Selma (U.K./U.S. 2014)
Inherent Vice (U.S. 2014)
American Sniper (U.S. 2014)
Martin Luther King Day, the third Monday in January, was first observed as a U.S. federal holiday in 1986 (though not by all states till 2000). Yet, even with a twice elected African-American president who summoned the “audacity of hope,” and 50 years after Rev. Martin Luther King led a historic 1965 civil rights march in Alabama, America’s racial divides have been headline news in recent months.
Those polarizing sensitivities are giving added resonance to an Oscar best picture nominee dramatizing the events surrounding the showdown in Alabama. It’s a remarkably assured second feature by Ava DuVernay who drew attention with her debut effort Middle of Nowhere at the 2012 Sundance film festival. Selma marks an ambitious step up to the major leagues.
In the lead role David Oyelowo, who was also in Middle of Nowhere, masters a much greater challenge playing Martin Luther King. Seldom has a British actor more perfectly incarnated an American icon. Oyelowo not only channels the spirit, oratorical voice and cadence of Dr. King, he portrays King’s complex human side as strains threaten his marriage, family life and the solidarity of the civil rights movement in the face of powerful odds. (It has to be counted as a surprise that Oyelowo, who also appears in A Most Violent Year and had a small role in Interstellar, was left off the Oscar best actor list.)
King memorably used the shocking scenes that played out across the nation’s television screens from the firebombing of black churches to the police violence against peaceful demonstrators, including outright murder, to force the hand of a vacillating President Lyndon Johnson (a miscast Tom Wilkinson). While Johnson is portrayed in a somewhat unflattering light — he allows FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to conduct hostile surveillance of King — his reputation is redeemed when he finally faces down Alabama’s vile racist governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) and moves to introduce a voting rights act in Congress. The proposed protest march from Selma to the state capital of Montgomery produced tensions and divisions between the heads of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference around King and members of the Student Nonviolent Co-ordinating Committee. There’s also an important scene that underlines King’s steadfast commitment to non-violent resistance versus the militant critique of Malcom X who travelled to Selma while King was imprisoned there and who was assassinated before the famous march took place March 25-30. (A first attempt was brutally thwarted and King turned back from a second before crossing a key bridge.)
The movie’s most poignant moments show the daily humiliations experienced by black people in the Jim Crow South, and their courage in putting their bodies on the line as exemplified in an elderly man whose son is killed with impunity, and middle-aged hospice worker Annie Lee Cooper (Oprah Winfrey). There are white allies too in clergy and religious who journey to Selma to join the movement. Veteran Catholic activist Martin Sheen plays a judge who rules against the racist establishment in giving the march legal authorization. Above all there is the relationship of King to his wife Coretta (British actress Carmen Ejogo), tested by his infidelity and fraught with living in the shadow of the valley of death.
Selma closes with newsreel footage from the actual march and King’s rousing address on the state capitol steps when he declares: “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. Glory, glory, hallelujah. His truth is marching on!” That becomes the theme song Glory that plays over the credits. A Golden Globe winner for best song it has a good chance of repeating at the Oscars.
For something completely different, there is Paul Thomas Anderson’s wild and crazy adaptation of a 2009 novel by the famously reclusive Thomas Pynchon. Inherent Vice revolves around the strung-out 1970 Los Angeles scene of private detective and pothead Larry “Doc” Sportello played with shaggy shambolic abandon by Joaquin Phoenix in another of his chameleon character roles. Larry’s ex-love Shasta Hepworth (Katherine Waterston) has hooked up with real-estate magnate Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) who’s apparently the victim of a scheme concocted by his wife. Larry is entangled with arrogant police guy Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), sometime squeeze, assistant D.A. Penny (Reese Witherspoon), something shady called the “Golden Fang,” coke-snorting dentist Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (a manic Martin Short), and not-dead infiltrator/informant or whatever, Coy Harlingen (Owen Wilson). Matters get really messy when Larry visits a bordello that’s a money-laundering front and revives from a knockout lying next to a corpse.
Anderson has an Oscar nomination for the screenplay but I have to say that I gave up trying to make much sense out of the whole druggy affair. Inherent Vice is a riotous romp through the amoral underbelly of a society surfing on criminal enterprise, tacky sex, mood-alerting addictions and psychedelic illusions. Enter at your own risk.
It has to be considered a surprise that 84-year-old Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper made the Oscar best picture list over the more critically praised dramas Foxcatcher and A Most Violent Year in which male aggression also explodes on the screen.
Still it’s an expertly made true story of Texan Navy SEAL sharpshooter Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) who became a legend during the Iraq war credited with 160 “kills.” The movie opens with a harrowing scene from Kyle’s first tour of duty. On a rooftop in Fallujah (actually a film set in the Muslim country of Morocco) he must decide whether to shoot a boy carrying a rocket-propelled grenade when the camera abruptly cuts away to a half-hour Deerhunter-like flashback. Chris learns to shoot with his dad who encourages his two sons to grow up to be “sheepdogs” protecting the herd from the “wolves.” Chris is something of a good ol’ boy, a wannabe rodeo cowboy who enlists as a patriot following the 1998 terrorist bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. He charms the lovely Taya (Sienna Miller) whom he marries just days before being deployed to Iraq.
Cut back to the Fallujah moment of decision. Kyle isn’t thrilled that his first kills are a mother and child. But he settles into the role, becoming in effect a human drone whose job is to silence beating hearts at long range. They are evil, “savages,” he tells himself. He’s saving the lives of fellow soldiers. The insurgents have their own snipers who must be stopped. Yet slowly but surely the strain starts to show through successive tours. He’s absent as his young family grows; emotionally distant with a hair-trigger temper when home on leave. Before the fourth deployment his wife pleads: “I need you to be human again.”
Bradley Cooper, who packed on a lot of pounds to play Kyle, has been rewarded with an Oscar nomination. What’s more impressive about the performance is the subtlety with which he expresses Kyle’s troubled state of mind. He’s finally had enough during a vicious firefight as the screen dissolves into an obscuring maelstrom of dirt and smoke. That, and a brief moment at the funeral of a fellow marksman, are as close as the movie comes to hinting the war was a disaster. Eastwood was a rare Republican who opposed the invasion. But I’m not sure The New Yorker’s David Denby is right that American Sniper is “both a devastating war movie and a devastating antiwar movie.” Kyle never questions the war and the late scenes show him seemingly readjusting while helping injured veterans.
The real-life ironic tragedy is that Kyle would be killed by one of them on a shooting range in February 2013. That fact is recorded in a single sentence before the movie closes with footage of flag-waving funereal rites from the “war hero” mythology playbook.
When I saw the movie on a weekend afternoon I noticed a number of adolescent males in the audience skipping school. I wonder what they made of this America with its macho military swearing and barrages of bullets. Somehow I suspect that lessons about the evils of war wasn’t what they took away.
Indeed, despite the unpopularity of the Iraq war, American Sniper shattered North American box-office records earning over $125 million in its first four days of wide release. Described as a “cultural phenomenon,” it’s a high water mark for an Eastwood film and on track for blockbuster success. In Hollywood it seems, the often-disunited states of America are always at war.