As of Sunday, “American Sniper” is the highest-grossing movie from 2014, passing “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay -- Part 1.”
Nearly all of that money, however, has come in since the picture opened nationwide in January. It is considered a 2014 release because it opened in four theaters in New York and Los Angeles on Christmas Day, a requirement for Academy Award consideration.
“American Sniper” took just one Oscar, for sound editing. But it is the biggest surprise hit in years, a performance made even more impressive given that it came in January and February, traditionally two of the slowest movie months.
So why did “American Sniper” blow the doors off the box office?
Clint Eastwood generally makes good to great pictures -- last summer’s stinker “Jersey Boys” being a notable exception to that rule. Plus, he had a compelling story to tell -- that of Iraq War sniper Chris Kyle -- and he got an Oscar-nominated performance from Bradley Cooper in that role.
But that isn’t enough to explain how an R-rated war movie could become last year’s top-grossing film and something of a cultural phenomenon.
Here’s a two-pronged explanation that’s getting some traction in the movie analysis world:
First, over the last 40 years, American moviegoers have embraced war pictures only after the conflict that is being depicted is over, allowing them to digest the movies in a recent historical context.
That’s what happened with the most acclaimed Vietnam War pictures, with “Coming Home” and “The Deer Hunter” each being released in 1978, three years after the fall of Saigon that ended the U.S. involvement in the conflict.
Francis Ford Coppola’s “Apocalypse Now” was released in 1979 and “Platoon,” which won the best picture Oscar, didn’t come out until 1986, more than a decade after the war ended.
So it follows that Iraq War movies released while American troops were still on the ground there and in Afghanistan -- including "The Hurt Locker,” which won the 2010 Best Picture Oscar, and “Zero Dark Thirty,” one of the best movies of 2012 -- weren’t hits.
They came out too soon to be dealt with at the movies.
“American Sniper,” which is a 2015 movie, came out four years after the last American soldier left Iraq and a year after troops left Afghanistan.
Second, “American Sniper,” which is actually a nuanced picture, has been seen by much of its audience and conservative media as a patriotic picture that celebrates a war hero, who sacrificed parts of himself for country and his fellow soldiers.
That has led to strong word of mouth and promotion that helped keep the strong box office going for a month against, admittedly, weak competition.
“American Sniper” is also the highest-grossing war movie of all time. But that figure, like all highest-grossing marks, is a little misleading. Box office inflation guarantees that contemporary hit movies will top the all-time grossing lists. It would be interesting to see where it ranks against other war pictures on an adjusted-for-inflation list.
Then again, if “Gone With the Wind,” the most attended movie of all times, can be considered a Civil War picture, “American Sniper” isn’t even close.
“American Sniper” will be the only Oscar winner on Lincoln screens on Friday. Best picture winner “Birdman” and “Still Alice,” which features best actress Julianne Moore, will end their Lincoln runs after Thursday’s screenings at the Grand.
Reach the writer at 402-473-7244 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @LJSWolgamott.