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The Unknown Solider: American Sniper and the Legend of Chris Kyle

Published on the Sounds of Cinema blog on May 25, 2015

Earlier this year, Clint Eastwood's American Sniper was a source of considerable controversy. An adaptation of the memoir by Chris Kyle, the movie dramatizes Kyle's career as a Navy SEAL sniper while on tour in the second Iraq war. As depicted in the film, Kyle achieved the greatest number of confirmed kills in the history of the United States military but he suffered from post-traumatic stress when he returned home. American Sniper landed on a cultural fault line with some calling the movie war propaganda and others praising it as a tribute to the troops. Just enough time has passed to comment on the movie without the social media rancor and with the arrival of Memorial Day (and the release of the film on home video) it's worth trying to parse out the complicated relationship between this film and reality and its value as a motion picture.

Any attempt to disparage American Sniper's cinematic merits is disingenuous. American Sniper is one of the most visceral war films since Black Hawk Down and the climactic battle in which American soldiers must hold off insurgents amid a sandstorm is one of the best action sequences in the recent history of combat pictures. American Sniper is also accomplished in its dramatic moments. The depiction of post-traumatic stress gives the film an unexpected emotional impact and Bradley Cooper's performance as Chris Kyle has been universally praised.

So why the controversy? Part of the problem is rooted in the source material. It is known that Chris Kyle fabricated stories about himself. This is beyond dispute. Specifically, Kyle lied about shooting looters in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and he fabricated an incident in which he punched former Minnesota governor (and fellow military veteran) Jesse Ventura in the face during a bar brawl. Ventura sued for defamation and won, which was a surprise given the difficulty of proving defamation in court.

That Chris Kyle went about embellishing his official life story presents the filmmakers of American Sniper with a compelling problem: is it possible for someone to simultaneously be a war hero and a liar?  Imagine what a filmmaker of Eastwood's considerable skill could have done with that question. But instead of seizing the opportunity, Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall took the easy way out and ignored Kyle's lies, omitting the disputed episodes from the film. But, as Amy Nicholson points out, "When a film erases the fact that its subject was a fabricator, then that itself is a lie."

This leads to another problem with American Sniper. The filmmakers have fundamentally changed the character of Chris Kyle. It is one thing to alter immaterial details for narrative expediency or dramatic necessity. (The historical inaccuracies in Selma are an example of filmmakers operating well within the boundaries of dramatic license.) It is quite another to distort the subject into something that he never was.

The Chris Kyle portrayed in the movie American Sniper is a guy who joined the military in response to the September 11th attack. He is a humble man who only seeks to do the right thing and he agonizes over the lives he has taken. This is not the way Kyle described himself in his memoir. According to his own account, Kyle joined the armed forces to prove he was up to the challenge. He also wasn't torn up by what he did in Iraq. The book includes numerous passages in which Kyle beams about his kills, wishes he had killed more, and says that if it weren't for his family he would still be in battle.

The goal of a dramatization is not to recreate a person or an event with every nuance and detail. A drama is intended to create an impression of a person or an event. It's a qualitative approach, one that frequently drives historians nuts. In the case of American Sniper, the changes to Kyle's demeanor and the omission of his fibs distort our impression of what kind of a man he was. That makes American Sniper at least misleading if not outright dishonest.

So why would Eastwood do this? The answer may be found in the director's roots in westerns. American Sniper lends itself to that genre. Before joining the military, Chris Kyle was a cowboy and while in Iraq he lived out a Wild West fantasy. The Iraq of American Sniper is a lawless desert town populated by non-white people who Kyle refers to as "savages," not unlike the depiction of Native Americans in classic westerns; here the scalping knife has been replaced by a power drill. In one of the film's major departures from the book, Kyle and his allies are preyed upon by a villainous insurgent sniper who, just like the classic western television shows, dresses in black and threatens caravans that our hero must defend.

One of the last great westerns by the one of the greatest directors of the genre was John Ford's The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. The movie concerns a man (played by Jimmy Stewart) who has enjoyed a life of fame and fortune since shooting an infamous criminal. When it's revealed who actually fired the fatal shot, a newspaper reporter refuses to publish the facts. "This is the West, sir," he says. "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

In telling Kyle's story, Eastwood followed the Liberty Valance rule. American Sniper is pure mythmaking and in many respects the film completes the task that Chris Kyle started. In the book, Kyle recalls his fellow soldiers referring to him as "legend." (In fact, the Forged website sells Chris Kyle merchandise and apparel with the word "legend" on it.) Kyle's lies weren't fabricated for their own sake. Rather, they were about elevating his legendary status so that it would stand alongside the western characters played by John Wayne, Gary Cooper, and (of course) Clint Eastwood.

Legends are, by their very nature, larger than life. Exaggeration in legendary stories is not only expected, it is inescapable. And when real life figures are mythologized they become two dimensional. They have width and height but they do not have depth. That leaves no room for doubt or self-examination.

This is one of several ironies about American Sniper. Based on the content of his memoir, the real Chris Kyle did not possess the intellectual capacity for self-reflection. He was a very skilled triggerman but he was unable to ask why he was in Iraq and uninterested in the answer. (In that way Kyle is an appropriate symbol for a war initiated by fellow Texan George W. Bush, a man who was also incapable of sophisticated thinking.) However, the cinematic incarnation of Chris Kyle does have some degree of psychological depth. His post-traumatic stress is inconsistent with the mythological character that Kyle sought to create for himself nor is it compatible with the history of the stoic western hero. Try to imagine the grizzled characters played by John Wayne and Chuck Norris suffering from PTSD. It just isn't conceivable. Because of that psychological depth, the movie American Sniper is not quite the piece of war propaganda that many of its detractors insist that it is. Acknowledging PTSD is to acknowledge the morally complex nature of warfare and that is inconsistent with war propaganda, which always seeks to simplify the conflict.

As a legend and as a symbol, Chris Kyle and American Sniper have been coopted by various groups attempting to use him and the film as a prop to support political and ideological positions. This has only served to further distort the matter. A lot of those writing about the film, whether positively or negatively, do so on the basis that the motion picture is a representation of reality. Memes have circulated in social media juxtaposing the image of the real life Chris Kyle with the film's detractors, such as Michael Moore, usually calling the former a hero and the latter a loser. These memes exemplify the problems with the debate around this film.

American Sniper has been a tremendous success in part because of the controversy around it but also because it reimagined Chris Kyle as exactly the kind of figure that many Americans yearn for: a classic western hero who embodies America's imperial power. The character on the movie screen represents two things: the patriotism, self-sacrifice, and competency we admire about the troops but also a belief in the rightness of the Iraq mission. Those two things have gotten flung together and so the fight over American Sniper has involved critics, politicians, and bloggers criticizing or defending the mission by attacking or defending Chris Kyle and then confusing the fictionalized movie version of him with who he was in real life.

When it is all said and done, American Sniper did not tell us very much about the Iraq conflict nor did it really tell us anything about Chris Kyle so as a piece of historical filmmaking the movie is a failure. But American Sniper does have value for aesthetic reasons and as a depiction of post-traumatic stress disorder. Just as Coming Home helped to dramatize the experience of returning from Vietnam, the home front portions of American Sniper playout the struggles of American service people transitioning to civilian life. That is the value of the content of the movie. The conflict around American Sniper has been pretty empty and it never really reached a conclusion in part because it was unclear just what we were all arguing about. But the confusion over what American Sniper means will make the movie a defining cinematic artifact of these partisan times.

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