As a general rule, I try to avoid war films.
I avoid them not just because I don't like war but also because it's so difficult to do an honest war film. War is too big, too monstrous, too overwhelming to capture on film.
Also, any film that depicts combat winds up being either not violent and not realistic enough (thus, charged with soft-peddling or glorifying war) or too filled with bombs and gunfire and blood 'n guts (thus, charged with being unnecessarily violent and anti-war). It's tough.
But there are two war movies out now that warrant our attention.
One covers a war up-close and in combat. The other covers a war behind the scenes.
One centers on the physical battle with heavy artillery. The other centers on an intellectual battle with heavy brain matter.
Both tell the story of war through a single, real-life character. One is a natural-born sharpshooter who turns into a legendary sniper and a devoted patriot. The other is a natural-born mathematician who turns into a brilliant code-breaker and persistent iconoclast.
Both become heroes of sorts -- one a quasi-public figure who struggles with his notoriety; the other, a loner who is forced to keep his triumph a secret.
In the end, both men pay a heavy price for their good deeds and neither one lives happily ever after.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays the British mathematician and logician Alan Turing in The Imitation Game. Set in Britain during World War II, this film portrays the hectic race against time by Turing and his
brilliant team of code-breakers at Britain's top-secret Government Code
and Cypher School at Bletchley Park, as they try to break the Nazi war code known as Enigma. If they can crack Enigma, they can learn what the Nazis are going to do before they do it and they can not only hasten the end of the war but probably win it as well.
But the code-breakers must work in absolute secrecy and even when they think they've cracked the code they must resist the temptation to blow it all by acting capriciously. Amidst all this, Turing has a secret of his own -- a secret that, in the Britain of the 1940s and 50s will eventually destroy him.
The Imitation Game is the thinking-person's war film and Cumberbatch is the perfect, brainy leading man. He's brilliant in the starring role -- alternately reflective and bombastic, sensitive and intemperate, rational and unreasonable. Turing not by nature a joiner and yet he's forced into a role where he must work as a team member. He bristles under the thumb of bureaucracy, refusing to suffer fools gladly and, in the process nearly jeopardizing everything he's worked for. Thrust from the world of academia into a clandestine cell of military rigidity, he's challenged to be nonetheless daring and imaginative. It's a tall order.
With Keira Knightley and an outstanding British cast, The Imitation Game is first-rate. But it does cover a wide swath of time and several overlapping stories. Consequently, the film jumps around a lot through decades, characters and events. So, you have to pay close attention and stitch some of the seemingly random bits and pieces together. If you know nothing about the story going in, you sort of have to act like Turing himself, breaking the code and connecting the often nuanced pieces to one another. And Turing's fate in the end will do little to cheer you.
Still, The Imitation Game is one of the best pictures of the year and it's all well worth it.
At first, you won't recognize the bulked-up Bradley Cooper in Clint Eastwood's American Sniper -- the story of Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in US military history and a hero of the Iraq War.
With his slam-dunk Texas accent and just enough swagger to prove convincing, Cooper positively nails this role and dominates the film (which he also produced) from the first frame to the last.
Make no mistake about it: This is a real down-and-dirty war movie. Kyle accumulated 160 confirmed kills through four tours of duty in combat so the shooting and mayhem almost never stop. The theater practically shakes with the penetrating sound of gunfire.
Consequently, there's not a lot of dialogue in American Sniper (think, Clint Eastwood) and even when Kyle and his band of brothers do talk, their words are clipped and often hard to hear over the din of war. For Cooper, however this turns out to be a good thing since he is a remarkably adept actor who is literally able to talk through his eyes. A glance from Cooper one way or another, a lifting or lowering of the eyes, a long, slow stare or an abrupt turn away -- these will often tell you much about this character, his life and his world. Cooper can transmit sorrow, anger, love and doubt almost exclusively through his eyes.
But sometimes, that's still not enough. Kyle's silence certainly proves to be a dilemma for his wife (beautifully portrayed by Sienna Miller) who can't seem to break through the fog of war to find out what's really on her man's mind. And moviegoers as well are left to wonder what Kyle was thinking in his solitary moments and what he was like without his combat gear.
America Sniper is a film that depicts the high cost of war. But it's also an unflinching portrayal of what we're up against: Evil, despicable, relentless hordes of blood-thirsty terrorists. We're called upon to confront an often nameless, faceless enemy that could take almost any form in the midst of millions of radical Muslims. Those who undertake this mission on our behalf are true heroes.
But Kyle didn't think of himself that way.
As depicted by Cooper, he neither sought nor embraced notoriety. And in the end, he found his way clear to live with his deeds, his fame and his responsibility to his family by helping others who struggled with the same postwar demons that he faced.
These two movies are mature war films that will challenge you and make you think.
They are exceptionally well made and contain sensational performances.
They come at war from two distinctly different angles but they manage to capture both the moral ambiguity and the moral clarity of war.