Alone in a Crowd: American Sniper; Whiplash

American Sniper is a riveting, wrenching drama based on Chris Kyle’s autobiography, American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. Expertly directed by Clint Eastwood from a taut, perceptive script by Jason Hall, American Sniper paints a harrowing portrait of a man committed to serving his country (or as he might see it, saving his country) yet fundamentally unprepared to cope with domestic life on the home front. This isn’t exactly uncharted cinematic territory, (Jeremy Renner’s protagonist in The Hurt Locker had some of the same issues), but, bolstered by stellar performances from Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller, this film succeeds in being equally gripping in war or peace.

Cooper’s Kyle is a proud American and skilled marksman who believes it’s his duty to help protect his country in the aftermath of 9/11. After making it through training (amidst some requisite bullying and some welcome dark humor—which is present throughout the film) and meeting and marrying a spirited, lovely but somewhat wary Taya (Sienna Miller), he is deployed as a sniper in Iraq. There he quickly earns a reputation as “the legend,” with his numerous kills and virtually flawless split-second decisions. In a number of scenes well played by Cooper and filmed for maximum nail-biting effect by Eastwood, Kyle must decide whether to kill civilians who may be actively involved with the enemy. These scenes are among the highlights, and serve to illustrate not only Kyle’s skill on the field, but his reluctance to unnecessarily shed blood. As Kyle’s reputation builds, so does his willingness to put himself out on a limb for his fellow soldiers—as does his anguish when his expertise can’t shield them from disaster.

Yet for all Kyle’s difficulties, the film makes it clear he is more at home in Iraq than he is with his wife and children. In several scenes following his tours of duty, American Sniper charts Kyle’s inability to adapt to domesticity, becoming more and more withdrawn, despite the entreaties of his increasingly discouraged wife. Because of the subtle, grounded, compassionate performances from Cooper and Miller, these scenes are almost as searing as the carnage in Iraq.

It’s hard for a film like American Sniper to completely avoid excursions into cliché, whether at home or at war, (there is one glaring example in a prelude to battle–and you’ll realize it’s coming before it actually happens), yet to its credit, the film never loses its hold on the viewer. Thanks to Cooper’s towering performance, the movie provides a window into a lethal sniper’s tortured soul—and possible regeneration.

Damien Chazelle’s Whiplash has just been nominated for a Best Picture Oscar (as was American Sniper), so I thought a few words might be in order. Is it deserving of a Best Picture nod? I don’t think so. Though I did enjoy it, the film, about the conflict between a young jazz drummer who wants to be the best, and a martinet of a coach who demands nothing less than perfection, is a tad too simplistic. Unlike a complex jazz piece, the film’s variations in tempo (and temperament) become a little predictable. So around the fifth time J.K. Simmons’ dictatorial coach feigned compassion with Miles Teller’s brilliant, confused drummer before launching into a torrent of verbal abuse…I kept thinking why doesn’t this young man (or any of Simmons’ charges for that matter) catch onto his machinations? While the nominated Simmons is good (Simmons is always good) as the coach who thinks that anything is justifiable if it will help produce the next Charlie Parker, it’s Teller’s performance that is the more impressive of the two. Teller does a phenomenal job of conveying his character’s skill, obsessiveness, and resentments—such as that musicians don’t necessarily get much respect—from family and even peers. If anyone in Whiplash deserves a nomination, Teller is it.