Feb 20, 2020
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.
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.
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.
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.