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American Sniper Leaves Oscar Weekend Behind Without Top Prizes But With Larger Laurels

02/25/2015 12:46 pm ET | Updated Feb 26, 2015

American Sniper may not have come out of Oscar weekend with any of the top prizes, but it did come away with a new cumulative box office of more than $320 million. That's by far the highest of any war film in history, not to mention more than all the other Oscar Best Picture nominees combined. That, and the best sound editing Oscar, will just have to make up for the other losses, including that of Best Actor nominee Bradley Cooper for his touching and masterful portrayal of the late Navy SEAL Chief Petty Officer Chris Kyle.

I thought that Cooper, or Sherlock star Benedict Cumberbatch, for his portrayal of complicated computer pioneer and crucial World War II codebreaker Alan Turing in The Imitation Game, who ended up persecuted for his homosexuality after doing more than most anyone to defeat Nazi Germany, should have won. But neither did.

American Sniper is the most successful war film of all time at the domestic box office.

While the Oscar nominations are a pretty good barometer of excellence, despite egregious omissions every year, the actual winners usually don't have much correlation with the importance of a picture over time. Only two of my 10 favorite films won the Oscar for best picture, and those were over 50 years ago. Some weren't even nominated.

At 84, and with five Oscars already in hand, director Clint Eastwood undoubtly has a good handle on this. Obviously still going very strong, the octogenarian star is enjoying the biggest hit of his long directorial career with American Sniper. I reviewed it at length and discussed the controversy surrounding it here last month.

The film has far surpassed 1998's Saving Private Ryan and its $216.5 million haul to become the biggest war movie ever at the domestic box office. American Sniper is well over $100 million ahead, and still going strong.

It's far and away the biggest movie of the post-9/11 crop of films. American Sniper has done this by bing a gripping and moving film, crisply told, at once anti-war and pro-military.

For quite awhile, it looked like the post-9/11 era was nowhere near producing a widely embraced film. The Hurt Locker won the best picture Oscar, but hardly anyone saw it. Zero Dark Thirty was a real hit, but I knew it had no chance of being widely embraced -- much less of winning the best picture Oscar in P.C. Hollywood -- as soon as I saw the waterboarding scenes. They might as well have put Jack Bauer in the movie.

Of course, the night is still young when it comes to post-9/11 cinema. And, sadly, our post-9/11 entanglements show no sign of ending, in large part because the negative repercussions of the Iraq War continue to reverberate around the world.

It took a while for the Vietnam War movies to flow with any creativity. The silly bombast of The Green Berets, with John Wayne as a wildly overage Special Forces colonel, came out in the midst of the '60s.

The much more acclaimed Coming Home, The Deer Hunter, and Apocalypse Now (my second favorite film of all time), were much later, in the late '70s. 1986's Platoon attempted to ground itself in realism, and was more successful at approaching a consensus that the war was bad and tragic but most who served did so honorably, but fell back into war crimes and chaos.

Not surprisingly, most anti-war films are made by folks who don't like the military, don't identify with the military, or simply don't get the military.

American Sniper sounds no notes of triumphalism about the Iraq War or of geopolitical justification for it. Not surprising, since Clint Eastwood, an Army vet himself, was against the Iraq War. As he is against the Afghan War. Notwithstanding his macho action reputation. This, after all, is the guy who made a sensitive film about the epic Battle of Iwo Jima in World War II, exploring the fate of the American Marines who fought there. And then turned around and made another film about Iwo Jima, from the Japanese perspective.

Different eras get different war films to at least partially meet societal needs. The now displaced popular champion of the war movie, Saving Private Ryan, is a quintessential film of the Clinton era.

Directed by Steve Spielberg, as American Sniper was to have been before Eastwood entered the picture, its extremely America-centric view of the world historical success of D-Day and the winning of World War II has an incredible early highlight in the desperate storming of Omaha Beach before becoming deeply bathed in Spielberg's trademark sentimentality.

I find it to be a wonderful film, with stellar performances by Tom Hanks as an ideal Army Ranger officer, Matt Damon as the titular paratrooper private, and others, but it presents a very inaccurate view of not only how World War II was won but even of how D-Day itself was pulled off. US forces were slightly outnumbered in the first waves of the Normandy invasion by those of the British Empire, principally Brits and Canadians. You don't get that from the film. Nor do you get that the Nazi German army had been cut down to size by incredible losses inflicted on it by the army of Soviet Russia, which itself suffered millions of casualties. That's right. Millions.

The '90s were an oddly self-congratulatory time, the economy lifted by the unsustainable dot-com boom, with much of politics consumed with nastily neurotic trivia about Bill Clinton's private life.

Saving Private Ryan is one of the emblematic films of the Clinton era.

Clinton himself was an obviously very intelligent, charismatic, and capable politician. But big emerging challenges of grave import for the world's future -- how to design a post-Cold War world around something other than transnational capitalism, how to address the rise of jihadism, how to meet the challenges of climate change -- all went very much wanting while America focused on what Edmund Burke called "the puppet show of power."

So Saving Private Ryan not surprisingly celebrated America, and what newscaster Tom Brokaw dubbed "the greatest generation," with the now aged ex-Private Ryan wondering at the last if he had been worthy of the great effort to save him. (The patrol having been sent to find him after his brother was killed, it being US policy not to devastate parents back home with the loss of all their sons. In the hardest fighting, meanwhile, in Russia, not just the sons of families and entire families themselves but entire towns were annihilated.) Americans had the luxury to save Private Ryan. And the luxury to sentimentally wonder if if had been worth it, all the while leaping to say yes.

American Sniper isn't nearly so sentimental. It celebrates America, too, but in terms of its martial culture and production and performance of elite military personnel, not the supposed greatness of its aims or achievements in Iraq.

The Iraq War is clearly a futile pursuit in American Sniper. There is no sense of larger progress, no triumphalist (and ultimately evanescent) "surge." Indeed, the missions remain remarkably similar, episodic, through each of Kyle's astounding four deployments. At the end, Kyle and his mates, under heavy fire, are enveloped by a sandstorm. Did they win the concluding firefight? Does it matter?

Kyle's real life significance in the war is not in taking down leading opponents -- a kaleidoscope of ex-Saddamites, metastasizing Al Qaeda fighters, and other opportunists -- but in providing overwatch to minimize US casualties from sneak attack.

It becomes clear he's not there to win the war, for there is no war to be won, but to reduce the tragedy on the American side. Which he does.

That his own life ended in ironic tragedy provides the button for the film. Long lost in combat mode, finally acknowledging his obvious post-traumatic stress disorder, Kyle finds post-war purpose in helping other combat vets only to die in the end, his system full of stress control drugs, when he and a friend were gunned down from behind by a fellow vet they were trying to help.

In its way, American Sniper harkens back to what I think is the best of the World War II films, 1945's They Were Expendable, John Ford's beautifully shot black-and-white epic about the PT boats in the Philippines after Pearl Harbor. It's a fascinating and dark period in history, that half-year stretch between the disaster of Pearl Harbor and the turning point of Midway, which was actually the most important battle of World War II from an American perspective.

They Were Expendable, a true story featuring Robert Montgomery as an ideal young Navy officer, an excellent John Wayne as his combustible second-in-command, and Donna Reed as a doomed Army nurse, is also a tale of professionals doing their duty to the best of their abilities in exceptionally trying and in many respects unsuccessful circumstances. But, even though it has a rugged ending, the path from that ending, as the film makes clear, leads ultimately to victory. Quite unlike American Sniper.

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