When getting ready to see American Sniper, it could have been difficult for me if I had allowed all the buzz from pundits and critics (online and otherwise) who had already staked their claim regarding the film, the facts, and Chris Kyle (upon whose book the film is based). I consider myself open minded and went in determined to judge the film on its own merits. Unfortunately, many are not willing or able to do that.
Based on what I saw, director Clint Eastwood has crafted a rather painstakingly deep portrait of his interpretation of the character Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper). This is where I feel people make their biggest mistake – thinking the person on screen is a second-by-second depiction of the man known as Chris Kyle in real life. A similar problem recently arose with the film Foxcatcher, where the line between art and reality is blurred by people seeing the film and real persons who may have been depicted in it.
Cooper is an actor playing a character in a fictional version of a true story. That is a qualifier in this and most films that are “based on a true story.” The problem with this is that many viewers immediately start thinking that this is a documentary when it is not. A documentary is a film version of what we like to call non-fiction in writing; however, we should not have any illusions that all documentaries are pure stories unaffected by scripting and editing. The same can be true with non-fiction, or as many writers like to call it these days, “creative” non-fiction. The devil is not only in the details but that creative aspect of the true story.
Getting back to American Sniper, we do not just have people getting upset because of the main character Chris Kyle; we also have those who object to director Eastwood and his film pedigree. Those who look at him and think “Dirty Harry” or “Make my day” or “Do you feel lucky, punk?” are also having issues with separating fact and fiction. The issue here is not that Eastwood directed the film or that Chris Kyle is the subject, but rather is the film any good?
I used to tell my students in literature courses that they can never mistake the “voice” or “point of view” in a story or the speaker of a poem to be the writer or poet. So when we were reading Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” for example, and my students would say something like “Poe said” or “Poe is doing” I would caution them and say, “No, the speaker of the poem is doing that.” Yes, it is a fine line and in people’s minds it gets muddled, but there is that factor to consider. Jake Barnes is not Ernest Hemingway in The Sun Also Rises, no matter how many people believe that he is (based what they know about the story of Hemingway’s life real exploits).
Eastwood is astute at capturing not just the battlefield but the more subtle moments in his version of Kyle’s life that bring home the message that his Kyle, as played by Cooper, is sometimes extremely upset about what he is doing, especially when a little boy and his mother come into the sights of his rifle scope. Cooper’s intensity as Kyle is amazingly realized – we see his angst over having to shoot the child running at soldiers with a weapon – and in the bigger picture we also observe the toll his four tours of duty in Iraq takes on him and his marriage.
This version of American Sniper, which is to say Eastwood’s interpretation, gives us Kyle as a conflicted and flawed individual who loves his wife Taya (a terrific Sienna Miller) and children. We also get a back story regarding Kyle’s childhood, and we see him learning to shoot with his father and also protecting his little brother from a bully. We understand that Kyle has a temper but he also has love for his family, and as he grows he comes to better understand himself and his reaction to others.
Many critics and celebrities have weighed in with negative comments about the film (despite this it has been tops at the box office for the last two weeks), with Michael Moore and Seth Rogen getting the bulk of the recognition for their negative reactions to the film. Of course, everyone has a right to an opinion, but is that based on the film itself or is it because of the real Chris Kyle’s story or the fact that Mr. Eastwood directed the film?
Pablo Picasso famously once said that art is the lie that tells the truth. It is up to us as the viewers of that art – the painting in a museum, the film on screen, the music on our iPods – to discern whether or not the work speaks to us with veracity or rings false. That is why each person can look at a work like Picasso’s Guernica and see many different things. In the end the painting has (for most people) an inescapable anti-war message, but some may not see it that way.
In American Sniper we do not get Eastwood banging the drum of war – far from it. I know the film has been compared to Hurt Locker, and those who saw that film believed it was anti-war and many think American Sniper is pro-war, but it is not. Eastwood goes to great pains to depict the baggage that Kyle carries, the way his work affects his personal life, how Kyle’s friends are wounded or killed, and that the staggering cost of war never seems worth the price paid by those who do the fighting.
The best parts of the film for me are when Kyle comes home to Taya and then later to his children. We get to see his love for them, but his allegiance to the purpose of his mission is never far from his thoughts. This film does not promote war; rather, it rings the bell that tolls for all soldiers who live on borrowed time, even after they leave duty and come home. All is connected to the damage they experience that is physically and mentally debilitating, whether they come home physically wounded or not.
The debate will always rage on regarding films such as American Sniper. In my mind most so-called “war films” are anti-war by the very nature of what is depicted. Films as diverse as Full Metal Jacket, The Red Badge of Courage, and All Quiet on the Western Front tell the horror of war from different perspectives, but always send home the message that war is hell and that glory is more imagined rather than experienced.
American Sniper is a deftly crafted film that shows the journey of its protagonist during the difficult days of the Iraq War and on the home front where little is understood about what soldiers are going through over there. Miller’s Taya Kyle is our qualifier, with her reactions to her husband’s ever changing disposition gauging what’s happening to him and their family. Miller does a fine job of bringing Taya along from a shot drinking girl at the bar to loving wife and mother. She emotionally rescues her husband more than once, and Miller’s performance grounds the film and makes the viewer empathetic to the true cost of war on loved ones who are always innocent and end up getting hurt.
The debate will no doubt never end regarding art and truth, with the line between fiction and reality tattered by those who cannot or will not allow one to exist distinctly divorced form the other. This may not have been the exact story of the real Chris Kyle as some have argued, but it is the tale of the Kyle that Eastwood presents. As it stands, the film is a powerful depiction of the cost of war and its effects on one man and his family.
Cooper’s nuanced and emotional portrayal of Chris Kyle rightly earned him a nomination for the Best Actor Oscar. Perhaps the only thing keeping him from winning it are those who don’t think that art is a lie telling the truth and rather see this film as an art that tells a false story. That’s not only an unfortunate attitude but it could rob Cooper of a much deserved Oscar that he should receive for his performance and not for portraying a version of Kyle that others cannot accept.
Photo credits: ew.com, nypost.com, fatmovieguy.com, collider.com[amazon template=iframe image&asin=0062238868]