Oscars: 'American Sniper's' Hopes for a Win Complicated by Politics

Courtesy of Everett Collection
'The Deer Hunter,' 'Coming Home'

A hot-button movie could ride the debate to gold or divide voters, as did 1979's race between 'The Deer Hunter' and 'Coming Home.'

A version of this story first appeared in the Jan. 30 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

“I was against going into the war in Iraq since I figured we would probably trip over ourselves in some way,” Clint Eastwood said back in December after screening American Sniper for Academy members at the Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills. But not everyone got the memo. Now that the Warners/Village Roadshow production has gone into wide release, the director’s reservations have been swept aside and the film has quickly become the most heavily politicized entry in this year’s Oscar race.

Sniper, which follows Navy SEAL Chris Kyle through four tours of duty in Iraq, was quickly embraced by Fox News. Sean Hannity, who’s devoted several segments to the film, said, “I would urge everybody to see it.” Conservative web site Breitbart.com carried an enthusiastic review under the flag-waving headline, “A Patriotic, Pro-War on Terror Masterpiece.” Britain’s left-leaning The Guardian weighed with writer Lindy West asking whether Eastwood, “intentionally or not, makes a hero out of Kyle — who, bare minimum, was a racist who took pleasure in dehumanizing and killing brown people.” And always eager to enlist in the latest culture war, Sarah Palin took a few shots at Hollywood leftists before saying, “May the epic American Sniper bring nothing but blessing to [Kyle’s window] Taya and the children of this true American hero. Thank you Bradley Cooper and Clint Eastwood for respecting the United States military.”

Nearly overnight, Sniper has not only become the top-grossing movie among the eight best picture nominees — with $107.3 million and counting — but it’s also triggered this awards season’s most vitriolic debate, eclipsing even the arguments that have been raging over over the portrayal of President Johnson in Selma. But while that raises the movie’s profile it also creates its share of problems.

Eastwood’s movie is actually something of a Rorschach test: His just-the-facts-ma’am approach to Kyle’s story allows viewers to read whatever politics they like into Sniper. But Eastwood’s own politics — his bewildering talk-to-the-chair performance at the 2012 Republican Convention notwithstanding — aren’t so easily categorized. The right still sees him as the magnum-wielding Dirty (“Make my day”) Harry even though, in movies like 1992’s Unforgiven — for which he won his first directing Oscar — he’s re-examined the cost of violence (“It’s a hell of a thing, ain’t it, killing a man”). But any nuanced discussion of Sniper is already being drowned out by angry arguments over whether or not it glorifies Kyle.

Sniper may suddenly be flush with box-office dollars — which should help the ratings of the Oscar broadcast as more viewers with a rooting interest in the blockbuster tune in — but it doesn’t guarantee it a win. Eastwood, 84, though highly regarded, hasn’t won at Oscar since he took home the directing and best picture trophies for Million Dollar Baby a decade ago, and this year, he wasn’t even nominated for best director. Arguably, Cooper, the film’s best actor nominee, could get the biggest boost from the movies’s breakout success and can now muscle his way into what had been seen as a two-way race between Birdman’s Michael Keaton and The Theory of Everything’s Eddie Redmayne. After seeming to attack the film in a Jan. 25 tweet in which he proclaimed “snipers are cowards,” Michael Moore took to Facebook to clarify his thoughts about Sniper, saying, “Awesome performance by Bradley Cooper. One of the best of the year.”

However, the intense focus on Sniper also does create challenges for its rivals as they look to build momentum before Academy voting begins on Feb. 6. Before Harvey Weinstein could promote The Imitation Game during a Jan. 20 appearance on CBS This Morning, he had to first answer questions about Sniper, and he conceded, “I think it’s a great movie.”

Meanwhile, behind the scenes, team Sniper is hoping that Academy members will focus on the film itself rather than the surrounding tempest so that the Oscar vote doesn’t turn into a referendum on Kyle and the war in Iraq. For the most part, the increasingly predictable debates over the historical accuracy of movies dealing with real-life figures haven’t had much impact on past Oscar races. (Argo, for example, survived complaints that it played fast and loose with some facts.) But the uproar over Sniper is much louder than that, more akin to the charges in 2012 that Zero Dark Thirty suggested torture produced intelligence that led to the killing of Osama bin Laden. Though impossible to prove, many suspected that controversy made the film too hot to handle, and so the Academy handed its top prize to the much more viewer-friendly Argo. Appearing Jan. 16 on Real Time with Bill Maher, Zero director Kathryn Bigelow was asked her opinion of Sniper, but refused to be drawn into the discussion, saying she hadn’t seen the movie.

The growing Sniper debate, which reflects the country’s still unresolved issues surrounding Iraq and Afghanistan, also is reminiscent of the Oscar battle waged in 1979 between Coming Home and The Deer Hunter. With the wounds from Vietnam War still a raw, Coming Home, the drama about returning vets starring Jane Fonda, was viewed as the anti-war choice, while Michael Cimino’s The Deer Hunter, about a trio of Pennsylvania steel-workers’ tour in Vietnam, was seen as the more patriotic alternative — that movie ended with the survivors singing “God, Bless America.” Both films attracted demonstrators outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the 51st Academy Awards: A group called Vietnam Veterans Against the War protested The Deer Hunter, and its invented Russian Roulette sequence for “misinterpretation of reality.” In the end, though, while Coming Home won best screenplay and best actress and actor for Fonda and Jon Voight, Deer Hunter prevailed, winning five Oscars, including director and picture. Although she admitted she hadn’t seen her competition, Fonda dismissed Deer Hunter as “a Pentagon version of the war,” while Cimino, insisting he was apolitical himself, insisted “what motivated me was the heroism of ordinary people in the face of extraordinary challenges.”

That’s a sentiment Eastwood could probably adopt as his own, and, ironically enough, this time around Fonda would probably agree. For after seeing Sniper last month, she tweeted, “Powerful. Another view of “Coming Home.” Bradley Cooper sensational. Bravo Clint Eastwood.” Which, if nothing else, should blow Hannity’s mind.

Email: Gregg.Kilday@thr.com
Twitter: @gkilday

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