In Memorial of American Sniper’s First Awards Season Victim: Unbroken

Clint Eastwood's look at Chris Kyle's legacy as American's deadliest marksman claimed its first Awards Season victim: the other war story.

This past weekend, as it slowly slinks past the $300 million mark at the box office and prepares to play (possible) spoiler to Boyhood and Birdman at this year’s Academy Awards, American Sniper remains one of the most talked about and controversial films of 2014.

Telling the supposedly true tale of America’s deadliest marksman, Chris Kyle (the film is based on his autobiography) and showing the hardship both abroad and at home for such men, director Clint Eastwood redeemed himself after the disastrous Jersey Boys to prove that, when it comes to mindless jingoism and fake babies, nobody does it better than the aging icon.

Bradley Cooper packed on the pounds to play Kyle, and his acting is both appropriate and antithetical to the movie’s themes. American Sniper seems to have tapped into an underserved Tea Party-esque need to celebrate people, that is, soldiers, over policy.

While questions have since come up about the truth within Kyle’s tale, the man’s own personal prejudices, and the overall “U!S!A!U!S!A!” approach to the storytelling, there’s no denying the movie’s power as pseudo-propaganda. It’s hitting all the right beats with its older rarely-goes-to-the-movies audience demo, which means it might just overwhelm Richard Linklater’s 12 years in the making experiment and/or Alejandro G. Iñárritu’s single take gimmickry.

So if, at next week’s Oscars, there appears hundreds of soapbox blog think pieces wondering how Eastwood and Cooper pulled off the upset, here’s hoping that at least one of them acknowledges American Sniper‘s first real victim in its rise of Oscar glory. Indeed, before it came along, another movie and its maker were being positioned by their studio to take the AMPAS by storm. It, too, had a war hero with a “truth is stranger than fiction” story to tell, and by all accounts, this tale was all hero, and very little zero.

The film? Unbroken (dir., Angelina Jolie), of course. As far back as last year, when the project was announced, many considered this Universal’s strongest bid for Awards Season recognition. Indeed, around the time when Summer fades and the September through October cinematic afterthoughts wane, Unbroken was being bet on as the movie to beat. It had Jolie (already an Oscar winner for Girl, Interrupted), a can’t-beat premise, and a heretofore unsung member of the Greatest Generation about to be given his long overdue accolades.

The film is based on the life and wartime service of Louis “Louie” Zamperini, an Olympic athlete (personally acknowledged by Hitler at the 1936 Games) whose plane was shot down in the Pacific during WWII. There, he managed to survive adrift for over 47 days before being picked up — by a Japanese warship. Immediately sent to a prison camp, Zamperini suffered horrible indignities and unimaginable torture at the hands of the enemy. Eventually freed when the War ended, he would later come back to forgive his captors before dying, at 97, a mere four months before the movie opened.

Universal loved the film. It contacted critics and various journalistic guilds to make sure we could all see the film as quickly and conveniently as the initial Awards Season strategies where announced. Interviews and specials featuring Jolie and Zamperini ran incessantly on various Universal media offshoots, and it was clear, from the reaction and the rallying cry, that Unbroken was becoming the movie of 2014.

Back then, it was a given that Jolie would earn a nomination for her direction (and probably the second significant win for a woman), the movie would become the frontrunner for Best Picture, and perhaps most importantly, newcomer Jack O’Connell would be pushing past the other Best Actor candidates on his way to the statue-festooned podium.

And then American Sniper opened. While Unbroken premiered a good month before (it premiered wide on Christmas Day, while its competition waited until 16 January to make its mainstream presence known), it was clear that viewers were voting with their wallets, and Eastwood was the clear winner. Where, before, Jolie’s efforts were seen as the ones to beat, a new narrative was forming.

Then the snubs started. No PGA nomination. No DGA nomination. Minor nods from SAG (Best STUNT ensemble) and, finally, Oscar (three technical nominations). While both the National Board of Review and the American Film Institute named it one of the 10 Best Films of 2014, the conversation had already turned. Unbroken was out. American Sniper was in.

This was partly due to the compare and contrast way the film press functions. American Sniper is sitting on $300 million. Unbroken barely made it to $175 million. American Sniper got both the NBR and AFI acknowledgement, plus honors from the PGA, DGA, WGA, and BAFTA. The latter honor escaped Jolie’s film. Perhaps more importantly, however, Eastwood and his effort managed to catch that elusive “wave” that begins building around the end of November, while Unbroken hit hard initially and then faded, fast. One moment, it was part of the conversation. The next, it was as viable a candidate as Gone Girl.

Of course, the question remains “Why?” Why did a film with an obvious agenda and a fair amount of fevered flag waving countermand the momentum of a studio-backed (assumed) juggernaut? Even as Selma‘s slim fortunes slowed in light of complaints about truth vs. poetic license, American Sniper sustained a similar onslaught and kept its firm grip at the top of the charts. Some consider it a win for the uber-conservative, a “God and Country” mentality that manages to avoid the intricacies of reality to smooth things over with an illogical argument and a “Support Out Troops” bumper sticker on their (often foreign made) car.

Others debate pedigree, as in Eastwood has one and Jolie does not. The former has five Oscars: two for directing, two for Best Picture, and one Irving G. Thalberg Memorial award. The latter has one, for Best Supporting Actress. He’s an industry institution. She’s more memorable as part of a TMZ exposé. Of course, it could just be a matter of preference. Audiences clearly enjoyed American Sniper over Unbroken. Maybe it’s the same with those determining the aesthetics of the artform. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that the truth is not the only victim left barely breathing in the wake of American Sniper‘s box office subterfuge.