American Sniper is not the real Chris Kyle, and that’s okay

We live in a country where the vast majority of its citizens have never fought in a war, and statistically, probably never will. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but I worry that the fact that we have relatively few veterans in this country means we’ll eventually reach a point where not only will most people never understand the military mindset, but will eventually stop trying altogether.

You’ve probably heard more than you could ever want to about American Sniper in the past few weeks. Conservatives love it because it portrays the war in Iraq as something that needed to happen, liberals as a whole think that it’s wrong to glorify snipers (well, except for the First Lady, oddly), and people with fancy film degrees just won’t shut the hell up about how Bradley Cooper’s performance was nothing like how Chris Kyle was in real life.

While I tend to agree with Michael Moore that shooting people from very far away isn’t quite as sporting as busting down a door with an M4 and taking care of business the right way, I think this is all much ado about nothing.

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Sure, American Sniper is a fairly insubstantial film that doesn’t inspire much reaction one way or the other, but I kind of hate that people are assuming that the film is trying to sanctify Chris Kyle by portraying him not as he was, but as, well, Bradley Cooper trying to finally win an Oscar. I don’t see it, myself. Point of fact, I found his portrayal pretty believable. Not as Kyle himself, mind you, since I’d never even heard of him before the film came out (he was, after all, in the Navy, and therefore beneath my notice), but because he so resembled many of the people I served with in Iraq and Afghanistan.

I honestly don’t know how you’d put someone like Kyle in a movie, to be honest. In his post-military life, he kind of turned out to be a jackass who in his autobiography lied about beating up Jesse Ventura, and also said some very non-PC things about, well, everything. Clint Eastwood was never going to make the real version of this guy into a movie, and I’m not all that surprised he didn’t.

American Sniper is not the real Chris Kyle, and that's okay

Here’s the thing: basically no biopic in the history of the medium has ever even come close to showing what the real person at the center of the film was like. Even ones that don’t diverge wildly from reality, like say, insisting that Cole Porter was totally straight, you guys, still warp their subjects to conform to any number of different factors, like the message the director wants to send, the personae and acting styles of the various stars, the politics of the intended audience, and so forth. It’s understandable that Eastwood would craft an uncomplicated war narrative for older audiences, since he himself is older and has a fondness for stripped-down storytelling. I think the problem people are running into here is that Kyle as a media personality doesn’t mesh with Kyle the war hero presented onscreen.

I think it makes perfect sense that Kyle would decide, after the fact, that he was totally the shit. Actually, since Navy SEALs are Special Forces, he probably came to that conclusion before his first tour was even over. I ask you though, where exactly would that have fit into the plot of American Sniper? Yeah, it actually happened and should by all rights be in there somewhere, but the plot of Sniper is about a guy who serves his country, gets PTSD, and is murdered off-screen. Dealing with Kyle’s hubris (and the almost certain bloodlust he must have had for a while) would have sat awkwardly in the story-structure, and would have required an entirely different script. I’m not saying that would have been a bad thing, but that wasn’t the movie they wanted to make.

So, we get a movie where not much of anything really happens, and Bradley Cooper gives a lot of meaningful looks off into the middle distance. To be frank, I think he got nominated for an Oscar purely because he’d already been nominated two years in a row, and this is setting him up for some kind of “sorry about that” Oscar for not winning for American Hustle. We’ve already dealt with how that movie is one of those films that no one actually likes but the industry throws awards at anyway, so those who haven’t seen American Sniper could be forgiven for thinking Cooper doesn’t deserve it. While I don’t think he should win (I’m pulling for Michael Keaton, myself), I think Cooper does a great job playing a veteran, even if it’s not the actual veteran in question.

American Sniper is not the real Chris Kyle, and that's okay

In fact, I’d say Cooper gives the best portrayal of a military character since last year’s Godzilla.

Actually, Godzilla is why I’m writing this at all.

Aside from the almost complete lack of both the King of Monsters and Bryan Cranston, all the reviews I read focused on just how bland and uninteresting Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s lead was, with Bob Chipman referring to him as “Private Player Character from Call of Duty”. This was baffling to me, because when I watched him onscreen, all I could say was, “This guy nailed it!”

(Just for the record, I should also point out that I took issue with Rihanna being slammed for how “unrealistic” her portrayal of a Naval NCO was in Battleship, given that she actually served in the Army Cadets in her native Barbados, but that doesn’t tie in to my larger point here.)

The point is, it’s hard enough to portray a soldier serving in war, and to try to do that and tell a compelling story about hubris and pride and crushing shell-shock would have been too many balls for this movie to try to keep in the air. As much as I hate telling people who have never served that they just don’t get it, when you’re in combat, you’re two people: yourself, and the version of you who can get the job done, and I’ve yet to meet enough people who accept this fact to make Hollywood trying to pull this off worth the effort. After all, these are the same people who gave Black Hawk Down a fictional lead because they felt no one would believe Ewan McGregor would fight so bravely at the Battle of Mogadishu and then go home to molest his own daughter.

So, yeah, putting a more accurate version of Chris Kyle onscreen might have been asking a little much of the audience (though, having him fight Godzilla would have been the best idea ever!), and I’d wager that the people who hate the way the movie lionizes him might be a little more upset about the horrible, mouth-breathing fuckwits who are trying to exploit the film for political gain, especially since the movie itself isn’t much to get worked up about. There’s just no there there.

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  • My problem with the film (besides that it’s unbelievably boring), is that it’s the mythologising of the Iraq war into simple heroes and villains. The film’s omission of any context besides Generic Soldier Hero Man (nice to see he got more work after Lone Survivor) joining the Navy after seeing a terrorist attack, and then hearing about 9/11 before turning up in Iraq practically implies he spends the entire film fighting the people who took down the World Trade Center. Also sanding off all rough edges means there’s never any reason to question him or any other American soldiers being meant as the good guys.

    Then there’s the depiction of the Iraqis. One one hand you have the enemies so cartoonishly villainous I couldn’t take them seriously (even if the power drill thing happened, Eastwood put so little effort in it felt like Mark Millar wrote that scene) or so dashingly sexy I couldn’t possibly root against them (that sniper’s eyelashes…), and on the other hand no civilians who aren’t hiding either information to be shouted out of them or weapons in their floors. Plus GSHM’s weird habit of referring to them as ‘savages’ with the film having no opinion on that.

    I keep hearing people say that America learned nothing from Vietnam, but I think films like American Sniper proved the government learned one thing very well: how to control the media. America’s defeat in Vietnam was partly due to public opposition, when confronted with pictures and film of actual bloodshed on the news the American public recoiled in horror. Fast forward to the Gulf War and a near media blackout was issued, but the public grew bored without constant fresh news coverage and support faded.

    But with Iraq they finally got it. They created engaging narratives to keep people invested: Jessica Lynch, the poor, whitebread Virginian damsel in distress kidnapped by swarthy rapists and rescued by the dashing heroes of the Delta Force. And of course Chris Kyle, Texan good ‘ol boy who could not contain his patriotism after 9/11 and joined up, becoming the most lethal sniper in US history to save his brothers in arms.

    They also made sure to take over Hollywood, with the Pentagon giving free fighter jets and Aircraft Carriers to anyone wanting to make a war movie (provided it provided the necessary uplifting patriotism of course), and with such movies and toys being prohibitively expensive without their help, they are succeeded in forming the US memory of Iraq and Afghanistan to suit their needs. When so many Americans think of Iraq now, are they going to think of the hundred thousand innocent lives lost in the invasion? Fuck no, they’re going to remember the heroism of Chris Kyle as he shoots evil brown people threatening our freedom.

    • MichaelANovelli

      Um, pretty sure most Americans view the war in Iraq as an expensive failure, and already came to that conclusion about ten years ago. So, there’s that, at least. 🙂

      • Given that this film will soon be the most successful film of 2014 in the States, and that Chris Kyle Day is an official Texan holiday now, I’d say more buy into this view of the war than you think.

        • MichaelANovelli

          It’s a sad reality that having a war that can’t be glorified is something our culture has a REALLY hard time dealing with, but I don’t think that this film’s success is necessarily a sign of things to come. The film served a need by allowing people their pent-up desire to have old-fashioned heroes, but given that most of the people who’re really stumping for this movie are older and generally on their way out, I view this as more of a last hurrah than a change in the tide…

          • This is why I’m really optimistic about Mockingjay’s success. It’s a movie entirely about how propaganda and real heroism is twisted by every side to suit their own ends, where living through war is a miserable experience of watching your friends and family die or be horrifically scarred, and it’s what millions of kids all over the country are growing up with. To quote Devin Faraci in his piece on the two films, “The people who have made American Sniper a hit will die soon enough. The people who have made The Hunger Games movies hits are rising to take their places.”

        • damanoid

          Of course, “Confederate Heroes Day” is also an official Texan holiday.

  • Thomas Stockel

    Excellent observations, Mendo. I think you could also make the argument that any written biography has to be seen the same way, that every writer suffers from a subjective viewpoint and might often have their own agenda.

    • MichaelANovelli

      Well, let’s face facts, here. No movie could ever match the unparalleled realism of “In The Army Now”… 😉

      • Joel Schlosberg

        Not even “Ernest in the Army”?

        • MichaelANovelli

          Especially not Ernest In The Army! LOL

  • LT_Harper

    I guess you and fat boy Moore know best. Better than our military. That snipers are cowards because they shoot from far away. So then I guess so are the sailors on ships who fire missles and fighter pilots who drop bombs. And I also the soldiers who fire at the enemy when they’re not face to face are cowards too. And those guys who operate those drones. Cause you know, war is not kill or be killed. It’s just a sport and you should play by the rules that hardened combat veterans like you and fat boy put down.

    • MichaelANovelli

      I’m guessing the term “Rules of Engagement” never came across your radar, then?

      • I say we take off and nuke the site from orbit. It’s the only way to be sure.

    • Murry Chang

      You don’t know who our man Mendo is, do you?

  • Sardu

    I’m a red state conservative Libertarian right-wing Christian type who probably agrees with you on very little philosophically where politics are concerned but nothing you say in this article doesn’t make sense to me.

    • MichaelANovelli

      Hurray! We found a middle ground! ^_^

  • damanoid

    We live in a country where the vast majority of its citizens have never fought in a war, and statistically, probably never will. That’s not a bad thing, necessarily, but I worry that the fact that we have relatively few veterans in this country means we’ll eventually reach a point where not only will most people never understand the military mindset, but will eventually stop trying altogether.

    So is this an example of the “military mindset?” Most American citizens have never fought in a war, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing? But it might be, because if America isn’t frequently at war, Americans will have fewer veterans? And therefore might stop trying to understand them?

    ETA: Wow, I just reread my own post and it sounds way more sarcastic than I intended. I was actually going for incredulity, because I assume you are NOT, in fact, lamenting the fact that the majority of Americans haven’t fought in a war. But then I am genuinely unsure what your opening paragraph is supposed to mean.

    • MichaelANovelli

      My concern is that if war is constantly “someone else’s problem”, people will be more willing to rush to war unnecessarily, because they know they won’t be at risk. Historically, people who’ve served in war have been in no hurry for there to be another one.

      • damanoid

        I’d think that a movie like this one would be more troublesome, then. Not only does it fictionalize the main character, it also presents an “uncomplicated war narrative” which can only devalue the experiences of actual veterans. Why should America listen to its veterans about Iraq and Afghanistan, anyway? Clint Eastwood already showed us the true story of a genuine war hero!

      • JustMe

        You see, that’s a problem I have with the advancements in drone tech. This is off topic but it kind of relates to your post so let me do a small rant…

        Drones are cool. That tech is something that makes the geek in me squee with happiness. Heck, when I was in the military I was in the Navy as a Tomahawk tech and was fascinated by it because those missiles are basically proto-drones.

        But drones replace humans with remote controlled robots. And I worry that that could make going to war a bit too easy. Going to war with drones makes the decision be based on “Can we make enough drones?” rather than “Do we dare to put our kids in harms way?” and I worry that by turning war into a purely economic thing we might end up choosing that option a bit too much. War becomes too easy and war should never be easy…

  • Murry Chang

    I wish they would have added the part where he was sniping civilians from the roof of the Superdome after Katrina, THAT would have made it a move I’d actually see.

    • MichaelANovelli

      That would have just made it even more like the movie within a movie from Inglourious Basterds…

  • Alexa

    Generally speaking, I’ll probably not watch American Sniper cause I’m not really a big fan of Eastwood as a director (save Unforgiven), also just for the fact that it seems to be inspiring a lot of jingoism, and harassment of Muslims. Really now I want to see Godzilla and see if the complaints about Aaron Taylor-Johnson were true…

    • MichaelANovelli

      What’s interesting to me is that, in terms of what goes on on-set, Eastwood isn’t all that radically different from Ed Wood. One take, do as many scenes in a day as possible, fix what you can in post, etc. Life’s funny, I guess.

      • Alexa

        Well that would explain the awkward acting in many of his movies. I’m one of the few people that did not get Million Dollar Baby, considering that while Hilary Swank did fine, it seemed like she didn’t get a lot of direction honestly. Plus the dialogue in that movie was pretty bad…

        • Timothy Byrne

          The end [SPOILERS] of Million Dollar Baby just seemed so cartoonish to me. When the family literally turn up at the hospital carrying Disneyland souvenirs and wearing themed caps before trying to force her to sign the financial documentation was completely OTT.

  • JustMe

    Heres the thing – Movies can’t really tell a biography because they are movies. Movies require a plot structure (at least mostly) that has a beginning, middle and end. Funny thing is, human lives don’t have plot structures. Therefore no true biography can be placed on a film screen.

    So I don’t approach this movie as if it has any real impact on the real person and I don’t see the real person impacting on the movie – the two are related but only tangentially.

    I do have some problems with the basic politics of the movie but those problems are more related to what politics Eastwood decided to embed in the movie rather than the politics of Kyle… And I have a complicated set of problems with it because they are related to a very complicated time in US history.

    So let’s step back and just look at it like a movie. Does it tell a interesting story? I guess it does. Does it feature some good acting? Generally, yeah. I don’t see an Oscar there but it’s decent. Is the story at least engaging on a story level? Yeah.

    So it works as a movie. As a political position, I disagree with it but as a movie I can’t see anything inherently bad about it.