“American Sniper” Hits The Mark For Melodrama, But Misses Badly For Veracity


Trash Film Guru

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What is it that makes a hero?

There are probably as many different answers to that question as there are people reading this (in other words, probably a few hundred if my daily wordpress stats are to be believed), but there are some character traits that I think we would all consider to be heroic : willingness to sacrifice oneself for the well-being of others, truthfulness, bravery in the face of overwhelming odds, staying firm in one’s ideals (assuming they’re decent ideals, of course) even when it’s dangerous to do so, etc.

By those standards, then, the “most lethal sniper in U.S. history,” Chris Kyle — who is credited by the Navy with over 160 kills in Iraq, while in his  memoir, American Sniper (upon which, needless to say, Clint Eastwood’s new film is based), he himelf puts the number northwards of 250 — probably meets most people’s definition of what…

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13 responses to ““American Sniper” Hits The Mark For Melodrama, But Misses Badly For Veracity

  1. I try to avoid “biopics”, because I don’t want my perception of the profiled figure(s) to be altered, or worse, formed, by distortions, or worse, fabrications, presented by the filmmakers. I’ve broken my own rule a couple of times recently. I saw “Lincoln” last year, and “The Theory of Everything” just a few weeks ago. I saw the former because it reportedly explored conflicting dynamics with which our arguably greatest president contended that have not been explained well, if at all, in most history courses. I saw the latter because I knew (and perhaps still know, depending on what I choose to believe or verify) so little about Stephen Hawking’s life. These are each extraordinary people, and films that would shed light on how they accomplished the things they did, and the obstacles they faced in the process were tempting, despite my wary view of the sub-genre as a whole.

    As it turned out, “Lincoln” was very well done, and supported my positive impression of the man. But it also presented conversations that could not possibly have been known to have taken place at all, along with their equally unknowable dialogue. Some of these seemed rather unlikely. “The Theory of Everything” was touching and inspirational, with excellent performances from the lead and supporting actors. And, as it turns out, not completely accurate in its representation of actions and events and timelines, which would likely result in the viewer having an inaccurate impression of some of the characters and the nature of their relationships.

    Those types of things are just some of the reasons I (usually) eschew this type of film. Concocted dialogue, simplistic amalgamated representations of communications (i.e. – correspondence that took place over a period of months being represented as a single conversation on a park bench), composite characters, and other concessions to the limitations of the storytelling medium make falsehood – be it well-intended or not – almost inevitable.

    If one’s familiarity with Harry Houdini came exclusively from watching the 1953 biopic (imaginatively titled “Houdini”), they would think the great illusionist and escape artist died as a result of a misadventure during his famous water tank escape. He actually died under fairly controversial (but definitely much different) circumstances. He developed appendicitis, and then peritonitis, which may or may not have been caused by punches to the stomach he had received a few weeks earlier from a college student, who acted before Houdini had been able to adequately prepare himself. Whatever precipitated the ultimately fatal infections, why make up a lie for the film? Was the cinematic version a ‘better” death? More importantly, should it be legal to make up things about a person’s life, or their death? Biopics are not historical fiction. This wasn’t “Abraham Lincoln vs. Zombies”.

    And yet I watched “American Sniper”. I’m not sure why.
    I was not aware of any of the things you’ve cited about Chris Kyle’s own accounting of things. As with the Stephen Hawking film, I am learning of these inaccuracies after viewing, so my perception of both the film and the subject are now changing.

    The film seemed to portray Kyle as a “my country, right or wrong”, or maybe even, “my country can’t be wrong” kind of guy, and I find that kind of perspective troubling, since our country can be and is often very wrong. And that wrongness has gotten many people killed for no damn reason, including many U.S, soldiers. (Of course, most of the people killed were of other countries, making the confusion some Americans seem to have about why so many people in other lands hate us confusing, itself.) Blind faith in ones leaders can. Indeed, get one, and many others, killed.

    But maybe to be an effective soldier, and to be able maintain their mental health, that kind of mindset is necessary. I don’t know. If Kyle really regarded all Iraqis – most of whom were victims caught in the middle – as enemies, and felt no compunction about killing any of them, that says something really bad about him, but maybe something his experiences imposed upon him. Maybe there is a “forest for the trees” sort of perspective that is difficult to transcend under those conditions. Those of us on the sidelines might have a more comprehensive, broad, and nuanced perception of these conflicts because of our access to reporting and analysis from many different sources, and having the luxury of being able to read or hear it from the comfort of our homes. Were we stuck in the circumstances of the soldiers, we may develop feelings similar to theirs.

    If Kyle really shot looters in New Orleans, or wanted that reputation, well, you said it as well as it can be said.

    There is a train of thought that suggests that belligerent jerks make better soldier, at least in some ways (I’m not saying Kyle was such a person. I haven’t read his book. He apparently enjoyed hunting, which is fucked up in its own way, but there are many otherwise nice people who do that.) Soldiers with criminal backgrounds are credited with “heroic” acts – ones involving risk to themselves – disproportionately frequently. And impulsive aggressiveness is probably a more useful trait than hesitant introspection in war. I would be a terrible soldier, for many reasons.

    I don’t know the “truth” about who Chris Kyle was. He had a lot more guts than I, and I appreciate his service, even if it was misdirected by those who made decisions for him and the rest of us. And whatever his reason for making such a claim, I hope he didn’t shoot any U.S. citizens. But I do know viewers shouldn’t have to fact-check films in order to determine how much of the story they should believe.

    I’m going back on the wagon with biopics. I’ll take my fiction straight, from now on, unadulterated by selected truth and partial accuracy.

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    • It’s difficult to judge a film when one has knowledge of the subject matter beforehand. It colors our judgement but it shouldn’t color whether the film succeeds in entertaining (or telling a good story).

      Whether Chris Kyle was a hero or not is a debate that can go on for hours. I think the film has hit quite a divisive chord with audiences because of the baggage such films carry. Not even including Kyle’s own personal baggage into the equation, war films have always been a tough genre for Americans. If one doesn’t like a war film then they must be anti-war and, worst yet, anti-troops. Now the other side of the road if one loves a war film then they must be conservative and pro-war and, to some, baby-killers.

      This is why I don’t plan on reviewing American Sniper. There’s just no way of creating a civil discourse over the merits of the film before name-calling and personal political, philosophical beliefs intrude into the conversation.

      All I can say about American Sniper is that as a piece of filmmaking it succeeds in giving the audience a glimpse at the life of a particular soldier and the unique skill-set he has become adept in. This is not the first film about snipers and it won’t be, but it is the first the sort of brings us into the mindset of what makes a sniper.

      For some the very belligerence that Kyle has been known for adds to what makes him good at what he does. Others it’s that belligerence that takes away the very thing that keeps one human. Soldiering is not an easy job and for some the need to strip away the very humanity that keeps one decent is the only way to survive in such an environment.

      The film fails in how it tells Kyle’s story back home. There’s no getting around it and I’m not even going to mention the baby for enough reviewers have mentioned it enough times that it’s gotten it’s own hashtag on twitter more than once.

      As someone who admires (warts and all) the military culture (my family and extended family has had a long-history of being in the military both in the Philippines and in the US), I have a different perspective on how I see them. For all that I know of, none of my relatives were bloodthirsty killers who joined up to kill people. Their reasoning for joining up are simple: serve to protect their home and adopted country, earn benefits to go to college and, for some, continue the family business, so to speak.

      This is why I tend to give war films or films about the military with a bit more of a biased eye. I try to avoid writing reviews about biopics that involve the military just because of that, but will take exceptions when the subject matter deals more with a historical take on the subject (Band of Brothers, The Pacific, Saving Private Ryan — to an extent for the latter).

      I’m surprised as any that American Sniper did as well as it has, but then again the autobiography it was based on has done quite well and should do even better now that the film has come out. This is a film that’s all about modern mythmaking and for some people that strikes a negative chord.

      People I know who are veterans of the same war Kyle fought in respect his accomplishments, but also understand that the very demons he brought with him into Iraq and back Stateside has some validity to it. Whether it’s due to PTSD or Kyle’s very own personal beliefs we will never truly know. Those on the left will think the worse of Kyle while those on the right will continue to lionize the man.

      I honestly can’t say I subscribe to either side and for some that may sound cowardly. All I can say is it’s that very “you’re either on my side or you’re not” mentality on both side of the philosophical discussion about this film, war films and the military in general that keeps me balanced in the middle which gets lonelier and lonelier.

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      • You’ve given us lots to think about there, my friend! I Will say this much — to the extent that this review has garnered much discussion, it’s been pretty level-headed and respectful so far, let’s hope it remains that way.

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        • Oh, I think it will remain so. I think trolls tend to stay away from the site lest they feel the wrath of the redheaded one.

          I think the discussion in general about the film has been civil and actually look to try and dissect the film’s flaws in addition to it’s merits (ie baby and depiction of a life as a sniper), but as social media has shown the lunatic fringe on both sides tend to shout the loudest: Michael Moore calling snipers cowards then qualifying his tweet with the excuse that his uncle was killed by one in WWII and he was brought up to think of them as such. To those who seem to have gone into hero-worship when it comes to Kyle literally threatening anyone who disagrees with the film or dares to bring up the skeletons in his closet.

          On the Moore comment, I think it’s people like him who does give liberals a bad name when it comes to the public’s perception of liberals when it comes to the military. It goes all the way back to when Jane Fonda posed with an anti-aircraft gun outside of Hanoi during a tour of North Vietnam. Even to this day Vietnam veterans have made sure she never forgets what she did. I, for one, don’t blame them. It’s ok to doubt our politicians’ agenda when it comes to sending troops off to fight. The troops themselves don’t have a choice in the matter especially in that era. Now, they have a choice of whether to sign the papers to enlist. When one enlists they’re told that at anytime they might be sent off to war to fight and kill. It’s a choice.

          I do believe that liberals admire and are thankful of the men and women in the military as much as conservatives. These are individuals who volunteer to uproot their lives when the time comes. Most do so willingly and think nothing of the sacrifices they make, but I do understand why military people tend to skew towards the right as they’ve seen time and time again how the loudest and most irrational voices on the left see them as either pawns whose lives are wasted and/or the good old babykillers.

          The right are not exempt from that, especially those of the fundamentalist and extreme libertarian persuasion who sees the military as just an extension of the very corrupt government they seek to thrown down. Like I said, it’s both sides of the aisles and it’s the people least qualified to give an educated opinion that the general public hears about.

          A public that’s gotten more and more divisive when it comes to how we as Americans are suppose to see the nation. You’re either Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, socialist progressive or Tea Party. There’s no more middle ground and this has seeped into our entertainment when the military is the subject matter. I understand that war films and those that focus on the military are not for everyone. All genres of films are not for everyone. I know people who love to watch films but can’t stand horror or can’t deal with comedies. It’s a personal taste yet the sort of rancor we get when it comes to liking or not liking military-themed films rarely exists within other film genres. The fact that there are some who support American Sniper have gone to insulting and/or threatening critics and reviewers who give less than glowing reviews of the film (news flash people, maybe the film wasn’t great, but just good) tells me that some people have definitely drunk the Kool-Aid of whichever demagogue they’ve chosen to listen to and follow.

          It’s not just in the US, mind you. I see the same thing happening everywhere that the freedom to speak one’s mind is a basic right. Too many people nowadays equate freedom of speech as freedom to say anything without consequence. I see both lunatic fringes on the either side with this way of thinking way too much and to our society’s detriment the general public are stuck having them as our spokepersons instead of more rational, level-headed individuals who outnumber them, but who may not have the stomach for the limelight to speak out.

          I actually regret that Spielberg pulled out of American Sniper early in the production. From what I’ve heard of the initial script for his version of the film it would’ve focused more on Chris Kyle’s time in Iraq and hunting down an enemy sniper rather than go back and forth between the war front and home front. Eastwood has never been a proponent of war, but he has always been a major supporter of the military which at times comes off as pro-war when he tries to tackles the subject matter. For one to say he’s pro-war just need to watch his Iwo Jima duology, Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, to see that he sees war as something hellish and dehumanizing, but also something that bonds the men who fight it that some mistake as glorifying it. Spielberg does this as well, but he tends to sentimentalize the subject matter (beginning and end of Saving Private Ryan being a prime example).

          American Sniper is now in the public’s consciousness and those thinking it’ll be just a fluke event should realize that we’re now in that time period when enough years have passed between 9/11 and the military responses which came because of it to have more and more films about people and events of those wars. I think this conversation has just begun and here’s to hoping cooler heads prevail, but with the internet being the biggest format by which people discuss serious topics part of me believe that things will get worse before they get better.

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          • I think viewed at purely as a war film without all the hubub surrounding it, “American Sniper” is — okay. Better than average, not great. Solidly involving, but not tremendously memorable. In terms of the hubub itself, I may be a socialist, but I’m also a realist. I know that enlisting in the military is often the only realistic option for kids from economically depressed rural and urban areas (the suburbs are, and always have been, under-represented in the ranks of the enlisted). I think that’s a shame and that kids should have more options, and while I don’t think there’s anything “wrong” with serving the military by any means, it’s not inherently “right” either — it just depends on what purposes our troops are put to. If you’ve got an imminent threat to deal with, then by all means, war is ugly but needs must when the devil drives. But I don’t personally view Iraq, or even Afghanistan, as necessary wars in the least and think it’s a damn shame that the lives of our young people are put on the line in order to advance the interests of corporate America. I realize most people view the so-called “war on terrorism” quite differently. and those outside view on either side are what seems to be shaping the debate over this film. Maybe it’s not “fair” to Eastwood and his cast to have those other issues brought into the discussion, but what the heck — at the end of the day the controversy is good for business and they’re all making millions, anyway, so I think they can deal with it. Meanwhile, all the controversy ignores the central question I was asking — that of why, regardless of whether or not a person considers Chris Kyle to be a hero (and I should think it’s relatively clear which side I fall on in that argument), the need even exists to make him one on the first place.

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          • I think Kyle in the end is a flawed hero. He’s not what his supporters wish him to be and that’s to be this Great American Hero who was all about God and Country. I don’t agree with what he has said about every Iraqi he came across in general terms. Part of me believe it’s still a visceral reaction that most Americans still get due to 9/11. I do respect his dedication to doing his job in-country in order to save the lives of other soldiers he was tasked with protecting.

            From what I’ve learned speaking to relatives who have been in combat the concepts such as racism, sexism or classicism tend to fall by the wayside when the bullets begin to fly. It’s like the saying goes, “There are no atheists in foxholes.” Do we have soldiers who are racists, misogynists and a whole spectrum of all the flaws humanity has. I would definitely say yes, but I’ve gathered that for the majority of these people they understand that its some of these very people who they have to depend on to come back alive.

            It’s neither a right or wrong thing. I can’t fathom the sort of stress and fear military people go through when in combat. Those who are not have the luxury to think about philosophical ideas and concepts in the safety of one’s home and surroundings. I think this is why it seems like a majority of those defending the film either have been in combat or know well those who have been. Then again most of its defenders still manages to be sane, if a bit abrupt in their delivery. It’s the real zealots who tend to dominate social media and part of it is not even defending Chris Kyle or the film as the primary agenda but to forward their own (whether its “I Hate Obama”, Muslims are all killers, Liberals are traitors, etc…). It’s these piggybackers who get the press and airtime. They get retweeted and start hateful trending topics. The same goes for those on the left side of the debate.

            One thing the film did get correct was one of the reactions Kyle had seeing the news reports about the 9/11 bombings. I know several friends (friends of brother, as well) who enlisted within weeks of the Twin Towers collapsing. They believed what they were doing was the right thing. Whether their civilian leaders were doing the right thing was secondary. They understood the risk and were willing to do it anyway. It’s by luck that no one I know personally has been killed in either Iraq or Afghanistan, but even despite the danger they were put in they wouldn’t second-guess their decision to enlist.

            Eastwood wasn’t able to explore that very theme of self-sacrifice in a way that the general public could understand. He did explore it in a way in how Kyle’s very own personality becomes almost robotic and focused to a laser-point when he was in combat. Did Kyle willingly sacrifice what made him a decent man that the love of his life decided to marry him and stay with him through his difficult transition into civilian life? We’ll never know and I think part of that is due to Kyle’s own brand of mythmaking. He did try to make himself bigger than what he already was (and got him in trouble with Ventura).

            IF the film really struggled with was how to juggle both the warfront and homefront side of Kyle’s life once he became a Navy SEAL. The film’s narrative became too by-the-book. I believe part of it was due to Eastwood coming in after Spielberg had left and the script wasn’t developed in the way to fix that problem. Spileberg’s vision and version of the script barely had the homefront in the film, but just a two-hour film pitting Kyle vs. Mustafa. A sort of modern-day version of “Enemy at the Gates” which in itself was based on the true-life story of another celebrated and accomplished sniper, Vasily Zaitsev.

            But getting back to your question about whether Kyle was a hero. It’s a question that doesn’t really have a straight yes or no answer. His exploits and accomplishments as a sniper would make him a hero with the very men and women he served with despite his racists views and shortcomings. His racists views on the Iraqis and reactions to the looting during Katrina would make him a villain with some no matter how many soldiers whose life he saved by performing the task he was skilled at.

            I go back to the term of flawed hero. I thin most soldiers who earn accolades in war are flawed heroes. In order to do what we deem heroic in battle while facing death at every given moment they must do acts which we as civilians would deem barbaric and uncivilized. We ask these men and women who volunteer to do a job we can’t see ourselves doing, but in doing this very job up to and past the last full measure of devotion to their comrades-in-arms they distance themselves from the very populace they wish to protect.

            It’s that very distancing that social media has magnified when it comes to debating not just American Sniper, Chris Kyle and war films, in general. People who support them don’t want to make the same mistakes made by their parents and grandparents who literally spit on returning soldiers from Vietnam and called them every awful labels one could think of. People want to be seen as supporting the men and women in uniform (though some people still seem to think women don’t deserve that same respect) unconditionally. Those who support these very same men and women, but who are willing to point out the ugliness in the situation don’t seem to understand, or unwilling to, why some supporters react in such a visceral manner to anything seen as a criticism.

            One side only wants to see Chris Kyle as a great hero while the other side too eager to point out the man’s shortcomings and flaws. The film fails to explore the man in a complex manner and this is why we’re having such a difficult time discussing the topic of Chris Kyle and American Sniper.

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          • Good points there, I guess my biggest question still remains with the whole idea of why he has to be considered a hero by anybody in the first place, and why we, as a society, ever see the idea of killing 160 (or 250) people as ever being heroic. The best argument I can see, and frankly one that most veterans who have killed in combat, take is that it’s a regrettable necessity. If you were to ask most veterans of Iraq, Afghanistan, heck even Viet Nam, if they felt bad out the fact that they killed people in combat, they’d tell you that yes, they did. Some might say they had no choice, and that could very well be true, but the veteran who openly brags about his kill count is a rare thing to find. Kyle definitely does that it in his book, yet Eastwood chooses to portray him as at least somewhat regretful, thus making him a more sympathetic figure in the film than he probably was in reality. It seems that disconnect is a fair point to bring up and an important issue to tackle, but the film is buried under such a rhetorical wave from all sides now that crucial issues about the movie itself, rather than the politics around it, are being drowned out by all the extraneous noise.

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          • That’s dilemma that people who admire and support Kyle have to deal with. His very need to write a book about his exploits and how he was ok with each and every kill he made doesn’t make him a the great American hero many try to portray him as. Yet, whether he relished the kills or justified them as a necessity in order to save lives doesn’t diminish the accomplishment for those who have been saved by his actions.

            I’ve read the book and yes he does brag about his kill count and that seems to come from the mentality of special operators who acknowledges that they’re a rare and different breed from other soldiers. It’s a mentality that those who serve in special forces tend to exaggerate as a form of bonding amongst their own special fraternity of warriors. The book also makes it a point that while he did brag about his kills he did see them as a necessity. For every enemy he killed soldiers lived that day. It’s a reason why he couldn’t transition back to civilian life so easily as others have done. He developed a sort of savior complex in that whenever he saw, read of heard news reports of soldiers dying due to enemy snipers and ambushes he felt like he failed them by being back home instead of back in Iraq.

            The book doesn’t dwell too much on this very subject about Kyle since he brushed them off to get back to showing how much he tried to live up to the title of Legend that soldiers had tagged him with. Again, it’s the mythmaking in how Kyle wanted his autobiography to come off as. Most special operators like him in the past never wrote about their exploits but then they grew up in a different world where social media and the need by the public to know who these special operations warriors were and how they worked during the war. He fed that need and in doing so does come off as a braggart and, most likely, exaggerated some of his exploits. But no one can dispute his kill count of 160 since the Dept. of Defense have confirmed it as official.

            Eastwood must’ve seen something in the book, especially in the earlier draft that Spielberg was going to work with, to show some of that regret. It was regret that gradually diminished through time as Kyle got more and more used to what he was suppose to do and he saw the results of it.

            I don’t see Kyle as sympathetic at all, but a creation of a world that was prime to take the fight to the enemy after 9/11. That mentality still exists today every time a terror attack makes the headlines. With Twitter, Facebook and other social media options that message has just gotten louder and louder and those who speak loudest will try to latch onto anyone to call hero and prop up as the prime example of how we should be.

            I’m actually surprised that Kyle was able to write quite a bit about his exploits in his book considering how people in the special operations community frowns upon such grandstanding. It helps to have Jesse Ventura become the bad guy in the Chris Kyle narrative. Sometimes people pick the lesser of two braggarts.

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          • Yeah, there’s no doubt that Jesse is as much of a loudmouth as Kyle — fortunately for him, the facts of what Ky;e was alleging were so far-fetched that almost no one would buy them, including the jury. Jesse said some wild things in his time as governor here in Minnesota — my personal favorite was the time he was asked by some hunting and fishing group about some license fees he was going to raise (Jesse made it clear early on that he had no respect for people who hunted animals for sport, so the hunting and fishing groups in the state always hated his guts) “until you’ve hunted man, you haven’t hunted yet” —but the idea that he’d tell a bar room full of Navy SEALs who were all drinking that he was glad so many of them got killed in Iraq is just plain ludicrous.

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