*With Oscar voting in full swing and the ceremony less than two weeks away, I'm taking this week to spotlight a handful of nominees in the technical categories. These are not frontrunners in their category, but they are worthy of our consideration. Welcome to FYC Week.*
This is not an endorsement of American Sniper as a whole. The film certainly has its fair share of flaws, ranging from the bald-faced irresponsibility in the film's implication that Iraq was responsible for the attacks of September 11 to the now-infamous "fake baby" scene. The most glaring flaw, in my eyes at least, is the disservice the film ultimately pays to Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) as a compelling character. The film is quick to buy into Kyle's status as "The Legend," by film's end vaunting him as a perfect, pure distillation of kick-ass American patriotism that's a far cry from the more nuanced, complex portrait director Clint Eastwood seemed to be aiming for in the harrowing opening scene. In short, the film tilts far in favor of scenes of violent, video-game-like wartime heroism, with the more-compelling scenes of Kyle at home between tours, struggling to adjust to civilian life, given the short shrift. (I'll write more about the film next week)
However, the film's sound mixing makes for a very interesting case of the film taking a more measured stance on its protagonist. The film is structured in such a way that Eastwood and writer Jason Hall want to comment on some of Eastwood's pet themes, namely the cost of wars on the men who fight them and the dangers of unchecked patroitism/fanaticism. While in Iraq, Kyle is a deadly sniper with steel nerves, taking lives in the name of protecting his fellow soldiers and protecting the United States. But at home, he's clearly wracked with post-traumatic stress disorder, shutting off from the world and twitching at every unexpected noise. The idea is that the war is taking its toll on Kyle, even if Eastwood's execution is flawed (Cooper, however, is excellent).
Here's where the sound mixing comes into play. Whenever the film transitions from Kyle in Iraq to Kyle at home (or vice versa), the sounds of warfare bleed into the domestic scenes. On the one hand, this effect works as a smooth transition between the two areas of Kyle's life; to move abruptly from one to the other would be disorienting. What's surprising about this is that, ideally, the transitions would be disorienting, with marked differences between war and peace. Instead, they seem perfectly, disturbingly normal.
The sound work puts the audience in Kyle's headspace, illustrating how, even when he's at a barbecue with his family, he never completely leaves the warzone. The war comes home with him, it's changed him, and there's no real way to come back from that. It's an impressive feat, especially considering how the film's screenplay and Eastwood's direction often fails to communicate the same idea. Coupled with the film's excellent use of cacophony and silence, it's hard to ignore the accomplishment of the film's mixing team.