American Sniper broke all kinds of box office records this weekend, with a $90.2 million weekend haul. Warner Bros. estimates its Oscar nominee for Best Picture will have made $105 million once the four-day MLK holiday weekend is over.
It's the largest MLK weekend opening ever, more than doubling the old record held by Ride Along. It's the largest January weekend ever, a a record previously held by Avatar with $68.5 million in 2010. It's the opening ever for a drama, bettering the $83.8 million that Passion of the Christ made in 2004. It's the biggest R-rated opening of all time and it's by far the biggest opening of director Clint Eastwood's storied career, more than tripling the $29.5 million that Gran Torino made opening weekend in 2008.
Want more statistics? Lone Survivor opened with $37.8 million last January on its way to a total $125.1 million domestic gross. Zero Dark Thirty opened with $24.4 million in 2010 and made $95.7 total in 2013. Oscar-winning Best Picture The Hurt Locker never really got a wide release and made $17 million total in 2009. Jarhead opened with $27.7 million (and $62.7 million total) back in 2005. Green Zone with Matt Damon made $14.3 million (and $35.1 million total). There are a handful of other good movies about our modern conflicts worth mentioning: Fort Bliss (extremely limited theatrical in 2014, no totals available), Stop-Loss ($10.9 million total in 2008), In the Valley of Elah ($6.7 million million total in 2007), Brothers ($28.5million total in 2009) and The Messenger ($1.1 million total in 2009).
Stop for a moment to consider: American Sniper almost made more this weekend than all of those movies made in their opening weekends put together and it's possible that it'll gross more than they all did combined over their respective theatrical runs. American Sniper did Iron Man/Avengers business this weekend.
A couple of thing are now in play:
Boyhood has won so many awards so far that some Oscar voters might be getting tired of hearing that theme song played over and over as the actors and director Richard Linklater take the stage. The Academy loves Clint Eastwood, some of them are likely pissed off that Eastwood didn't get a Best Director nomination and Warner Bros. runs a great Oscar campaign (see Argo in 2012, the best example of a movie won votes after its director didn't also get nominated). American Sniper is a serious drama that's also a runaway commercial success and it blew up the same weekend that nominations were announced. No matter what anyone might say on TV about an "upset," don't be shocked if Sniper wins best picture.
More importantly, this movie is the first time millions of Americans will consider the effects of wars on the men and women who fight them and, by extension, how that also effects their families. An overwhelming majority of Americans haven't had a personal stake in our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and the Clint Eastwood version of Chris Kyle's life is full of enough ambiguity to provoke a real national discussion about the costs of war and what exactly we're asking from the men and women who serve.
It's a film that doesn't aim to join either Team Conservative or Team Liberal (no matter what your Facebook friends might say when they're screaming at each other) and there's plenty in Bradley Cooper's portrayal to give everyone pause and give the civilian population a chance to finally think about the wars they ask their military to fight.
Whether you enjoyed the movie or not, this is a big moment for military culture. Movies at their most effective can guide the cultural discussion and American Sniper just took over the conversation.