An often whined observation about the multiplex is the lack of adult-oriented material getting a wide release. People like to blame the PG-13 rating, the influx of “childish” intellectual properties being used for film adaptations, the broadening of the worldwide film market, and the Illuminati (I’m certain that someone blames them). While there are always good films that aren’t intended for children or the broadest audience possible getting released, they very often aren’t storming the box office or making as humongous a cultural impact as a lot of film fans would like.
Be careful what you wish for.
This weekend, American Sniper became the highest grossing domestic film of 2014, surpassing such behemoths as Guardians of the Galaxy and The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1. Now, it is fair to mention that American Sniper was released at the tail end of 2014, but no matter how you try and cut it, American Sniper is a big deal, and that deserves discussion.
I’m not here to argue the pros and cons of the film itself (that’s why we have comments sections and forums), but rather to examine why this particular film has hit the popular consciousness so hard. None of this is concrete evidence, just my observations and speculations as an avid student of film culture.
What I have to believe are two of the biggest contributing factors to American Sniper‘s success are the fact that it’s a true story and that it is about a highly decorated modern military veteran. Let’s look at the first aspect. True stories have always been the benchmark for more adult-oriented fare at the multiplex. Audiences tend to glom onto true stories because they very often take the filmed version to be true (even though almost every true story film is highly exaggerated in one regard or another). When people believe that the story they are being told has an element of veracity to it, it attacks a different part of their mental and emotional makeup rather than when they absorb something that is purely fictional. With American Sniper, a concentrated effort has been made to play to audiences’ feelings towards the mistreatment of veterans and the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder. Regardless of the other surrounding politics of the film, these two facets are what appeal to peoples’ hearts, and it seems like they have worked.
The other piece of the puzzle (as far as the film itself is concerned) is the focus on a military veteran. Ever since Vietnam, Hollywood has struggled with its portrayal of wars on film as something positive. Most times, this either means making a blanket action movie with no real world conflict being represented, or falling back on more “heroic” engagements like World War II. Because of this, there has been a large swath of American audiences who have not been catered to when it comes to films representing their more supportive opinions on American wars. American Sniper has been roundly accused as being propaganda in this regard, but even if you don’t agree with that sentiment, it’s very hard to argue that the film takes a nuanced or critical look at war itself. It’s this lack of examination into what is always troubling subject matter that I believe has resonated with such a large contingent of the movie-going public.
There’s also been a literal rallying behind this movie happening, with stories about groups organizing to go and see it (specifically church organizations), building up (and building off of) an almost religious lionization of main character Chris Kyle. Texas Governor Greg Abbott has even declared February 2nd “Chris Kyle Day”, instituting a holiday that reveres an individual whose primary reason for notability is how many people he has killed. No matter what your feelings might be about Kyle, his portrayal in the film, or his real-life persona, the idea of a mobilizing force propping up around this film is intensely fascinating. Whether that fascination is inspirational or disturbing depends on your viewpoint.
So, what does American Sniper‘s success mean for the future of the cinematic landscape? We’re not even a quarter of the way through 2015 and we’ve had multiple R-rated features open in the number one spot, and some of them have even done excellent business (Fifty Shades of Grey, Kingsman: The Secret Service). This shows that there is a market for wide release R-rated fare at the box office, but there’s still a lot of factors that need to hit in order for audiences to come out for these kinds of films. Whether it’s a recognizable brand, an intense marketing strategy, or the ever elusive word-of-mouth, the audience is out there.
But, does American Sniper mean that the kind of R-rated fare we get in wide release is about to be altered? Will we be seeing more biopics that lean towards a conservative audience? Will war movies be reexamined to project a more positive outlook towards American involvement in other countries’ conflicts? Will we be inundated with a soulless army of robot babies being manipulated by Bradley Cooper in order to appear slightly human? (I couldn’t resist)
These are all questions that we need to discuss and debate because film executives will be doing just that over the next year or so. We might be in for a lot more adult-oriented cinema, but what kind of adult-oriented cinema might not be what a lot of us want.