Friday, March 13, 2015

Selma (Ava DuVernay); American Sniper (Clint Eastwood)

It's just a fantasy

Managed to catch two biopics, both problematic. Turned them over in my head--which one's historically accurate, which mostly invented? Which succeeds and which fails, as cinema and as genre piece? Which is the better work?

Spike Lee spent years and a major Hollywood budget to bring Malcolm X to the big screen; the results were honorable, if a touch reverent. The lack of onscreen material dealing with Martin Luther King is perhaps more understandable; his message--nonviolent activism--is possibly more difficult to visualize (dozens of people confronting armored police, not fighting back?), much less dramatize ("Everyone link hands and...sing!"). Doesn't help Selma filmmaker Ava DuVernay that, because King's words are licensed to another project, she's obligated to paraphrase his speeches (to be fair, avoiding the King family and their litigious ways might have given her the freedom to depict his flaws).

The biggest charge leveled at the project--its characterization of Lyndon Johnson--I actually found less problematic than I imagined. I was prepared to see the man flipped 180 degrees, Mississippi Burning-style (in that Civil Rights-themed production, the FBI were the heroes of the story); instead I found a sadly conflicted man who seems to want to be on the right side of history but struggles to stay there. He has a nation to govern, in effect, and feels he can't let King steamroller ahead, jeopardizing everything else; brakes must be applied, even if they're in the form of J. Edgar Hoover wielding his sinister files. 

A major stretch, but I can't see it as outright slander--King and Johnson do talk onscreen, they do agree on the basic issues; Johnson just happens to have the ability (not to mention feel the need) to apply realpolitiks along the way...the motivations both driving and fighting that need demanding space in a separate biopic to properly depict (in network TV terms: Johnson cries out for his own spinoff)

To be fair, one of the film's more effective moments comes early on when King himself indulges in the same, giving his new allies a sober and intelligent explanation for choosing Selma as the front line in their ongoing war (it's David Oyelowo's moment too, as he shows us a more unfamiliar more strategically minded King than is served up in conventional accounts)

Historical accuracy or its relative lack doesn't usually bother me (come to think of it what writer has ever solved the issue? Shakespeare?); maybe the most lamentable effect of the whole brouhaha isn't that filmmakers get it so wrong so often as it is viewers loudly wringing their hands over every revision, instead of watching the movies with a grain (a boulder?) of salt and soberly assessing the differences (prospective biopic filmmaker: "see if you can catch me doing that again!").

Maybe my biggest beef with Ms. DuVernay isn't that she distorts the facts so much as she falls too far short of Shakespeare. You think of Richard III, you think of Olivier delivering "Now is the winter of our discontent" with potent charm, crouched like some reptilian game show host; never mind that he isn't hunchbacked (they found some skeleton in a car park to that effect)--the fable is so memorable it's fused to the actual figure, like an inborn hump.

What's Ms. DuVernay's biggest crime? Overselling, I suppose. Depicting the aftermath of four girls' explosive death with near-pornographic intensity, the camera lingering in slow motion over a leftover shoe; having a reporter attend Bloody Sunday, finding a phonebooth, and providing us blow-by-blow commentary on the images depicted (in more slow motion) onscreen.* 

*(Thought Charles Burnett handled Bloody Sunday better in his smaller, more modestly budgeted TV movie Selma Lord Selma; no audio commentary, no slow motion, just the facts, ma'am, delivered straight, in real time. And while that little feature suffered its share of inaccuracies (a renamed and heavily fictionalized James Reeb, for one), Burnett manages to sidestep most objections by telling the story through the eyes of a young girl ("it's her tale, blame her for any problems you find"))

DuVernay demonstrates the power (and limitations) of telling a story with passion; Clint Eastwood's American Sniper demonstrates the power (and, ultimately, limitations) of telling a story with skill 

Not a big fan of Eastwood the filmmaker, for the record; always suspected that he lifted his best moves from Don Siegel and Sergio Leone, back when he acted for them. But he's a proficient and consistent termite worker (in the Manny Farber sense), and with a large output behind him there's bound to be a few gems--this, arguably.

Sniper begins strong, with a (heavily modified, for the record) life-or-death choice (my men's lives, her child's death), goes on to sketch a youth steeped in John Ford fabulism (a childhood hunting rifle--really?). Helping sell all the mythmaking is Eastwood's lean visual prose (lengthy steadicam shots, leisurely and cleanly cut together) and Bradley Cooper's graceful performance as Chris Kyle, sensitive soul trapped in side-of-beef body.  Cooper plays Kyle as an inexpressive lump; when something distressing happens--when say his wife berates him for being uncommunicative, or when he catches himself about to whip the family dog--the dominant emotion on his face is loss: he literally doesn't know what to do, say or feel. None of these circumstances or feelings are covered in his training, so he waits, rather forlornly, for further instructions. 

That's the single best element in Sniper, the worst being the picture's final moments. Having depicted Kyle's inability to deal with ordinary life, Eastwood has Kyle lucking into a worthwhile cause--wounded veterans--and sticking to it with the same intensity he brought to killing Iraqis. Every marital, psychological and spiritual problem falls away like so much snakeskin; the transformation is as quick as it is appalling, trivializing the insidious nature of post-traumatic stress, the lasting impact on veterans ("just find something useful to do with your life!"), their wives, their children.**

**(Kyle's children incidentally are some of the most wholesome, well-behaved tykes I've seen in any recent picture--as if Eastwood had asked Central Casting for their most Aryan specimens--and you know that can't be right. Kids are like canaries in a coal mine; the slightest familial disturbance will register on their rice-paper psyche). 

The picture had worked hard to sketch out Kyle's flaws; now they seem like plot contrivances meant to humanize him, give him texture, make him believably down-to-earth prior to canonization. The picture has also shown the Iraqis as murdering fanatics perfectly capable of sacrificing their own children to the cause, a prejudice that could be explained away by Kyle's myopic point of view...but since he's being celebrated as straight-up good guy, then what appears to be point-of-view bias turns to be the film's sincerely held belief. 
The picture has been accused of whitewashing: the real Chris Kyle felt no regret in killing an Iraqi woman (calling her 'evil'), often referred to them as 'savages.' I also see it as a missed opportunity: if Eastwood had included these less-than-endearing moments he'd have had a more honest, more idiosyncratic, admittedly more challenging portrait of the man (if he was more confident as a filmmaker, he'd welcome such a challenge). 

As credits roll we see actual footage of Kyle's memorial service, thousands of adoring fans waving flags in tribute to their hero. We couldn't feel more distant to these images, as if we'd paid visit to an alien world, found them to be regular folks like us, then uncovered the shrinkwrapped heads of previous visitors in the fridge--the moment's chilling, and not in a good way. 

So to answer above question: depends. Sympathize with the sentiments of one while agonizing over its awkwardness, admire the craft of the other while rejecting its politics. Pick the picture you're less unhappy with, then make your uneasy peace.

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