Smash Cuts: “American Sniper” & “Mad Max: Fury Road”

Spoilers, for those with objections.

One is a nuanced depiction of current political issues. The other is about what you would expect from an action movie with little substance. Everything one of them is, the other isn’t. You’d just be surprised at which one is which.

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American Sniper has the makings of a relevant and necessary film. But rather than The Hurt Locker, we got something closer to Sniper (this time without Billy Zane, sadly). Few topics could be more timely than continuous war in Iraq and both the treatment and portrayal of Muslims in popular culture. American Sniper is seemingly ignorant to these facts and its unique position in representing them. Perhaps I had unfair expectations, but I do think that some topics come with a responsibility in how you present them (with great power, etc.) For example, every Muslim character in the film (despite I believe, literally, one or two) is a terrorist. There is an enormous opportunity for them to address the complexity of terrorism and the results of American aggression, but this seems secondary to creating stereotypical villains that further action sequences (The two main baddies are called The Butcher and Mustafa, so that’s the level of complexity we’re working with. I’m pretty sure those are video game bosses.). There is a brief but promising storyline surrounding Chris Kyle’s sniper nemesis, who also is protecting his family, but this is far underdeveloped. If the other characters aren’t operating machine guns, there doesn’t seem to be much use for them. The same can be said for the portrayal of PTSD. The film has somewhat forced moments in showing PTSD, such as when Chris Kyle reacts to the sounds of a backfiring car or a barking dog. We’ve all seen those very common tropes before, and, coupled with your standard meet-your-wife-in-a-bar and this-is-why-we’re-here scenes, seem simply to serve in the manipulation of the audience to further the hero’s image. The film ends with Chris Kyle leaving to help a PTSD sufferer, and then the text “Chris Kyle was killed by a solider he was trying to help.” Never mind that the killer was a PTSD sufferer, undoubtedly subjected to violence, murder, and a system that is not designed to help him, he is cast aside as simply a murderer. The ending yells in desperation for you to feel for “Chris Kyle, the deadliest sniper in American history.” But the world is a little more complicated than that.

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First, your expectations are thrown out the window. Then they are run over, mounted onto the grill of hot rod, and crashed head on into an exploding tanker of gasoline. This is roughly the experience you will get with Mad Max: Fury Road, plus or minus a few headshots. Beautifully shot with broad strokes of color and shockingly ambitious, Fury Road has everything you need in a summer flick, and some you definitely didn’t expect. It’s Lawrence of Arabia on nitrous oxide.  Where Fury Road really shines like chrome is in its characters. They are surprisingly nuanced and interesting, and nothing is exactly as it seems. Of course, its true strength lies in its depiction of female characters. Fury Road is a feminist movie in the sense that it treats its women as strong, intelligent people, which is maybe one of the saddest sentences I’ve written in a while. It’s really no wonder that a post-apocalyptic society run by men is in the cruel and sadistic shambles that it is. When the women make a run for it to avoid a life of sex slavery and forced breeding, its Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) that literally leads the charge. She’s far stronger than Max in every conceivable way, which he gladly concedes at every turn. I’ve already said too much, so suffice for me to say that everything you expected Fury Road to be, it isn’t. Just go along for the ride.

Even the most absurd films can have meaningful impact and important ideas to explore. For all you other films out there (ahem, American Sniper) take notice. What you portray is a choice. Use it wisely.

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