessments of the moral issues surrounding American Sniper. Somehow I don't see it as the definitive portrayal of this particular situation, in part due to the autobiographical nature of the "facts". I think many of us were looking for another Clint Eastwood masterpiece to warm a rather lackluster holiday release season but instead found an interesting and well produced modern day war movie that may ultimately prove to be forgettable.

  2. Hi rj, Thanks as always for your comments and--as best a non-military guy can do so--I salute for your service in Vietnam. All I can really say about American Sniper is that it's effective in showing the trauma that must haunt anyone who has to endure the horrors of the battlefield. Beyond that, the more I read and hear about Chris Kyle the less I know what to believe about him or what he said about his own exploits. I hope that the longer arc of history will someday straighten this out but for now I'll just admit that his memory will certainly be honored (appropriately or not) based on the vast numbers of attendees for this film. Ken

  3. The Oscars 2015 is going to be held on Feb 22 at the “Dolby Theatre” in Hollywood, L.A.(Loss Angles). The whole event will be host by “Neil Patrick Harris. I think, this movie will 3+ awards. So guys don't miss to watch Oscar 2015 Live Online on Sunday night.

    Watch Oscars 2015 Live Online stream and catch all hot celebrities live performances on Sunday.

  4. Hi elena, Thanks for this very useful link. Ken