‘American Sniper’ takes aim at Oscars

American Sniper,” which dramatizes the life of military sniper Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), far exceeded its already sky-high box office expectations, earning north of $90 million during its three-day opening weekend, more than doubling the previous January record, and ranking second ever among R-rated debuts. With Oscar voting around the corner, this is the very definition of peaking at the right time.

“Sniper” was slow to catch on during the awards season. Though it landed on AFI’s list of the year’s 11 best American films, it was snubbed by the SAG Awards and Golden Globes. And at the Critics’ Choice kudos, it only earned nominations in secondary genre categories: Best Action Film and Best Action Film Actor (Cooper), winning the latter.

Clint Eastwood, Bradley Cooper, widow Taya Kyle discuss ‘American Sniper’ [Video]

But then it picked up steam, earning nominations from pivotal industry groups – the Producers’ Guild, Writers’ Guild, and Directors’ Guild – on its way to a surprise six Oscar nominations, including Best Picture, Best Actor (Cooper), and Best Adapted Screenplay.

Now that it’s a bona-fide blockbuster, can it actually win Best Picture? Ten years ago director Clint Eastwood ambushed the race in the home stretch with “Million Dollar Baby” and took down frontrunner “The Aviator.” Granted, Eastwood isn’t now nominated for Best Director at the Oscars, but he’s up for DGA and could prevail there just as Ben Affleck did when his “Argo” was in a similar situation two years ago. Most Gold Derby Experts picked “Lincoln” to win Best Picture when Oscar nominations came out in January and Affleck was snubbed in the directors’ race, but Affleck snagged the laurels from the PGA (which bestows its newest prize this Sunday) and DGA (Feb. 9) and then leapt ahead to bag the top Oscar.

The academy certainly loves an underdog success story. Were they not huge moneymakers, it’s unlikely a supernatural horror film like “The Sixth Sense” or a sports drama with decent reviews like “The Blind Side” would have been serious Best Picture contenders.

But “Sniper” doesn’t just have financial success on its side, it also has some very strong reviews. So could it upset “Boyhood,” which would be one of the lowest grossing films ever to win Best Picture? Richard Linklater‘s coming-of-age drama is a beloved indie success, but its worldwide gross ($43 million) is even smaller than that of “The Hurt Locker,” an Oscar champ that was considered a financial disappointment that took in just under $50 million globally.

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While it is considered by some to have a right-wing political slant, “American Sniper” doesn’t strike me as an inherently political film. I view it more as a character study in the same vein as “Hurt Locker,” which also examined one man’s experience of combat and his difficulty readjusting to civilian life without taking a firm position for or against the war itself. To that extent it’s successful, and Cooper’s performance as Kyle is commendable for its emotional complexity. And though Kyle is shown to support the war, we’re also given a humane portrait of one of his comrades who loses faith in the mission.

A bigger problem for “American Sniper” than the film’s perceived position on the war overall may be the questions that have been raised about whether it whitewashes Kyle’s actions and opinions about the 160 people he’s known to have killed.

And will this hurt the film enough that its domination at the box office won’t matter? The academy, comprising mostly straight white men over 50, isn’t as progressive as it might like us to think – remember “Brokeback Mountain”? – but voters still might not be comfortable throwing in with the director who made a show of support for Republicans by talking to a chair in 2012, especially if his film has been, rightly or not, taken up as an exemplification of conservative ideals, and especially in a year when they’ve already been heavily criticized for their, shall we say, less-than-progressive slate of nominees.

Remember what happened to “Zero Dark Thirty,” another contemporary film about the War on Terror. It had strong box office and even better reviews, but it was derailed because some believed it was an endorsement of torture. I don’t believe that was the case – showing an act is not the same as promoting it – but the controversy might have been a major contributing factor in its defeats: it lost Best Picture, Actress (Jessica Chastain), and Original Screenplay, while director Kathryn Bigelow, who had just won three years earlier for “Hurt Locker,” wasn’t even nominated.

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The one race where “Sniper’s” box office windfall might be especially helpful, and where it might also be immune to political backlash, is Best Actor. Cooper has gotten some of the best reviews of his career, and nominated for the third year in a row, he might already be considered due. What’s more, I suspect few will blame Cooper for perceived biases in the writing and directing.

But he’s still got some catching up to do against Michael Keaton (“Birdman“), who has the benefit of his own personal comeback story, and Eddie Redmayne (“The Theory of Everything“), who has the more dramatic physical transformation. Both have a big head start building awards momentum.

Do you think “American Sniper” will follow its surprise box office success with a sudden surge at the Oscars? Use our drag-and-drop menu below to make your Best Picture predictions.

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