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Friday, January 16, 2015

How American Sniper and Fury Prove War Movies Are Dead

In 2014 we saw the rise of two "prestige" war flicks: Fury and American Sniper. Fury was released first from David Ayer. Ayer had just come off of End Of Watch and had one of the biggest movie stars in the world, Brad Pitt, in his movie. During the promotion of the film, it seemed like a shoe-in to eventually earn an Oscar nomination. However, as the release date neared and closer and closer and people starting seeing the film, Columbia Pictures switched gears and started to care more about box office success than critical success. As it turns out, that was the smart move. As of the writing of this post, Fury has made a little over $85,000,000 dollars and it was estimated it cost $68,000,000 to film. The film also has a whopping 78% on Rotten Tomatoes and exactly 0 Oscar nominations.

A few months later, Clint Eastwood's American Sniper was released at the tail end of Award Season. It surprised most "experts" by earning six Oscar nominations including Best Picture, Best Actor (Bradley Cooper), and Best Adapted Screenplay (Jason Hall). And while the film goes wide today and thus will garner more votes, it only has a 73% on Rotten Tomatoes.

While one film is an Academy player and thus will dominate more conversations within the zeitgeist and both films are set during different wars, I lump Fury and American Sniper together because they both suffer from the same problem: Is there any story left to tell regarding modern war films?

I can't remember the last time Hollywood made a film about the Vietnam War (I mean actually about the Vietnam War. Even though Wikipedia considers X-Men: Days of Future Past and Watchmen Vietnam war films, I do not). Seriously, was 1986's Platoon and 1987's Full Metal Jacket the last true films about the Vietnam War? This is a war that drew so much criticism and spawned so much art form over the years, that it seems illogical that Vietnam TV and movies don't really exist anymore.

However, there are a shit ton of films regarding WWII and the two Gulf Wars (I lump both Gulf Wars together because cinematically they're the same even both have different viewpoints) and Hollywood is still making films regarding those wars as evidenced by Fury and American Sniper. At this point, studios need to take a new and different angle on the subject matter with the former adding tanks to the mix and the latter telling the story of the deadliest sniper in American history. However, despite the different aspects, the broader story is still the same, tired movie.

I'll start with my review of American Sniper first considering that's the one still in theaters as of the writing of this post. I was really looking forward to this film despite the fact that Clint Eastwood hadn't made a good movie in a decade (Jersey Boys, J. Edgar, Invictus, Gran Torino, Changling, Flags of Our Fathers). However, the first trailer released for the film is excellent mainly depicting a scene from the film where Bradley Cooper's Chris Kyle needs to make an extremely difficult decision of whether or not to kill people that may or may not be trying to bring harm to American soldiers. That trailer is filled with both tension and humanity making American Sniper seem like Eastwood's comeback vehicle.

Unfortunately, the final product is neither tense-filled nor has much humanity- although the scenes where Cooper has to portray Kyle's PTSD is excellent. A film like American Sniper has huge shoes to fill as films like Zero Dark Thirty and The Hurt Locker are still fresh on people's minds and one of the all time great war films, Black Hawk Down, will never be forgotten.

I think The Hurt Locker is a fantastic comparison to American Sniper and it's not just because I'm not a huge fan of either film. Neither film really has a plot and both films surround a main character that treats war as a drug. The main difference between the two is that The Hurt Locker has such a small cast that you're able to form compassion and feelings for its characters in war versus in American Sniper it's just Bradley Cooper and a handful of dudes who I had to look up on IMDB to see what other minor project I recognized them from and to confirm these other characters actually had names.

Chris Kyle spends four tours over in Iraq where he early on shows off his skills as one of the best marksman around. While his fellow Navy SEALS are off on missions, Kyle is up on rooftops making the tough decisions to kill people. As it turns out, these decisions are not that tough as he kills almost everybody in sight (Hence earning the moniker The Legend and becoming the most lethal sniper in American history). The film shoe horns a sub-plot of this cat-and-mouse game between Kyle and this Syrian sniper named Mustafa. However, you never really care about their back and forth considering the film does nothing more than show you Mustafa's skills.

The main problem with American Sniper is that there's no broad, overarching story as the film exists just to show you Chris Kyle's accomplishments nor does it give you enough character development to make you truly care about Chris Kyle and his team. At least in The Hurt Locker when they showed their main character accomplishing missions, it gave you three characters and their dynamic to latch on to. As I mentioned before, the scenes where Chris Kyle is at home is fantastic and I can see why Kyle's arc of likeable every man to war hero to suffering from PTSD to back to every man earned Bradley Cooper an Oscar nomination (although I wish it went to other people, but that's for another post), but the film spent way too much during Kyle's four tours to make those other scenes worth the existence of this film.

The film also suffers from The Transformers Effect. In the first Transformers movie (the only one I saw), Michael Bay showed you two robots fighting each other, but you never could really tell which one was the bad guy and which one was the good guy. You didn't know if you should be rooting for the robot that got punched or the robot that was the puncher. American Sniper is the exact same way. There are a handful of mini-battles that take where people are shot but the stakes still feel so low and the scenes are shot awkwardly that I neither cared what was happening nor could I see what was happening. Plus, there's the film's climax that is not only too short but literally takes place in a dust storm so you cannot see who is fighting who or really what exactly you're watching.

The film also used an obvious doll in a couple of scenes to replace one of Kyle's children. In a good movie I'd forgive something like that, but because I was not a huge fan of American Sniper and because my wife and I couldn't stop talking about it whenever the fake baby was on screen, I need to vent about it here.

While I would not recommend you seek out American Sniper unless you're an Academy Award completionist like I am, I would check out Fury if it ever comes to something like Netflix or you can get it cheap at Redbox. Fury is not a film that you should be overly excited to see, but it does have enough good parts in it that it managed to find its way into my initial top 10 films of 2014 (although it most certainly will not be on my final list).

Fury has a bigger uphill battle to climb compared to American Sniper because the collection of WWII flicks (and even mini-series) is far greater than that of The Gulf War movies and probably Vietnam War films as well. It is for that reason that it seems silly that Fury was even made. I understand the appeal of seeing WWII with tanks (and I was one of those people excited as well) but unless you make up your own WWII story like Quentin Tarantino did with Inglorious Basterds, I don't see how you can make an original WWII film after Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers.

The benefit of Fury is that it at least has its own main story and arc whereas American Sniper was just little vignettes of Chris Kyle going on missions. Brad Pitt's character, WarDaddy, just lost one of his crew members to man his tank so he's forced to accept Norman, played wonderfully by Logan Lerman- a kid who refuses and is scared to kill German soldiers because they're just kids as well. After getting his full crew, Wardaddy and Co. needs to go someplace (I forget and it doesn't really matter) behind enemy lines and protect it for the benefit of his fellow American troops. It's this self-contained story that works for the film's betterment.

While Fury doesn't really have anything that important or new to say, it at least has some great scenes in it that make the entire viewing experience worth while. There's a scene smack dab in the middle of the film where Wardaddy and Norman are essentially "play house" with a French family just to escape the horrors of war. While that concept is of course nothing new in war films, David Ayer added a delightful new twist on a tired trope and it proved why Brad Pitt is a movie star and why Logan Lerman deserved a Best Supporting Actor nomination (in my book at least).

There is also some great battle scenes involving tanks all well- which is really all I signed for to begin with. The climax scene is freaking amazing and there's a scene where three American tanks have to fight off a superior German tank. That scene shows off why I was excited that David Ayer was directing this film in the first place. It's wonderfully shot and it makes slow moving killing machines exciting, but unfortunately Ayer doesn't keep that momentum consistently throughout the film.

Overall, Fury shows why American cinema doesn't need another WWII movie and American Sniper is right on its heels showing us we really don't need any more Gulf War flicks. I hope I'm wrong as I am a huge sucker for war films- but only when they're done right. I need to have stories I can latch on to or characters that I can connect with, and unfortunately neither American Sniper nor Fury gave that to me,


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