American Sniper dropped 27% in its fifth weekend for a gross of $64 million. For the sake of comparison, Selma dropped 37% and Into the Woods dropped 42%, also in their fifth weekends. (Birdman and The Theory of Everything got “Oscar bumps” and rose 24% and 33%, respectively.) American Sniper‘s gross is now $200 million, $60 million beyond Gran Torino, Eastwood’s previously highest-grossing movie.
What accounts for the success of American Sniper? The slender percentage drop indicates that some people are going to see it more than once, which astonishes me, because frankly it’s a tough sit. It’s brutal and tense and upsetting. And then there’s the plastic baby.
In the flash and tumult of American Sniper doing blockbuster business in the middle of January and becoming a big fake left/right political football, nobody has mentioned anything about the movie’s protagonist and the journey he goes on. The movie’s detractors are preoccupied with Chris Kyle’s real-life coarseness (racist, xenophobic, sociopathic, I’m told) and the movie’s supposed pro-war, pro-Bush, propagandistic agenda.
With Marvel movies being the new paradigm in Hollywood (for six years and counting), I’m surprised no one has yet mentioned the comic-book angle of the narrative.
I saw American Sniper back in December at a WGA screening. I wasn’t expecting anything at all; I hadn’t enjoyed a Clint Eastwood movie for quite some time (and he’s one of my very favorite directors). I found the movie to be an unusually gripping, intense, brutal and morally complex character study. I also found it to be Clint Eastwood’s best movie, by a wide margin, since Unforgiven. I had no idea how it would do; Eastwood hasn’t had a hit in a while, so I assumed it would come and go.
Now it’s a huge success. More than a huge success, it’s a runaway smash phenomenon. It will make more in its first week than Eastwood’s second-highest-grossing movie, Gran Torino, made in its entire run. I don’t know how to account for that, I’m greatly surprised. (I kind of assumed Selma would own this particular weekend.) There’s nothing in any of AS’s elements (Iraq war, Eastwood, its star, its length) that would indicate it becoming a hit of this magnitude. This is a serious war drama doing Marvel numbers. (Oddly enough, there is a Punisher angle to the story, but I seriously doubt anyone went to the movie expecting a Frank Castle story.)
I’m not sure why, but my Facebook and Twitter feed keep telling me it’s an evil movie, racist and jingoistic war-mongering, that it’s Triumph of the Will for the US. I’m told that the movie glorifies its central character (which I guess it does, insofar as it’s a movie about him) at the expense of the truth (I’m told he was a racist and a sociopath who gloried at killing Iraqi “savages”). Well, that may be true. Movies do that. Even “true story” movies do that. Especially “true story” movies. Every bio-pic now in theaters, or ever in theaters, leaves things out, glosses over events, compresses time, creates conflicts that never existed, combines characters and, if it needs to, makes shit up for the sake of telling its story. The Imitation Game does it, The Theory of Everything does it. Unbroken does it. Foxcatcher does it. I’ll bet even Mr. Turner does it.
It’s true that the movie doesn’t have much to say about the cause of the Iraq war, or the blundering, stupid politics of the Bush administration, or the ongoing tragedy of the entire US involvement in the region. All that is absolutely true, and I yield to no man in my outrage against the US’s misadventures in Iraq.
But why would a comprehensive history of the war be the concern of drama? All the President’s Men doesn’t take time to show Watergate from Nixon’s point of view; that isn’t the story it has to tell. American Sniper tells the story of this one character and his experiences. If that story doesn’t appeal to you, and I can certainly see why it would not, don’t go to see it, problem solved. If you’re angry about American foreign policy, great! I am too, I just don’t see why it’s necessarily the job of a movie to dissect it.
My attention has also been directed to a handful of tweets that show that some audience members took the movie to be an invitation to kill Arabs. That’s depressing and lamentable, but I keep seeing the same five tweets posted over and over again. If something is a nationwide phenomenon and you can only find five idiotic tweets about it, you’re not looking very hard. I sense the hand of rival studios promoting the hatred of a few to get the edge on a movie they see as Oscar competition.
I’ve also been informed that Clint Eastwood is racist, which, sorry, doesn’t wash. The director of Invictus, Gran Torino, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima and Bird a racist? No. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what Eastwood’s politics are. Sure, he gave that ridiculous speech at the RNC that time, but when I watch movies like The Outlaw Josey Wales or Bronco Billy I’m struck by the artist’s tolerance, inclusiveness and humanity.
Harry Callahan is angry again, which is a good thing, but now he’s a little too angry, and his anger is a little too general — he’s not angry at anything in particular, he’s just kind of angry. Situations that used to make him squint and sneer and move on now get him hopping mad. He seethes and grimaces throughout The Enforcer, looking for a target for his free-floating rage.
Magnum Force does the respectable sequel thing and turns the original on its head, or perhaps inside-out. If Dirty Harry is about society’s need to have tarnished knights who look out for the rights of the many, Magnum Force is about society’s need to be protected from those who would circumvent due process in their zeal to punish. In other words, it’s about Harry Callahan confronting the world he helped create in the original movie.
I gotta say, The Beguiled took me by surprise. It’s an extreme rarity for Eastwood, a movie that takes his character and puts him in a situation where he’s utterly out of his depth, where his skill set doesn’t serve him, and, most importantly, he doesn’t figure a way out of his troubles.
It’s instructive, cinematically speaking, to watch Coogan’s Bluff and Dirty Harry back to back. A star/producer and a director, working in consonance, on modern-day urban police thrillers, three years apart, and yet Dirty Harry still rivets the viewer’s attention while Coogan creaks and groans.
The Rookie is known these days as "The Movie Clint Eastwood Made Just Before Unforgiven." Looking back on it now, it almost seems designed as a supreme fake-out: knowing he had his masterpiece in his hip pocket, Eastwood lowered everyone’s expectations with this formulaic, rote cop-buddy movie.
Honkytonk Man makes a nice companion piece to O Brother, Where Art Thou? Both tell stories about musicians making their way across the Depression-era South on their way to an important appointment, both are weak on plot yet high in thematically-resonant incident, both endeavor to reveal the character of a nation through an examination its music, and both feature 11th-hour graveside Negros who spontaneously burst into spirituals. The Depression-era South of Honkytonk Man is about 85% less kooky than the one in O Brother and its narrative aims to be about 75% quieter. Like many Eastwood movies, it ambles along at its unhurried pace as it scrutinizes its title character.
Pauline Kael, in her 1974 review of The Godfather Part II, remarked that the only sequels that are better than the originals are Huckleberry Finn and the New Testament. Ms. Kael, in her youthful ignorance, had of course not yet seen Any Which Way You Can, the sequel to Every Which Way But Loose that towers above its predecessor as Everest towers over Kilimanjaro.