The movie American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Bradley Cooper, has been making headlines for setting all kinds of box office records: clearly, the movie has struck something of a chord with the American public. This comparative film critique is one of the many diverse subjects that are part of the custom writing services at Ultius.
American Sniper in Life and on the Screen
American Sniper tells the true story of an American soldier in the modern American conflict in Iraq and this essay conducts a comparison of the portrayal of the story in American Sniper with the real story on which the plot of the film was based. In order to do that this essay will proceed through four main parts:
- The essay will provide an overview of the plot and development of American Sniper itself.
- It will proceed to consider the story of the actual solider who served as the model for the main character of the film.
- The essay will compare these two stories in order to tease out convergences and divergences between them.
- The essay will reflect on some of the political reactions that have emerged in the aftermath of the release of the movie.
Background of the film
The movie American Sniper follows the story of American solider Chris Kyle; and the movie is based on an autobiographical book written by Kyle himself (in collaboration with McEwen and DeFelice). The plot of the film begins with some scenes of Kyle’s childhood and young adulthood; and it begins to pick up with Kyle’s decision to stop living the life of a rodeo star and instead enlist with the Navy SEALS in 1998. Kyle is also shown to meet his future wife during this time. Then:
“post 9/11, the war in Iraq puts Kyle to work as a sharpshooter, and the film depicts his skills in this area as almost eerie” (Kenny, paragraph 2).
From this point, the arc of the film essentially follows Kyle across his missions as a sniper. An important element of the plot is his face-off with an enemy sniper Mustafa, who Kyle does manage to take out near the end of the film.
Decent into dementia
One of the major developments that the viewer sees across the plot of the film is the fact that Kyle gradually seems to regress deeper into the grips of PTSD as his tours in Iraq progress. This is related both to the increasingly ambiguous nature of Kyle’s accomplishments, the psychological and moral stress experienced by Kyle as a result of not being able to save everyone he would like to have saved, and the moral conscience associated with being responsible for the deaths of an increasing number of human beings. These factors contribute to Kyle’s inability to adjust to civilian life upon his return home; and he begins working with wounded veterans primarily as a means of healing himself. This seems to be working until the very last scene of the film. However, as the subtitles at the end reveal, Kyle was eventually shot and killed by a deeply disturbed veteran who he was actually trying to help.
Input of Taya Kyle on the film
Kyle’s wife Taya was the other primary character (a second protagonist) in the film; and it is perhaps worth noting here that the real-life Taya both had significant input into the film itself and has been very happy with the reception that the film has received over the course of the last week. Fowler has reported Taya as saying:
“The only thing I can say is thank you. Thank you for the love and support of our military. Thank you for being willing to watch the hard stuff and thank you for hearing, seeing, experiencing the life of our military and first responders” (paragraph 6).
Of course, this does not in and of itself imply anything about the actual fidelity of the film to the true story on which it was based. It does, however, mean that the final product was at the very least congruent with Taya Kyle’s image of her husband and the way that she wanted him to be seen by the world.
Chris Kyle in his own words
The story of the real-life Kyle and his image of himself can be seen in his own autobiography. One of the most salient features of this autobiography for the average reader may be the somewhat disturbing fact that Kyle seems to exhibit little to no moral conscience regarding his role in the deaths of at the very least 160 people. Much the opposite, the subtitle of the autobiography, in which Kyle identifies himself as the “most lethal sniper in U.S. military history”, seems to indicate that Kyle took unambiguous pride in the fact that he had in fact killed as many people as he did. Moreover, the actual text of his autobiography does little to contradict this impression: Kyle repeatedly calls the enemies “savages” and confirms his belief that in killing them, he was doing a very good deed. Dehumanization, of course, is one of the classic tactics for turning another human being into “the enemy”; and it would seem that Kyle had little difficulties with doing this.
Controversy over Kyle’s character
Contentions regarding the true story of Kyle do not focus on his reputation as the greatest sharpshooter in American history; this much, at least, is undisputed. Contentions, rather, address what appear to be disturbing aspects of Kyle’s worldview and ideology, including racism, black-and-white thinking, dehumanization, and a lack adequate moral conscience. As Pond has pointed out:
“Complaints that Kyle may have lied about his activities, that he was too enthusiastic as a killer, have been around since the publication of the book. But the success of the film with Academy voters and now with the public has ramped up the criticism, even as it has brought out staunch supporters of Kyle’s” (paragraph 15).
Of course, this all becomes very political; and one’s perspective on Kyle is likely to be reflective of one’s broader perspective on the War in Iraq in general and the moral righteousness (or lack thereof) of the United States. For present purposes, though, the important point is that the moral ambiguities that characterize the story of the real-life Kyle are fundamentally not the focus of the film American Sniper.
Convergences and divergences in the American Sniper storyline
Comparing the real story of Kyle with the portrayal of that story in film, it is surely worth pointing out that the film ends right before the final episode of Kyle’s life: his death at the hands of a veteran who was mentally shattered as a result of his experiences in Iraq. As Phillip has pointed out, there is a profound irony in this turn of events; and it surely adds the appropriate cadence of tragedy to a story that may otherwise be told in an all to heroic tone. Kyle was helping veterans because he himself finally did become psychologically and emotionally unbalanced by his experiences in Iraq (even if only because he could not save his fellow soldiers); and he was killed by a veteran who was even more damaged than he was after fighting the war on terror. There is surely something to be said here about the dark cycle of violence that is inevitably produced by war. The film is not compelled to deal with this theme, for the simple reason that it conveniently ends before the final event in Kyle’s story happens.
The film’s portrayal of Kyle
At the thematic level, a point that has emerged from the discussion above is that the film American Sniper generally makes Kyle seem like a more compassionate and well-rounded person than does the information reported in Kyle’s autobiography. As Duckworth has pointed out,
“most of the movie’s inaccuracies make Kyle seem more sympathetic, whereas the autobiography itself portrays him as a much more morally black-and-white person who was quite enthusiastic about the job he was doing” (paragraph 14).
One important exception, though, would be the movie’s portrayal of Kyle’s reaction to a colleague’s letter in which are expressed doubts about the war. In the film, Kyle is portrayed as reacting negatively to it, presumably for the sake of dramatic tension; in the autobiography, however, Kyle can actually be seen praising the letter (in what, within the autobiography itself, likely comes across as a strange break of character).
An interpretation rather than a strict retelling
When reflecting on the relationship between the real story of Kyle and the portrayal of that story in American Sniper, it is worth bearing in mind that even what is being called the “real” story is likely a heavily colored interpretation of events, with the implication that one is not so much comparing a representation to an empirical record of events as one representation with another representation. For one thing, the credibility of Kyle’s own account of his story may be somewhat questionable (see Duckworth). Moreover, though, it is quite clear that Kyle had a very rigid view of political and moral reality, and that this significantly influenced the actions and decisions that he took and made over the course of his life. This means that Kyle’s own account was deeply subjective in the first place, with the result that it is unclear whether the film’s deviations from Kyle’s account would make it more or less “accurate” in empirical terms. Ultimately, the movie was a biography with some fictional aspects.
The apolitical nature of the film version of American Sniper
The film American Sniper has garnered some negative reactions from critics who see it has potentially glorifying the War in Iraq. Or rather: the real problem would seem to be that the film is staunchly apolitical in nature, following the story of Kyle himself and failing to make any kind of moral comment or criticism regarding the situation within which Kyle finds himself. This is what Taibbi, writing for Rolling Stone, seems to mean when he identifies the film as:
“almost too dumb to criticize: The really dangerous part of this film is that it turns into a referendum on the character of a single soldier. It’s an unwinnable argument in either direction. We end up talking about Chris Kyle and his dilemmas, and not about the Rumsfelds and Cheneys and other officials up the chain” (paragraph 17).
This is another way of saying that the film’s portrayal of the War in Iraq seems to lack all sense of political context, but can a war film be apolitical and have broad appeal? Is it really possible to create a non-political representation of war (and especially of a war that is so immediately present in the American national memory)?
The implication is that to focus exclusively on the story of Kyle may be inherently politically conservative, insofar as it accepts the parameters of Kyle’s struggle with PTSD and its affect on his life and work without further question. On the other hand, it could also be suggested that at the aesthetic level, there is nothing wrong with portraying the story of an individual human being in whatever situation he finds himself, and that there is no moral imperative to become political about the matter. The question then would simply be whether the storytelling is done well. Public reactions to the film, however, have indicated that almost no one would seem to be interested in taking this kind of aesthetic approach to the subject. Whether people celebrate the film or condemn it, it is clear that they are primarily doing so for political reasons.
Interested in film reviews? Check out our movie review of The Kite Runner.
Duckworth, Courtney. “How Accurate is American Sniper?” Slate. 23. Jan. 2015. Web. 23 Jan. 2015. .
Fowler, Tara. “Wife of Chris Kyle ‘Overwhelmed with Gratitude’ after American Sniper Success.” Time. 19 Jan. 2015. Web. 23 Jan. 2015 .
Kenny, Glen. “American Sniper.” RogerEbert.com, 25 Dec. 2014. Web. 23 Jan. 2015. .
Kyle, Chris, Scott McEwen, and Jim DeFelice. American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History. New York: Harper, 2013. Print.
Phillip, Abby. “Trial of Eddie Roth, Killer of Kyle, Will Be Darkest Chapter of ‘American Sniper’.” Washington Post. 22 Jan. 2014. Web. 23 Jan. 2014. .
Pond, Steve. “‘American Sniper’ Complaints Grow in Hollywood.” TheWrap. 18 Jan. 2015. Web. 23 Jan. 2015. .
Taibbi, Matt. “‘American Sniper’ Is Almost Too Dumb to Criticize.” Rolling Stone. 21 Jan. 2015. Web. 23 Jan. 2015. almost-too-dumb-to-criticize-20150121>.