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FOXCATCHER (****½) and AMERICAN SNIPER (***½) Reviews

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Patriotism, machismo, tragedy.

Patriotism, machismo, tragedy.

I’ve decided to review these films side by side, not least because they complement each other so well thematically; both films tell true stories, of men who believe they are saving America, but do not realize it is themselves who need saving. One film openly displays the absurdity of its protagonists’ hubris, while the other treats it more ambiguously. Where Mark Schultz’ wrestling made not a dent in America’s destiny, Chris Kyle became the most prolific sniper in American history, serving in a controversial war and leaving a decidedly controversial legacy.

Both films are dark, unhappy portraits of the American psyche, but where Foxcatcher is a grueling and ultimately highly effective film, American Sniper is powerful in the details and frustratingly uneven as a whole. (Both films also feature Sienna Miller as the wife of a major character, though she has little to do in Foxcatcher but is basically a lead in Sniper.) Both films also racked a number of Oscar nominations–11 between them–and the nominations also complement each other well. So it is through those nominations that I will examine them.

I should add, I rewatched Sniper just before going back to rework this review. I hope to rewatch Foxcatcher eventually, but the controversy surrounding Sniper, and my own mixed feelings, led me to opt for a second viewing in order to provide the most objective review possible.

Spoilers for both films, plus discussion of violence, war violence, and racism.

Sniper, of course, deals with Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), who served in the Iraq War and racked 160 confirmed kills, more than any other sniper in American history. His repeated tours of duty test his marriage to Taya (Sienna Miller), but when he comes home for good and begins assisting fellow veterans, all seems to be well–until, at the end, he is killed by one of those veterans (as I write this, his killer is going to trial–as I write THIS, that man has been convicted and sentenced to life in prison).

Foxcatcher tells the story of Mark Schultz (Channing Tatum), an Olympic wrestler who is struggling to get by while training for the next Games. He is contacted by billionaire John du Pont (Steve Carell), who wants to finance his Olympic training and to make his personal facility the official training site of the U.S. Olympic team. He also wants Mark to bring his brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also an Olympic medal-winner, on board, but Dave is reluctant. He is ultimately convinced to come on board, and despite growing tensions between him and Mark–and between Mark and du Pont–Mark makes it into the 1988 Olympics, but does poorly. He breaks off with du Pont, who murders Dave and ultimately dies in prison.

  • Picture: American Sniper

It’s telling that Sniper got in and Foxcatcher didn’t. Foxcatcher is a dark, cold film, a film that depicts its patriotic protagonists as being rather tragically absurd–they believe they can restore America to greatness by winning a medal for wrestling. Sniper, however, gives us a protagonist who went to war for his country and killed for it–and did so with such skill that even during his service he is constantly nicknamed “Legend” by his fellows. Both films end in tragedy, but one is borne out of madness and entitlement, and the other out of an attempt to help a fellow veteran. One film is about a man revered by many as a hero. The other is about men who only thought they were.

I’ve resisted writing at length about Sniper because of the firestorm it’s engendered–critics of the film (or those who merely joked about it) have met with grossly disproportionate retribution. Many have been stirred by it; others have reacted with bloodlust. And the film’s popular success has resulted in increasing scrutiny of Kyle’s character, the veracity of his autobiography, and the accuracy of the film in telling his story and the story of his times. It’s damned hard to separate the film from the furor.

Initially, I was unimpressed by it. I found it detached and unmemorable, and as I struggled to write this review it faded more and more from memory. So I gave it a second chance.

And…it’s better than I initially judged it, but it’s a long way from a masterpiece. The trailer promised an agonizing slow-burn, but the film delivers only sporadically. The scene from the trailer itself, where Kyle must decide whether or not to shoot a grenade-carrying child, is split up in the film itself, weakening its impact (and the obvious CGI blood spatter when he finally has to shoot the child doesn’t help). A later scene which echoes this, with Kyle begging a child to put down a rocket launcher, packs a greater punch, but such scenes crop up only occasionally.

It’s really in the details where the film comes off best (which is why I’m glad I gave it a second chance): the nuances of Bradley Cooper’s performance, small touches of character and dialogue, the use of sound and silence, not just in the battle scenes, but in the Stateside scenes and even during the end credits. And in flashes you can see the antiwar statement Clint Eastwood claimed he was trying to make–flashes of subversion.

But on the whole, it’s weighed down by too many scenes which add nothing, too many characters who remain ciphers, too many battle scenes which blur together in the memory. And while the film is not a blanket glorification of the military, the fact that the Iraqi characters are themselves one-dimensional does not make defending it any easier. It’s a film which has stirred many, disturbed quite a few more, but which ultimately leaves me a bit cold. I still think it’s probably the weakest of the Best Picture nominees (though The Theory of Everything is not too inspiring, the performances aside), but the gap is far less significant than before.

  • Best Director: Foxcatcher – Bennett Miller

And yet, despite the Director’s Guild nomination, despite winning the NBR award, despite his legendary status, Clint Eastwood didn’t make the final five for Best Director. Not that he deserved to–his direction for Sniper is not particularly memorable, aside from a climactic sequence set in a sandstorm–but more on that later.

What Miller does with Foxcatcher, though, is often impressive. There’s an analytical quality to the film, a kind of remove which brings much of the film close to a kind of very, very black comedy. One scene, which I’ll discuss shortly, would be hilarious out of context, but in it is rather horrifying. Adding to the bleakness is Greig Fraser’s underrated cinematography, which is overlaid with a kind of gloomy gray haze which only deepens the bleakness of the film.

And at times, Miller breaks his chilly detachment and plunges into raw horror; in one sequence, Mark, after doing poorly during a wrestling trial, has a breakdown in his hotel room, smashes his head into a mirror, and binges on food. Dave finds him and helps to lose the weight by vomiting and strenuous exercise (all in about 90 minutes); it’s a grotesque sequence which reminds me of seeing the members of my high school wrestling team putting themselves through hell just to make weight. And when du Pont kills Dave, it’s shown in a direct manner which amplifies the brutality of the moment.

Miller skillfully develops the theme of legacies throughout. The film begins with stock footage showing the wealth of the du Ponts a century or so ago, and the du Pont mansion is full of relics of an aristocratic past. du Pont himself is obsessed with his family legacy and speaks of a fallen America which must be restored to glory. But then, in a private moment, he confides to Mark that his only childhood friend was in fact paid by his mother (Vanessa Redgrave). du Pont essentially lives in a fantasy world of lost greatness which is his to restore, and poor desperate Mark buys into it.

Miller’s direction doesn’t totally compensate for some of the film’s shortcomings (more on those later), but ultimately I think he deserved the nomination. (I’ll blame Morten Tyldum for edging out Ava DuVernay.)

Carell and Cooper

  • Best Actor: Foxcatcher – Steve Carell; American Sniper – Bradley Cooper

I’m actually kind of surprised Carell made the list. Not only was his status the subject of debate (the BAFTAs put him Supporting), but his performance, despite being an early favorite for the Oscar, was considered by some to be too affected; indeed, there were those who felt Channing Tatum gave the better performance (and I might agree, though it’s close). To be sure, his screentime is limited; Fandor determined he only appears in a little over 40% of the film. (By contrast, Cooper appears in about 60% of his film.)

But while I remain uncertain as to what I truly think of Carell’s work, it’s hard to dismiss, and not just because of Carell’s stature (and I admit that it’s kind of awesome that Michael Scott and Brick Tamland is an Oscar nominee). It’s certainly a memorable performance, and it draws on his past roles more than you might expect; Carell is a master at playing blithe obliviousness, and du Pont is, aside from that one tragic admission, frighteningly oblivious.

There’s the scene I promised to mention. Mark and du Pont are flying to a press conference, and du Pont hands Mark a short speech he’s to deliver, which describes du Pont as an “ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist”. Mark has difficulty mastering the flow of the words, and the two repeat the phrase over and over, a kind of absurdist mantra–it evokes the feeling when you isolate a word and repeat it and realize how bizarre it is. Ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist.

And then du Pont pulls out a case containing several vials of cocaine, which he begins snorting casually; he offers some to Mark, who hesitates, and replies, “It’s only cocaine, Mark.” It would be hilarious (and it kind of is), if it weren’t so horrific. It’s Carell’s casual absurdity which makes the scene so effective.

Carell has been criticized by some for his speech patterns and awkward physicality, but I think the scene above shows how central they are to the character–who, as we see here, is basically an awkward, pretentious adolescent in his mother’s presence, and outside of it still comes off as a rough sketch of an adult. The affectations, therefore, are a vital part of the performance, and Carell executes them superbly. Because of the surfeit of great male lead performances this year, I might not personally nominate Carell, but I don’t begrudge it to him at all.

Cooper’s performance grew for me on repeat viewing, although I still think Jake Gyllenhaal or David Oyelowo would’ve been better choices. But he definitely does a solid job at portraying a man whose self-assurance is slowly attacked by the harsh realities of war, who is haunted by what he has seen and done, but is so resistant to showing weakness that it nearly destroys him.

In fact, given the choppiness of the script, it’s all the more impressive how much of an arc Cooper is able to display, from the cocky rodeo rider to the folksy wooer to the self-effacing hero to the shattered, traumatized shell of a man and finally to the healed “Legend”, whose happiness was cut short by his murder. However accurately the film depicts Kyle’s journey through life, Cooper gives a thoughtful, well-considered performance.

What Cooper does with his eyes alone is quite impressive; the physicality of the role is key, since as the war continues to take its toll on Kyle he grows less and less verbal, until finally he sits, nearly catatonic, in front of a switched-off TV while the horrors he has seen run through his head. On top of this are the small moments when a sudden sound (a lawn mower, a pneumatic drill, etc.) causes him to reflexively put up his guard, showing a different side to his trauma. Cooper plays it all quite effectively.

And if you’ve seen Cooper in other films, the contrast between his past characters and Kyle makes his achievement here all the more impressive. I’d still put this second among his nominated performances–behind his fine work in Silver Linings Playbook but ahead of his solid turn in American Hustle, but I don’t find it a wholly undeserved nomination.

Channing Tatum’s work in Foxcatcher stands well alongside Cooper’s. If Kyle’s physicality at times outshone his voice, Mark’s silence compared to his wrestling prowess is profound indeed. See the way he almost swallows his words when he first meets du Pont, or, below, how he argues against Dave as if he’s reciting his points from memory. Because he plays a man of seemingly limited intelligence (the real Mark’s varied reactions to the film make me wonder how accurate this portrayal is), some may have dismissed Tatum’s performance, if not also because he has yet to fully leave his “pretty boy” status behind.

But Tatum does an excellent job depicting Mark’s struggle to be somebody; the film begins with him addressing a school assembly (filling in for Dave), for which he is paid $20; he then devours a fast-food burger in his car, clearly wanting more but making do with what he has. du Pont is able to exploit his ambitions, and while he comes to resent being under du Pont’s thumb it takes until nearly the end of the film for him to finally break free–which comes with a high price. Like Cooper, Tatum conveys so much of his character just through his eyes–in the trailer, the image of Mark sitting, staring dead-eyed into space, unnerved me as much as any jump scare. The competition might have been too stiff to warrant a nomination for Tatum, but he really does do a fine job.

  • Supporting Actor: Foxcatcher – Mark Ruffalo

When Ruffalo started popping up everywhere in the awards race along with Ethan Hawke, Edward Norton, and J.K. Simmons, I wondered if he wasn’t racking up nominations because he was good in a weak year for the category. But on seeing the film, it makes total sense. If I once (sight unseen) thought Ruffalo seemed rather bland as a leading man, it’s hard to imagine someone who, in a supporting role, manages to exude niceness without becoming the least bit bland. Therein is the power of this performance.

The real tragedy of the film is how Dave, a good man, a loving father and husband, a sensible, intelligent, totally unpretentious individual, is caught in an absurd, insane situation, and loses his life in a moment of utterly meaningless violence. Ruffalo, with his calm voice and sad eyes, seems exactly the kind of guy you want in your corner. And he communicates Dave’s loving sincerity–and his growing distrust of du Pont (which never grows into hatred, because that’s just not who he is)–as perfectly as you could ask for.

It’s a subtle, quiet performance (a distinct contrast to Carell’s portrayal), and all I can really say is, he thoroughly deserved the nomination.

  • Original Screenplay: Foxcatcher

Foxcatcher, while a very good film, falls just shy of the **** (at least on first viewing), and I think the script is a big part of why. And even then, on a scene by scene basis, the script (by E. Max Frye and Dan Futterman) is often quite strong. But on some fundamental level, the film lacks a really strong structure, and the ending feels rather abrupt: du Pont is arrested, we see Mark taking part in an MMA match, cut to black, post-script, roll credits.

I really can’t do better than quote Mike at the B+ Movie Blog:

“What was this story about? We’re just watching these characters exist. And it’s well made, and well acted, but ultimately, what are we watching?”

And while I can see the film’s thematic points a little more clearly, I keep coming back to his observation…what is it about? It lacks that extra dimension which would make it a truly great film. It shows what happened, but it never quite transcends what we see on the screen. And since the acting and direction are so good, that leaves the script as the weak link–though, as I said, it packs more of a punch on a scene-by-scene basis, the “ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist” bit and the revelation of du Pont’s utter loneliness being especially well-done.

It’s worth noting that the film takes some liberties with history, most notably at the end, which implies that du Pont killed Dave not long after the 1988 Olympics. In fact, Dave was murdered in 1996, a gap the film does not seem to acknowledge. But given that Foxcatcher is meant more as a character study than a historical piece, I can understand it.

  • Adapted Screenplay: American Sniper

At one time I’d have said this was the least-deserved Oscar nomination of the year. Now, it’s hard not to think of the Screenplay nomination for The Theory of Everything, the fairly gratuitous Editing nomination for The Imitation Game, or the lone nomination for the third Hobbit film as being equally unworthy choices, but I still find it hard to fathom how Gone Girl could fail to make the cut while Jason Hall’s work here was judged worthy.

There’s not a surfeit of memorable dialogue here. There’s a memorably bizarre speech early on where Kyle’s father talks about how people are divided up into “sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs”:

There are three types of people in this world: sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs. Some people prefer to believe that evil doesn’t exist in the world, and if it ever darkened their doorstep, they wouldn’t know how to protect themselves. Those are the sheep. Then you’ve got predators, who use violence to prey on the weak. They’re the wolves. And then there are those blessed with the gift of aggression, an overpowering need to protect the flock. These men are the rare breed who live to confront the wolf. They are the sheepdog.

For all I know, this was taken verbatim from the book (which I haven’t read), but in the film it sounds so overwrought–especially when you consider it’s being delivered at the dinner table–that it feels invented.

The dialogue is, I suppose, adequate enough, but there’s also character and structure to consider. Unfortunately, the characterizations leave a lot to be desired. Kyle is given a decent amount of depth (though I’d argue Bradley Cooper elevated the material considerably), but Taya is a bit lacking in nuance; Miller does a solid job, but she’s not given much to do besides be sad, upset, or cutesy-happy (though she and Cooper have pretty good chemistry). And beyond them, the film is populated with ciphers; a few characters at least have some kind of identity, like the tragic “Biggles” (Jake McDorman), but most make no impression whatever.

I will say, however, that the invented/composite character of Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), Kyle’s opposite number and nemesis (and, we learn, an Olympic-grade marksman), while appearing only in fleeting, silent moments, is a little more interesting than I remembered. Take for example the fact, shown in an offhand manner, that Mustafa has a wife and child–just like Kyle. It adds something to the conflict between him and Kyle, it makes it harder to overlook that he, too, is human–but he is on the wrong side, at least for the majority of the viewing audience.

The mysterious Mustafa. (Source)

The mysterious Mustafa. (Source)

And it’s worth noting that the casual racism of Kyle and his fellow soldiers is not overlooked either; he and they generally refer to the Iraqis as “savages”. It’s actually hard to imagine someone being inspired to patriotic fervor from watching this–but that may say more about the viewer than the film itself.

But what Hall left in is less disturbing than what he left out. Kyle’s postwar is covered fairly quickly, with the publication and success of his autobiography (on which the film was based) going unmentioned, to say nothing of the defamation lawsuit filed against him by Jesse Ventura (which his estate lost after his death), or his claims to have sniped looters in the chaos after Hurricane Katrina and to have killed a pair of carjackers in Texas, neither of which are backed up by evidence.

I understand that Kyle’s family might not have wanted to see the thorniest aspects of his life story put on the screen, but that only reinforces my feeling that it’s simply too soon to film his story, and that a more objective portrait is in order. Someday, perhaps.

  • Editing: American Sniper

Too many of the scenes in American Sniper go by too quickly, though what I previously thought of as an example of poor editing is actually decently clever; when searching for an enemy operative named “The Butcher”, Kyle mentions that he only has three weeks before the end of his deployment, to which he is told that those will be a busy three weeks. The three weeks are then essentially summed up by a shot of Kyle lifting weights with a hellishly determined scowl.

Elsewhere, though, the film just moves by too quickly, and the cumulative effect of all these underdeveloped scenes is, paradoxically, a film which is ultimately kind of dull. At 134 minutes, it’s both too long and too short, and while the scenes of Kyle’s early life have a simple, elemental feel, the rest of the film becomes somewhat generic.

The editing job itself is fine–the scenes themselves are for the most put together well enough–but it didn’t really deserve the nomination (the editing in Foxcatcher is pretty good, though it didn’t really merit a nomination either).

  • Makeup and Hairstyling: Foxcatcher

Much of the attention given to Foxcatcher surrounded Steve Carell’s transformation into John du Pont, and it’s certainly impressive; the graying hair, the hawkish nose, and the doughy physique all help Carell inhabit this troubled figure. And the subtler work on Channing Tatum is not to be overlooked. It’s certainly worth the nomination, though it shouldn’t (and didn’t) win.

  • Sound Mixing: American Sniper

Perhaps the most memorable scene in the film was the climactic sandstorm battle, where insurgents converge on Kyle and his fellows after he has revealed their position by sniping Mustafa (from 2,100 yards); as the screen is filled with blowing sand, the sound of howling wind and desperate the shouting fills the ear, and chaos, as Shakespeare would say, is come again. So I’d say the nomination was deserved. Whiplash rightfully won, however.

  • Sound Editing: American Sniper (WON)

The only Oscar won by either film, I can’t help but wonder if Sniper won this in part because the Academy made sure to give every Picture nominee at least one award this year; based strictly on the actual sound editing, I think Interstellar would’ve been the better choice.

But the editing here is not unworthy. The gunshots and explosions, the screams, the way all these sounds are used in that scene where Kyle hears them in his mind even as he stares at a dead TV…I do get why it won.

And they had to do some solid foley work to make that fake baby sound real.

Did you really think I wasn’t going to mention the fake baby?

You thought wrong. (Source)

You thought wrong. (Source)

(And while I’m at it, I have to say, the CGI blood in Sniper frequently looked quite fake. Very distracting.)

There’s more to be said about both films. Sienna Miller’s work in Sniper, while hampered by the weaknesses of the script, gives the film what depth it has outside of Cooper’s performance. I wouldn’t say she was Oscar-worthy, but she was a vital part of the film. (Her work in Foxcatcher doesn’t amount to much.)

Foxcatcher has received no attention for Greig Fraser’s cinematography or Rob Simonsen’s score, but both are quite strong in developing the bleak mood and melancholy tone. Sniper‘s cinematography is mostly utilitarian, but there are a few nice images, particularly one of a sunset.

Many have mentioned how their theaters were silent at the end of Sniper; the first half of the credits is shown over footage of Kyle’s funeral, and the rest in silence, which makes for a suitably somber moment. I don’t think the film totally earns it–and the impact of the moment depends a lot on one’s personal feelings–but it is worth mentioning.

For every dollar Foxcatcher made in the U.S., Sniper has made $28. And at 84, Clint Eastwood is, almost certainly, the oldest director to make the highest grossing film of the year. That, I think, is worth mentioning.

There is more I could say, but it is late, I am tired, and I think I’ve covered all the major bases. I’ll close by saying: see Foxcatcher. It’s a fine film and worth your attention. And as for Sniper, don’t dismiss it–or praise it–out of hand. I will say no more.

Score: Foxcatcher: 86/100; American Sniper: 72/100

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One thought on “FOXCATCHER (****½) and AMERICAN SNIPER (***½) Reviews

  1. Pingback: SPOTLIGHT Review – ***½ | If you want the gravy...

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