If I had to state what the most prevalent theme of 2014 was in film, in the most base terms, I’d probably be urged to probe somewhere within the idea that a very tangible groundswell is building in response to ever growing pressures of control. This idea, both large and small, that there are powers that be—in whatever realm—that are finally existing in such a way that there is no longer a possible passivity in relation to our reactions to them has seeped into the consciousness of contemporary film (to a lesser extent, 2014 could also be the year of the glitzy blockbuster, but in the age of over done CGI and media conglomeration, that’s a charge that can be made for almost any year post-Burton’s original Batman). It’s become an over-arching theme across so many genres that it can be seen very explicitly (citizenfour, Snowpiercer, obviously Selma, the final season of the disappointing Newsroom, etc.) and in a more covert way (The Grand Budapest Hotel has fictitious Nazi’s and the growing threat of WWII, and several of our popcorn romps did it to; Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and to a lesser extent Godzilla). In the wake of very recognizably visible movements like Arab Spring and the Occupy Movement, to the NSA leaks (which citizenfour is explicitly about) and countless wiki-leaks this could be the capturing of a very real building resistance. It’s an idea that has been prevalent in very specific films for some time, say the espionage spy-thriller, where paranoia goes as hand in hand as singing would in a musical. That it is in such a litany of different films suggest that all these movements and headlines are impacting people in a very real way, coupled with the fact that social media is taking away additional people’s privacy every second of every day (best picture contender Birdman has several instances where the seeping predatory nature of social media is very real, and its not just because our characters hold the additional cache of being celebrities).
Two additional 2014 films could very easily be compared by starting here, within an additional, even tighter parameter. Micheal Cuesta’s Kill the Messenger and Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper are both stories centered on real life protagonists, both now deceased, who saw pivotal political movements change them in distinct ways after thrusting them into urgent action. Kill the Messenger shows Jeremy Renner’s Gary Webb react in an altruistic way when he has the story of his journalistic life thrust onto him in a roundabout way, but when he perceives the kernel of Truth in it he seems to instinctively meander towards a just path no matter the cost to him or those in close proximity. Eastwood’s American Sniper, Chris Kyle perceives his threat in the rise of late 1990’s Islamic terrorism and he in turn, enlists in the military, eventually becoming a highly decorated sniper in Iraq. Considering that when Kill the Messenger‘s Webb starts uncovering the CIA link to Nicaraguan cocaine smuggling into the US by the Contras he immediately knows the score and takes a befuddled and quite scared lawyer into South Central LA to show the magnitude of the story. At that point he’s just at the beginning, but he knows that the harder he works the more he can positively alter and the scene plays like him recharging his batteries. It’s a move that shows Cuesta showing a very definite point-of-view, and he’s sure to portray the eventual fall out from the story as little more than inevitable, complete with several very clearly spoken forewarnings. Webb is a pawn in the ordered status-quo when the story quickly turns its focus based on the whims of those that generate content. Watching the film while thinking about citizenfour, we could start to see the films as grotesque, horrific films, each upping the ante of obfuscation and collective protection the majors are willing to afford their most powerful sources. Comparatively, Chris Kyle in American Sniper repeatedly seems befuddled or unsure of his actions and attempts to largely skirt responsibility to those above him, as he time and time again claims to just be “doing his job”. Those that have defined just what the job is are shown to have earned Kyle’s complete devotion and trust.
In Kill the Messenger we see the larger, more monied papers quickly circle-the-wagons against one of their own, never for a second seeing that the story lay in Washington and Nicaragua (and in a way every major American city with a massive drug problem as a result) not in Webb’s personal past. For reference, last year declassified reports revealed that the LA Times, feeling hurt over being scooped in their own back yard (Webb Dark Alliance series pieces appeared for small San Jose Mercury News) and being little more than public relations arm for the CIA, used as many at 17 journalists in attempting to discredit Webb’s account by largely digging up dirt from his past (the most glaring was an affair with a fellow reported while Webb was employed at the Cleveland Plain Dealer that resulted in her suicide. It’s a fact that the film thankfully doesn’t avoid). The New York Times and Washington Post are also show to be heavily in the CIA’s corner in the reports, showing that for all the hoopla surrounding it, the ‘Left Media Bias’ seems nothing more than myth (so it was interesting for me to see, for example, how the film was reviewed by Manohla Dargis at the New York Times; the politics are avoided almost completely, and the character’s downfall attributed as much to internal personal shortcomings as to her employer being devoid of all impartiality) Both characters then seem comparable as victims, a thought readily pointing out the strangeness with which we debate topics, as one character is very much an emblem enforcer of power and the other clearly not.
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Renner, as Webb, is measured determination, rarely leaving the steely verve necessary within a script of this type, and while a movie star would usually throw a few ticks in there, Renner plays it thankfully straight (he seems to be a character actor trapped in a movie stars build). The closest comparison I mustered was Robert Redford’s cool demeanor in Three Days of the Condor, itself an ironic thought (Redford, you’ll recall, was a CIA analyst in that film working in the very type of scandals Renner’s character seeks to expose). But on several return thoughts since watching I’m not entirely sure if I’m not being linked by both character penchant for work wear (blazer, jeans, and aviators), a tie that seems very intentional in production design but not that much within character performance. Bradley Cooper as Chris Kyle is also effective despite the film loosing much steam when its removed from its wartime locale and put into an American marriage melodrama. His Chris Kyle performance is mostly stock caricature (Kyle I’d imagine was probably a stock character in real life), erupting up once in genuine emotional catharsis when he doesn’t have to make one particular key shot. Perhaps something should also be said that Eastwood gives us our last image of Bradley’s Copper in one of the most offensive scenes I’ve seen in recent mainstream cinema; Cooper brandishes a loaded revolver (that critics have noticed was cocked to boot) towards his wife in mock playful jesting while cooing “drop your drawers”. The thought of marital intercourse at the coercion of loaded gun play should be too much for anyone to stomach, especially when one realizes a credit sequence portraying the mans legendary heroism is less than 90 seconds away.
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Kill the Messenger does seem to reference Three Days of the Condor, but then there are a lot of little political thrillers being referenced here and there. It’s a common theme for the genre; they all move pretty similar and offer the same injustices; and their visual milieu is famously archetypical. Three Days of the Condor is slightly different than Kill the Messenger in this regard, perhaps you’d need to swap in Oliver Stone’s Salvador, which is the obvious choice—geopolitically their oppressors are the clandestine moves of a Reagan administration filled with goons and our heros white male journalists who get more in over their heads the more self-righteous they become (Kill the Messenger‘s director Micheal Cuesta credits also include an episode of Homeland, and he serves as an Executive Producer on the show, so comparisons abound there too). Eastwood’s references are altogether different, his style is more mannered in the classic style of Hollywood’s past, a strange reality given his previous penchant for meta-referential narratives (Unforgiven) and lyrical minimalism (Letters from Iwo Jima). Howard Hawk’s Sergeant York leaps from the screen as the reference point, but like in comparing it to Kill the Messenger, many of the differences bare deficiencies.
Howard Hawk’s Sergeant York was, like Eastwood’s current film, American Sniper, a huge box-office success (it was actually the highest earning film of 1941) proving that giving the masses any sort of easy jingoism has always been a pretty sure fire way to earn a buck (comparatively, Kill the Messenger only made back half of its miniscule 5 million dollar budget—hardly surprisingly given the marketing budget for a film of its finances—, but it’s expected to make money once its second life on dvd/online takes hold). Once these films are analyzed the comparison’s begin to stop, and the patriotism changes. On face value they are the same; both are films about real-life adaptations about backwood country boys who are dead-eye dicks with the rifle, but dissecting the distinctions begin to reveal each films true intent. Where Sergeant York was a reluctant hero that attempted to avoid World War I due to a sudden religious awaking (no doubt also brought on by his commitment to love when he meets his eventual wife), Chris Kyle goes looking for the fight time and time again regardless of what happens within his personal relationships. Mostly in a quest to kill an enemy sniper of pure mythical origin (it’s rumored that he was trained as a member of Syria’s Olympic shooting team), his decisions seems out of his hands, his life only making sense when he’s taking others. It’s a telling point in the film when Superiors order a sniper killed and Kyle explicitly confirms that it is in fact a combatant named Mustafa (a character the book the film was adapted from mentions once in passing in just a single paragraph*) the reason he’s continually returned to do repeated (four) tours of duty. There isn’t anything in the briefing to point to it being anyone in particular but the superior officer replies back, “whoever you need it to be” becomes the inadvertent thesis to the whole film. Kyle has had a simplistic belief put in him at a young age (it was ironic to me that his father would threaten his two young sons on the ways of the world with a belt, never realizing that his act is itself a bullying of weaker, smaller beings) married closely to a gun fetish, so whatever reason he needs to find is all that really warrants being sought. Eastwood seems to agree, and doesn’t see the shift from 70 years ago in the Hawks to be reason for concern.
Eastwood increasingly attempts to have it both ways as the apolitical onlooker and member of pro-American righteousness; he skirts the politics of the issue at every turn trying to show this as a patriotic, isolated view (albeit shared by millions), while attempting duality of Chris as a youngster learning ‘right’ against a similarly aged Iraqi boy being taught ‘wrongs’. Americans are always presented as the victims however much occupying is happening (compare it to Kill the Messenger‘s more nuanced view of ‘victim classes’ within American); either it’s Kyle enlisting due to the devastation of the US embassies in Tanzania and Kenya (not factual to the real story, but alas) to going out on additional missions solely seeking revenge for fallen comrades. Justification is always passively stated as merely ‘jobs’ needing performed, when in fact these are tasks that have been volunteered for and sought (Kyle, and those around him have genuine blood lust throughout and we’re not given much reason to blame them as any reasonable person would want Al-Zarqawi to see justice). Again, Sergeant York provides interesting counters; Gary Cooper’s plaintive York only thrusts into action as a last resort, and in battle seeks surrender from his enemies rather than death. Perhaps if Eastwood played his cards a little more even, say the way he offered the Letters from Iwo Jima yin to Flags of Our Fathers yang, we’d have an interesting vantage point to see just how much our culture has changed from Sergeant York to American Sniper. But since the McGuffin of the enemy sniper Mustafa is presented as real along with several other strawmen, Kyle’s insatiable thirst to continue until the job is done is seen as the manly, heroic act whatever the cost (while Webb’s seeing-the-job-through-to-the-end in Kill the Messenger means the destruction of his professional and personal life). Played straight Eastwood could have implanted one more American victim into the story: Chris Kyle. Deceived by the very propaganda he now posthumanously stars in, forever denied the pastorally tranquil life Sergeant York, both real and imagined, eventually received.
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Perhaps where we could be gathering the most compelling vantage point in comparing these films is in a connection I rediscovered upon looking back into Three Days of the Condor (from the earlier stated connection to Kill the Messenger). French philosopher and film theorist Jean Baudrillard observed the nature of political films of the post-counter culture, a new genre he deemed ‘retro cinema’ in his landmark book Simulacra and Simulation from 1981;
In the ‘real’ as in cinema, there was history but there isn’t any anymore. Today, the history that is ‘given back’ to us (precisely because it was taken from us) has no more of a relation to a ‘historical real’ than neofiguration in painting does to the classical figuration of the real… All, but not only, those historical films whose very perfection is disquieting: Chinatown, Three Days of the Condor, Barry Lyndon, 1900, All the President’s Men, etc. One has the impression of it being a question of perfect remakes, of extraordinary montages that emerge more from a combinatory culture (or McLuhanesque mosaic), of large photo-, kino-, historicosynthesis machines, etc., rather than one of veritable films.”
The world hierarchy that is constructed via the media as shown in Kill the Messenger is correct and by no means a period of its time, and in the subsequent almost two decades the interaction with the world has changed drastically due to technology and technological portal, while how the world is ordered largely has not. If anything, our data, highly personal and highly impersonal has become a much greater political tool with which to wield. Somewhere between these two films there is a symbiosis of modern geopolitics, it seems that it can no longer be gleaned from our news organizations (could it ever?) and with our capacities to process largely atrophied beyond the point necessary to construct and extrapolate complex realities we wait for our movies to construct our history as current news. Not only is this obviously problematic on face value (the production of a movie to consumer is too long for breaking news, even with the new technologies afforded film distribution), but films as concepts are constructions of their makers thus limiting our participation as news would normally necessitate (and our news, however terrible, is produced in a way to mirror our films). While one has a more positive message to viewers (Kill the Messenger urges fighting towards a truth easing oppression), the fact that our based-on-real-events films have supplanted our news is the real cause for alarm. One thumbs up, one down, what’s the difference?
*The 2100 yard kill, though real, wasn’t the actual Mustafa whom the real life Kyle never encountered.