Examining American Sniper’s breakthrough success

Clint Eastwood's American Sniper has smashed box office records, and picked up Oscar nods. So how did it happen?

This article contains spoilers for American Sniper.

American Sniper stands to be the most financially profitable of this year’s Best Picture Oscar contenders by a long way, having out-grossed most of the others’ lifetime domestic totals in its first weekend on wide release.

The $90.2 million opening is the highest January opening of all time, more than doubling the opening weekend record set by Ride Along at the same time last year, and it’s easily the strongest box office performer of director Clint Eastwood’s career.

In short, it did the kind of business you would expect from a superhero movie, or a new instalment in an established franchise, and yet it’s an R-rated war drama based on a true story. Irrespective of our thoughts on the film, that’s a stunning début.

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The film has done well overseas in the last weekend too, setting records for Eastwood in the UK, Italy, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Peru. Even with a title like American Sniper, the film has transcended the home crowd. So, how did this happen?

Word of mouth and marketing

In the States at least, the film has been running since Christmas in limited release, in an Academy-qualifying run that bore six nominations in last Thursday’s announcement, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Bradley Cooper. The latter development and the word of mouth brought the anticipation to a fever pitch as it went wide this week, simultaneously with the rest of the world. The last minute decision to expand into IMAX screens could only have been a boon too.

Going further back though, more credit should go to the marketing department at Warner Bros. They’re usually on the ball with their tentpoles and Oscar contenders, but the trailer for American Sniper was probably the most talked about promo playing in the last month, that didn’t have Avengers or Star Wars in the title.

The trailer covers the first scene of the movie, in which Navy SEAL Chris Kyle provides cover for ground troops from a rooftop. Through his scope, he spies a mother and her child about to attack his comrades with a grenade and while his superiors give him the green-light to make his own decision, it’s on him. The impossibility of this moral dilemma is framed by scenes from Chris’ home life, from his wedding to Taya to the birth of his children.

It encapsulates a ‘hoorah’ portrait of a hero and an everyman all at once, and on top of that, he happens to be played by a buffed-up Bradley Cooper. Even from a UK perspective, the word of mouth on this one seemed very positive – it’s a bloody good trailer.

A ‘real’ superhero

In the film itself, Eastwood sets up that dilemma and then skips back to Kyle’s childhood, with a lecture at the breakfast table coming to set the timbre for his entire life. He’s raised as a sheepdog, to protect the weak sheep and fight the dastardly wolves, and it’s that drive that spurs him to enlist in the Navy SEALs when the Twin Towers are attacked. Back in the present, he takes the shot and kills the child and his mother.

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The film has rightly come in for criticism for being one sided, which is more of a disappointment from Eastwood, whose last foray into this genre was a double bill of films set on either side of the Battle of Iwo Jima- 2006’s Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima.

Those films didn’t do nearly as well at the box office and nor have his films since then, like Gran Torino, Invictus, or last year’s Jersey Boys. Eastwood’s brand is cast-iron and hard earned, so it’s interesting then that as something of a departure for a legendary filmmaker, this one has broken through at the box office.

By contrast to his Iwo Jima films, the overall tone of American Sniper feels like something of a throwback to a period of Hollywood before Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. It’s a film that amps up the heroism and underplays the post-traumatic stress disorder that dogged Kyle after his tour of duty.

All of which leads to American Sniper feeling like a more upbeat war movie than audiences are used to seeing, especially about such a recent conflict. Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker took Best Picture back in February 2010, but her follow-up, Zero Dark Thirty, came in for criticism for its depiction of American culpability in the war. Between that and the success of a contemporaneous true story movie Lone Survivor, which also did big business in the States last January, it seems that audiences are ready to see a more inspiring take on the war on terror.

In fact, Dan Fellman, Warner Bros’ chief of domestic distribution, told The Hollywood Reporter over the weekend: ‘It’s the biggest opening of all time for a war film, but people don’t view it as a war film. It is about a true hero, family and patriotism.’ He also called it “the first ‘real’ superhero film.”

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It’s an interesting comparison, because as depicted, Kyle’s valour and selflessness bears a resemblance to Steve Rogers’ origins in Captain America: The First Avenger. While there’s no line that sums up the virtues of patriotism so wonderfully as that film’s line, “I don’t want to kill anyone, I just don’t like bullies,” the sheepdog rationale sets Kyle up as Captain America without the goofy costume.

‘Real’ villains

Funnily enough, based on real life, Kyle and his squad appropriate another comic book symbol instead – the Punisher’s skull emblem. This puts the film more in the context of a revenge movie and perhaps that’s the kind of catharsis for which pro-war audiences are really searching. It has some of the same properties as propaganda, particularly in the way that it fails to really explore the psychological toll on Kyle once he returned to civilian life.

Instead, the film sets up villains who wouldn’t be out of place in a comic book fantasy movie. These include a rival marksman who won gold medals for shooting in the Olympics, who serves as the Big Bad, and an Al-Qaeda enforcer who takes a drill to a child’s head in the film’s most gruesome moment, and yet never gets caught on screen after a more convenient episode involving his sniper ‘nemesis’ brings the film to a climax.

The politics seldom come into it – for all the talk of this as a serious, grown-up blockbuster, it’s hardly removed from the action packed exploits of a comic book movie. The bottom line is that however faithful it is to Kyle’s account of events, the tone aims for entertainment, discarding any moral obligation for an even handed approach by lionising the lead character.

Going back to Spielberg and Saving Private Ryan, the de facto headmaster of Hollywood was at one point slated to direct this one. He left the project in August 2013, after being denied the opportunity to flesh out the script by showing the rival sniper’s side of the story and making a more even handed film.

The film pressed ahead once Eastwood, a notably more yeoman-like director, got on board and the result is a less complicated action movie. It’s also an unabashedly pro-war film, spinning America’s role in the Iraq War as Kyle’s sheepdog against the wolves of the world.

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America! Fuck yeah!

Amongst the candidates in this year’s Best Picture category, this is the most pro-America contender. The clue is right there in the title – in contrast to previous Oscar flicks like American Beauty and American Hustle, the ‘American’ is the operative part of American Sniper.

For contrast, let’s look at another worthy movie in Sienna Miller’s recent career turnaround. Foxcatcher, which was not nominated for Best Picture but was acclaimed for its acting and direction, painted a rather more cynical portrait of America’s global standing and masculinity, with warped characters like Steve Carell’s schizophrenic benefactor and Channing Tatum’s inarticulate lunk giving a pretty bad picture of patriotism.

In our opinion, it’s a better movie than American Sniper, but to the American movie-going public, it’s been a while since a film so gung-ho about the land of the free and the home of the brave was classified alongside the more self conscious sort of American film that usually populates the Academy’s best-of list. It’s impossible to generalise on the subject of American audiences, but the numbers would suggest that it’s exactly what no small number of Stateside cinemagoers have been waiting for.

It’s an utterly uncomplicated take on the life of a man who enlisted and killed a lot of America’s enemies. The uncomplicated tack may seem a bit tasteless when some of those enemies are women and children, but propaganda films have proliferated throughout the history of cinema, and there are no shortage of more ponderous films.

Do we expect that the box office success of Lone Survivor and American Sniper will set a trend for this kind of true story war movie around this time of year? It’s certainly a fair bet that on Monday morning other studios were looking to see what they could bump into an open release slot next January, but it’s significant that we’ve essentially seen a bona fide action blockbuster that’s also based on a true story.

Unwittingly or not, American Sniper emulates the basest lack of complication for which comic book movies often cop flak. It would be ironic if, after comic book movies like The Dark Knight and Captain America: The Winter Soldier and striving for realistic political grounding, we now see a retrograde trend of less introspective prestige pictures.

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Its opening weekend success on the global stage is interesting, but we’d be prepared to predict that it won’t have anything like the staying power it will have Stateside, unless its word of mouth and uncomplicated approach also powers it to a Best Picture Oscar win. We’d argue it’s the least deserving in its category, but we’ll have to see if this surprise success keeps on rolling through the next month or two.