Manuel Betancourt

Oscar Challenge 2015: American Sniper & Selma

February 22, 2015 · in Film

American Sniper & Selma

American Sniper
Best Picture
Best Actor
Best Writing (Adapted Screenplay)
Best Film Editing
Best Sound Editing
Best Sound Mixing
Selma
Best Picture
Best Music (Original Song)

 Can a film be both a recruitment video as well as a cautionary tale? Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper and Ava DuVernay’s Selma present us with just that, though arguably within two very different contexts.

Eastwood’s Sniper focuses on Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in American history and as if taking a cue from its protagonist’s temperament and profession, the film seems narrowly focused on its target, oblivious (though not outright indifferent) to the larger historical and cultural implications of the war Kyle is so earnestly fighting. “There’s a war going on and here I am going to the mall,” he snaps at one point during a home stay. For Kyle, serving his country and fighting for “freedom” means going overseas and killing any number of foreign bodies and only mourning those American men he couldn’t save. We see him struggle with shooting a child and a woman, but his real grief is saved for his fellow soldiers. The threats feel both immediate (bullets showering down from every possible angle in the endless and repetitive shootout scenes worthy of the Westerns Eastwood has directed in the past) but also remote (as invested as Kyle is in “serving his country,” he seems necessarily detached from the political implications of his actions). In that, the film’s laser-focus on the ground offers razor-sharp action sequences that also mirror the tunnel-vision that is both required and encouraged of soldiers like Kyle, making the film’s absence of party politics warranted and necessary.

DuVernay’s Selma, on the other hand, seems almost obtusely obsessed with on the ground politics as being necessarily representative and necessary for larger cultural shifts. While Kyle and Eastwood put us on the ground and presumably get us to care about the deployed units in foreign countries with only vague suggestions as to how this feeds into abstract conversations about freedom and justice, the grass-roots politics of Martin Luther King Jr in Selma feel already grounded in an understanding in the way freedom and justice are lived-in, embodied concepts. It’s no surprise that the first casualties we mourn in DuVernay’s film aren’t first introduced to us in any way related to our core cast of characters. The violence is both indiscriminate and surgical, but there’s no assumption that viewers will (or should) only care about those they know. Indeed, the entire premise of Selma is precisely one of empathy and thus, even the tragedies that befall those characters we’ve met are not framed in terms of personal loss or revenge (as they are in Eastwood’s film’s imaginary) but as imperatives to look outward and understand the systemic violence that pervades the African American experience.

American Sniper
Selma

As one film looks out and hopes to nail some bad guys in the name of American jingoism, the other looks inward, asking us to consider what it is that that jingoism stands for. Regardless of politics, there is a humanity in DuVernay’s film that I think would have emboldened the hero-as-victim-as-martyr template that Sniper improbably ends up presenting in its frame. But then, Selma, in looking backwards emerges as the most prescient and contemporary of the two.

American Sniper B-

Selma A+