The 87th Academy Awards are upon us, replete with a new host (the affable Neil Patrick Harris who so vividly got his throat slashed in “Gone Girl”) and a wave of controversy that’s been missing since the days of Hanoi Jane. I jest some, but it truly has been some time since there’s been a splitting of political hairs, leading up to, or on, Tinseltown’s big night. The rubs du jour revolve around the factuality of history as represented on film, the politics of the Academy when it comes to recognizing diversity and the disparate interpretations of a war movie that drew diametrical political factions for different reasons. The two films at the crosshairs, “American Sniper” and “Selma,” are both nominees in this year’s Best Picture category.
“Sniper,” based on the popular biography of Navy SEAL marksman Chris Kyle (killed tragically as the project took shape) has registered as a patriotic anthem (Kyle notched the most confirmed kills of any rifleman in U.S. military history) to those in support of the current U.S. war efforts. Others have taken it as jingoistic twaddle directed by the man (Clint Eastwood) who ridiculed that now notorious “empty chair” at the 2012 GOP national convention. Those less polarized found “Sniper” hit home as a poignant document of how war destroys the lives of the men we send—something akin to Academy Award winners “Coming Home” (1978) and “Hurt Locker” (2009). Though “Sniper’s” not as sharp, visceral or politically cutting as its predecessors, it’s lineage, dominance at the box office and appeal to many on different levels, will certainly score the film a share of gold come Sunday.
The other movie in the equation, “Selma,” has the opposite problem of “Sniper.” Eastwood’s picture, impressively staged, well edited and shot with great artistry, lacks depth, something “Selma” brims with, but the passionate portrait of Martin Luther King’s legacy-defining march from the titled city to Montgomery, and the events leading up to it, is hobbled by a junior production. I’m not here to fault the director Ava DuVernay. Her ardor and effort is effusive, but some tightening of scenes and more artistic attention to the integration of song and score could have made “Selma” a bona fide contender.
At the fore however, remains the hotly contested matter of history and President Johnson’s involvement. The film initially paints him as a passive obstructionist focused more on legacy building than civil rights (the guy had Vietnam to contend with too), but in the end, his famous televised speech in support of MLK’s mission (voting rights) remains congruent with LBJ’s broadly held, supportive civil rights record (while in the White House). It’s in that grayer in-between that has many crying foul—that historical liberties were taken by the filmmakers to heighten the air of conflict and to drive home their agenda. And it is true, that the portrayed LBJ (Tom Wilkinson) does do something of a political pirouette and never quite rises to anything more than a plot-feeding caricature. Continue reading