Clint Eastwood’s new film and Best Picture Oscar nominee “American Sniper” shattered January box office records as it took in more than $90 million last weekend. But overshadowing the film’s glowing support from critics and theater-goers is a growing public debate about violence as America paused to remember the shooting death of civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
“My uncle killed by sniper in WW2. We were taught snipers were cowards. Will shoot u in the back. Snipers aren't heroes. And invaders r worse,” filmmaker Michael Moore tweeted on Sunday, setting off a lively online conversation. “But if you're on the roof of your home defending it from invaders who've come 7K miles, you are not a sniper, u are brave, u are a neighbor.”
“American Sniper” is based on Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s 2012 memoir, which details his life as the most lethal shooter in U.S. military history. In the book, Kyle, who was killed in 2013, allegedly by a fellow veteran at a gun range, wrote “The enemy are savages and despicably evil,” and that his “only regret is that I didn’t kill more.” In the wake of the film's success, some critics have slammed the project for appearing to promote pro-war sentiments.
"The Wrap," an entertainment website, even quoted one anonymous Academy member who said the Kyle character "seems like he may be a sociopath.”
Meanwhile, leading industry publications interpreted Moore’s comments as an overt critique of Eastwood’s film. And conservatives rushed to defend Eastwood, whose image took a hit after he delivered a poorly received speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention to an empty chair he pretended was filled by President Obama.
“Michael Moore should spend a few weeks with ISIS and Boko Haram. Then he might appreciate American Sniper,” ex-House Speaker Newt Gingrich wrote. “I am proud of our defenders.”
Conservative actress and former “Clueless” star Stacey Dash also suggested Moore was out of touch with American values, saying he had called “the very people who protect his right to be an idiot, ‘cowards.’”
Moore later clarified his comments in an extended Facebook post, in which he said that his tweets were not a commentary on the film “American Sniper,” which he praised for Bradley Cooper’s performance and superb costuming, make-up, and hair-styling.
The documentary filmmaker then highlighted the irony that the success of "American Sniper" coincided with Martin Luther King Day. The non-violent leader was killed by gunman James Earl Ray on April 4, 1968 at the age of 39.
“I think most Americans don't think snipers are heroes. Hopefully not on this weekend when we remember that man in Memphis, Tennessee, who was killed by a sniper's bullet,” Moore wrote on Facebook.
Moore isn’t the only high-profile member of Hollywood who has publicly critiqued “American Sniper.” No stranger to controversy, “The Interview” star Seth Rogen likened “Sniper” to Nazi propaganda by comparing it to an Oscar-nominated Quentin Tarantino 2009 film that features a German sniper who killed Allied soldiers during World War II.
“'American Sniper' kind of reminds me of the movie that's showing in the third act of 'Inglorious Basterds,'” he tweeted on Sunday.
Moore has long been outspoken in his support for stricter gun control laws and his opposition to the Iraq war. His two most popular films, “Bowling for Columbine" and “Farenheit 9/11," cover each of those subjects. When he accepted an Oscar for Best Documentary Feature in 2003, he famously criticized former President George W. Bush to a mix of applause and boos from Hollywood's heavyweights.
"We live in a time where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons. Whether it’s the fiction of duct tape or the fictitious [sic] of orange alerts, we are against this war, Mr. Bush. Shame on you, Mr. Bush, shame on you,” he said at the time.
Of “Sniper,” Moore said Eastwood “gets Vietnam and Iraq confused in his storytelling,” and he also has characters who call “Iraqis ‘savages’ throughout the film.” “Sorry to have to state the obvious again: Invading a country that hasn't attacked you is illegal & immoral. History will judge us harshly,” Moore tweeted on Monday.
"American Sniper” not only opened at No. 1, it destroyed box office records in a historically weak month for movies. "Sniper" bowed to a whopping $90.2 million – the highest weekend gross ever for any film released in January, according to Entertainment Weekly. More than a third of that figure – $30.5 million – came in on Friday alone, now January’s biggest single-day gross. Additionally, the film garnered an A+ CinemaScore from audiences, signaling that strong word of mouth is likely to continue fueling ticket sales.
Although he has not stated it publicly, Moore’s pick for the Academy Award for Best Picture would likely be “Selma,” filmmaker Ava DuVernay’s take on the Alabama marches led by King as he fought to secure passage of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. He has repeatedly praised it on Twitter, and once again made a call to his nearly 2 million followers to see it on Friday.
“Try to see SELMA this weekend!” he tweeted on Friday. “Simply because it is a piece of brilliant filmmaking, the likes of which are so rare.”
Although “Selma” also scored a Best Picture nominee and remains a critical darling, it was snubbed by Oscar from all other major categories. It lags far behind “Sniper” at the box office, where it earned $8.3 million this week and has about $26 million in ticket sales overall.