American Sniper right on target as US viewers lap up films big on patriotism

2013’s Lone Survivor, starring (above from left) Taylor Kitsch, Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch, fared better at the box office. -- PHOTO: DISNEY
2013’s Lone Survivor, starring (above from left) Taylor Kitsch, Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch, fared better at the box office. -- PHOTO: DISNEY
In The Valley Of Elah (2007), starring Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon received a lacklustre response. -- PHOTO: BLACKFRIAR BRIDGE FILMS
In The Valley Of Elah (2007), starring Tommy Lee Jones and Susan Sarandon received a lacklustre response. -- PHOTO: BLACKFRIAR BRIDGE FILMS
More recent films such as 2013’s Lone Survivor, starring Taylor Kitsch, Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch, have fared better at the box office. -- PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE
More recent films such as 2013’s Lone Survivor, starring Taylor Kitsch, Mark Wahlberg, Ben Foster and Emile Hirsch, have fared better at the box office. -- PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE
American Sniper's took in a record- breaking US$105-million (S$140-million) in box-office takings in the United States on its opening last weekend. -- PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE
American Sniper's took in a record- breaking US$105-million (S$140-million) in box-office takings in the United States on its opening last weekend. -- PHOTO: GOLDEN VILLAGE

War movie chalks up record takings as US viewers lap up films big on patriotism and heroes

American Sniper's record- breaking US$105-million (S$140-million) box-office takings in the United States on its opening last weekend proves that the jinx on movies about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is resoundingly over.

The track record has been dismal, to put it lightly. To give a sampling of the camo-clad turkeys: Redacted (2007) and Battle For Haditha (2007), both dramatisations of a rape and murders committed by American troops in Iraq; In The Valley Of Elah (2007), about the shattering effects of post-traumatic stress on family; and Stop-Loss (2008), a fictional account of how lives are affected by the need to maintain troop levels in Iraq.

Even award-winning prestige films were not spared the disdain of punters for war material.

The Hurt Locker (2009), a character study of a ordnance disposal expert, won the Best Picture, Director and Original Screenplay Oscars - nine nominations and six wins in total -  but failed to break even domestically.

The box-office bloodbath suffered by the crop of war movies from 2007 to 2009 did not deter the making of more films questioning America's military involvement in the Middle East.

Green Zone (2010), a dramatisation of the supposed dodgy dealings in the media and American government that led to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, starring Matt Damon and directed by Paul Greengrass, flopped at home.

Director Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty (2012), however, signalled the start of the box-office uptick for war movies. Made for US$40 million, the story of the intelligence and special forces hunt for Osama bin Laden earned US$95 million domestically. It was nominated for five Oscars and won one, for Sound Editing.

Also in 2012, Act Of Valor, the gung-ho movie about a Navy Seals rescue mission, was a sleeper hit, making US$70 million in the United States on a US$12-million budget.

The tide was turning and it was easy to see why: Hollywood had switched from making feel-bad war movies to making features about heroes.

There were also a couple of historical turning points around this period. The former ruler of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, was hanged in 2006, and Osama bin Laden was killed by Navy Seals in May 2011. These chapters had closed and the American administration talked of bringing the troops home.

Americans, it seems, are now ready for uplifting stories about a war that affects mainly those who serve in the military, which comprise a tiny percentage of the population.

When Lone Survivor was released in 2013, it proved a runaway hit. Based on the 2007 non-fiction book about a Navy Seals operation that went awry, it featured an against-the-odds story about how only one man, Marcus Luttrell, escaped to safety.

But last weekend's box-office triumph for American Sniper is a game changer.

The movie hits the right emotional beats, analysts say, not because it is about war, but for its mix of unabashed patriotism, family values, hero action and Oscar buzz. Last week, it was nominated for Oscars in six categories, including for Best Picture, Best Actor (for Bradley Cooper) and Best Adapted Screenplay, for Jason Hall.

According to the industry magazine The Hollywood Reporter, it is the biggest opening in history for a war movie, with numbers that rival those of a summer superhero blockbuster.

In one long weekend, its takings of US$105 million have outdone the US$95 million that Zero Dark Thirty earned during its entire run in the US.

It has taken more than a decade, but it looks like America is ready to watch a movie about a long, messy war, as long as it hits a note of triumph and celebration.

The question is, will that translate to war films that ask the toughest question of all: Was it all worth it?

johnlui@sph.com.sg