There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
At first, American Sniper, the true story of Navy SEAL Chris “the Legend” Kyle, will leave you as transfixed as a marksman training on his target. Yet it quickly starts feeling obvious, even repetitive. Blame Kathryn Bigelow.
No, the badass filmmaker didn’t direct Sniper; its helmer is another (usually) badass filmmaker, 84-year-old Clint Eastwood. But Bigelow zeroed in on the crux of American Sniper in her 2009 Best Picture Oscar winner, The Hurt Locker. Eastwood’s film, adapted by Jason Hall from Kyle’s memoir, portrays what it’s like to be, reportedly, the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. Its general message, though, is how difficult it is for soldiers who have experienced war to readjust to their back-home lives. Which has already been vividly portrayed by Hurt Locker. And Brothers. And Stop-Loss. And newsmagazines everywhere.
The existence of this form of post-traumatic stress disorder is now so fully ingrained in American society, in fact, that Sniper’s suffering spouse, Taya (Sienna Miller, whose chameleonic features make her difficult to recognize), comes across as remarkably naive. She doesn’t understand why her husband, Chris (Bradley Cooper), isn’t all sunshine and rainbows whenever he visits or completes a stint in Iraq. (His final tour tally is four.) Because they’re newlyweds! And have a son! (And, later, a daughter.) So WTF is his problem?
Maybe Chris was increasingly distant because, I don’t know, he was working his way toward 160 confirmed kills (the number rises to 255 if you include the unverified shots), the first of whom was a woman. And when you live every day ready to fight—facing the very real possibility of your own imminent death—that hypervigilance and the bloodshed you can’t unsee don’t disappear as soon as you pull into your cul-de-sac. The bang of a firecracker now triggers the same instinct as a gunshot. You feel guilty about spending time with your family while your fellow troops are risking their lives.
The first half of American Sniper focuses on Chris’ pre-military years, from childhood to life as a cowboy to his enlistment with the SEALs in 1999. It’s a sometimes slow but necessary build that details how his values were shaped—a native Texan, Chris was quite God-and-country, firmly raised to believe that respectable men protected the weak or put-upon, no questions asked, no gray areas. (And if Eastwood is conflicted about whether an authorized murderer should be hailed as a hero, it doesn’t show here.)
When the film transitions to Iraq—with scenes of Taya’s hand-wringing and frustration interspersed—it often reaches Hurt Locker intensity, with Eastwood placing you in the middle of battles or right next to Chris as he adjusts his scope, breathes methodically, and blocks out everything but his target. But then the Legend returns for three more tours, and three more rounds of battle scenes, sniper setups, and hand-wringing. It’s all presented with the finesse of a pro, but you get the point well before credits roll.
Miller isn’t asked to do much more than cry and plead; it’s Cooper’s film, and he’s impressive. You may not be able to catch every word of his under-the-breath drawl, but it’s genuine, and he carries himself with the spot-on swagger of a Texas patriot. Cooper is the reason to see American Sniper—and if you’ve somehow forgotten the state in which the U.S. left many of our veterans, its thorough reminder is a bonus.
Two Days, One Night belongs among What Would You Do? conversation goosers like Compliance, Force Majeure, and an endless number of time-travel movies. In writer-directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s follow-up to 2011’s The Kid With a Bike, they challenge Sandra, a working-class Belgian woman fighting for her job, with her most significant decision at the very end of the film. But throughout, Sandra experiences death by a thousand cuts, questioning both her strength and her every step.
It starts with a ringing phone that Sandra (Marion Cotillard) tries to ignore as she naps in the middle of a Friday. After she hangs up, she slumps a bit, tells herself she mustn’t cry, and heads to the medicine cabinet to pop a pill. When her husband, Manu (Fabrizio Rongione), comes home, we find out what happened: Sandra was ready to return to work after a leave of absence (for depression, though that’s never bluntly stated). But her boss put her co-workers in a cruel position, saying the company had the budget for either Sandra’s salary or their bonuses, but not both. Nearly all of them decided to scratch their own backs.
One colleague and friend, Juliette (Catherine Salée), persuades a supervisor to meet with her and Sandra, however, so they can ask him to consider holding a second secret vote on Monday. Sandra sinks to the floor and sobs at the idea of even trying; when she pushes herself to go and he says yes, the real mountain appears. Manu and Juliette insist that Sandra go to each employee’s home to personally plead her case. Not the easiest thing for anyone, especially a depressive, to do.
Cotillard has been receiving lavish praise for her turn as Sandra, but high expectations may leave you disappointed. There’s no flash in the story—these are the Dardennes, after all—and no knockout moments in Cotillard’s performance. What she does well here is believably and subtly cycle through the extreme emotions that can dog the mentally ill, from flatness to despair to joy, with the physical heaviness that often accompanies depression palpably bearing down and lifting. Appropriately, Sandra wears no makeup, leaves her hair in a messy ponytail, and wears a uniform of jeans and a tank top with her bra straps showing.
As most anyone would, Sandra takes her employer’s move personally, but there’s another angle to management’s decision that makes the film even more reflective of the economic zeitgeist. Her undertaking, too, is a testament to the power of the low-tech: Sandra doesn’t email or text her colleagues, or even phone unless she must. Everyone in her corner knows that face time has a bigger impact than FaceTime, so she buses around town to look people in the eye, reminding them that their money grab is severely affecting someone in even worse shoes.
Would you pry your eyes from a screen to do legwork like Sandra? Would you choose to lay off an employee or refuse the bonus instead? The film also raises a question about hypocrisy, a spoiler that can’t be revealed. These dilemmas make Two Days feel brisk at 95 minutes, and they nearly guarantee that you’ll be debating them for at least as long afterward.
American Sniper opens Jan. 16 in wide release. Two Days, One Night opens Jan. 16 at Bethesda Row Cinema.