My problem with ‘American Sniper’
SPOILER ALERT: This column deals with the movie and book “American Sniper.” In this column I reveal a plot resolution in the film. Although it’s not like something you don’t see coming a mile away. Or 2100 yards away. Read at your own discretion.
I recently saw the Clint Eastwood directed film, “American Sniper,” about Chris Kyle, the most lethal sniper in American history. Kyle had 160 confirmed kills in four tours of Iraq and was tragically killed by a young veteran he was trying to help in Texas in February, 2013. The film is based on the book by the same title written by Kyle.
While the film is breaking box office records, it’s not without controversy. One of the sillier controversies is that Eastwood employed an obviously fake baby in a couple of scenes. I noticed that the baby was fake when I saw the movie but it didn’t bother me. SPOILER: All of the killing in the movie is fake, too.
Another bit of controversy is swirling around a tweet by progressive icon Michael Moore in which he wrote: “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”
First, Chris Kyle wasn’t just sniping in Iraq. He often went on door-to-door house raids with Marines, teaching them a more effective way that the SEAL teams use to clear dwellings. But even if all he did was provide cover for advancing troops, how is that not heroic? If a platoon is moving through an area and a sniper can see a threat that they don’t see and neutralize it, those men in that platoon will think it’s heroic. There’s a reason Kyle came home with two Silver Stars and five Bronze Stars with Valor. There are a lot more people alive because of Chris Kyle than those dead because of him.
After the expected firestorm ensued, Moore claimed he was tweeting about snipers because he was thinking about James Earl Ray assassinating MLK. It was a pathetic response, since obviously his two tweets referenced snipers in warfare. Now that’s cowardly, Mike.
But I do have a problem with the film. Not technically. Eastwood has crafted a compelling story of a gung-ho Navy SEAL who found his calling when it came to war. In the book, it’s clear that Kyle feels more at home on the battlefield than at home with his wife and kids, something the movie depicts well.
Some have panned the movie, feeling that it glorifies warfare and applauds the Iraq war, a war most Americans believe was a mistake.
But that’s not what bothers me about the movie. What bothers me is that the film is a lesson in myth-making. Some parts are fictionalized. And while movies based on true events often feature dramatization, plot devices and composite characters, why does “American Sniper” get a pass on this while Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” doesn’t? In Selma, several critics have claimed Lyndon Baines Johnson’s portrayal as an obstacle to the voting rights act is untrue. Some have speculated that the criticism hurt the film in Oscar balloting, with the film garnering only two awards.
But in “American Sniper,” which has received six Oscar nominations including best picture, we see Kyle stalking a Syrian counterpart, a sniper named Mustafa. While a Mustafa is briefly mentioned in Kyle’s book, there wasn’t this tit for tat interaction with him that we see in the film. And Chris Kyle didn’t kill Mustafa in real life but he does in Eastwood’s film.
There’s something else. Usually when you see a biopic like Angelina Jolie’s “Unbroken,” you can then go and read the book (Laura Hillenbrand’s excellent book by the same name) and find out what’s true and what isn’t. You can get the facts.
In this case, Kyle’s book also reads like an exercise in myth-making. It includes a claim that he punched out former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura in a bar in San Diego when Ventura disrespected the troops. Kyle didn’t mention Ventura by name in the book but did in interviews. Ventura claimed it never happened, sued Kyle and a jury agreed, awarding the former governor $1.8 million. The incident isn’t in the movie.
And that wasn’t the only questionable story Kyle told. He said that he went to New Orleans in the aftermath of Katrina with a SEAL buddy, got on top of the Superdome and picked off looters and assorted bad guys in the aftermath. He claimed that he’d shot thirty people. No one has been able to verify the story.
He told many people and reporters that when he came home from combat in 2009, he shot and killed two carjackers at a gas station near Dallas, Texas and calmly waited for police. When police arrived, he said he gave them a number of someone to call in Washington and they covered everything up.
Riiiight. No reporter has been able to verify this story either.
Do these stories matter? After all, they’re not depicted in Clint Eastwood’s movie. I think they say something about the man quite different from the “Aw shucks, I’m just doing my duty for country” hero Bradley Cooper plays in the movie. It would be one thing if these stories were jokes he told with buddies to pull their legs, but he confirmed them to reporters. He told the Ventura story to Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly. Why does a guy who looks straight out of central casting, a SEAL team member (which is America’s Praetorian Guard) and the most prolific sniper in American history feel the need to lie to make himself an even bigger badass?
They say that truth is the first casualty in war and that certainly applies here. This was a part of his personality that could’ve been explored in the film. Perhaps it was a manifestation of PTSD. Or maybe an adrenaline junkie like Kyle felt he had to come up with tales to keep his legend going. Maybe he missed the action in the same way a retired athlete misses the roar of the crowd.
While I enjoyed the movie and liked the book, there seemed to be some gravitas missing. Kyle comes across like a cross between the Marlboro Man, John Wayne and an erect penis rolled into one. This lack of depth is something many film critics noted. If you were to read Kyle’s book and then read “No Easy Day: The Firsthand Account of the Mission that Killed Osama Bin Laden” by former SEAL Team Six member Matt Bissonette (writing under the name Mark Owen) back to back it would become clearer. Kyle’s book reads like a movie.
While I don’t care that the film used a fake baby and I think Michael Moore pissing on snipers will only serve to solidify Chris Kyle’s status as an American hero, the real problem for me is that, after reading Kyle’s book, watching him in numerous interviews and seeing the Eastwood film, other than a decorated war hero I still don’t know who Chris Kyle really was.
I guess that’s why they call him the Legend.