True story or terrifying propaganda?
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Jason Hall
Starring Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller
Synopsis: Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle’s pinpoint accuracy saves countless lives on the battlefield and turns him into a legend. Back home to his wife and kids after four tours of duty, however, Chris finds that it is the war he can’t leave behind.
If you follow the world of film you have no doubt come across reviews, tweets and/or blog posts about American Sniper. They probably vary from “Chris Kyle was a murderous racist and this film is horrible because of it!” to “As a male if you watched American Sniper and you weren’t inspired to kill some sandn*ggers then you might as well have a vagina.” (an actual tweet, sadly…) However, these extremes, as extremes tend to be, are both wrong in their own ways.
Before seeing the film you probably have your own ideas and opinions regarding the war in Iraq, Islam and the US of A – but at the very least I find it hard to believe that Twitter user “Freedom Isn’t Free” went into this film with an open mind towards being swayed one way or another about his beliefs. Although it’s obviously shown from the perspective of the US military (effectively rendering them “the good guys”) American Sniper doesn’t feel like a total glorification of war. Chris Kyle goes from cocky cowboy to emotionally damaged killing machine after one tour to Iraq and at no point does it feel like his mantra of protecting his country is anything more than a justification of his own actions.
Keep in mind that this is written by a European who lives on an island that hasn’t seen any real conflict since Vikings fought each other with rusty swords and axes, so my view of war and patriotism has not received the Fox News treatment. If your views have in fact been “Foxed” (patent pending) you might get teary eyed when the film cuts to news footage of Americans mourning the loss of their most prolific sniper. Others, however, might see it as an ironic gesture in light of what goes before it; a story of war destroying the lives of everyone involved. Some of what has been criticised about the film regarding tolerance is simply a believable representation of soldiers’ coping mechanisms (dehumanizing the enemy, calling them “savages”, simplifying war to “good and evil” etc.) but that’s not to say its critics are wrong; far from it. Before we delve into that abyss let’s shortly look at the film itself as simply that: a film.
American Sniper is, from a film making standpoint, a fine war film. Great cinematography, good acting and interesting pacing – breaking up scenes of conflict with his R&R time back home helps give perspective on his emotional transformation – lend the film plenty of reason to applaud it, but perhaps not to the point of being Oscar material. Bradley Cooper lends his charm to Chris Kyle and portrays him as a man damaged by war; a relatable hero tormented by the choices he has to make in times of war. Hell, even some people in Iraq feel for him and this is exactly where it fails.
Despite not feeling like the film itself puts a lot of effort into vilifying Arabs, we’re talking about an adaptation of the autobiography of a man deified for his mass murder of Muslims. Is that not going to fan the flames of the already rampant Islamophobia in the western world? Although “Foxed” people will probably latch onto scenes like the one where a Muslim man kills a child in front of its family, it’s worth mentioning that Chris Kyle kills the exact same number of children as his first big villain, The Butcher. Also, even though Kyle is portrayed as a bit of a dick on several occasions – such as when he talks to the sheikh (“Look at me when you talk to me although we’re communicating via a translator” – Chris Kyle missing the point), it doesn’t come close to the real nature of Chris “The Legend” Kyle.
Deviating from the source material in adaptations is all well and good, but when your source material is real life and not just fantasy it‘s easy to get stuck in a landslide in your attempted escape from reality. In this case it’s not merely changing small scenarios or messing with the timeline but completely changing the character of Chris Kyle. If you read excerpts at random from his autobiography you’re likely to come across one of three things: blatant racism, happy recollections of killing “savages”, or animal cruelty. Don’t believe me? Take a look - he even says his only regret is not killing more of them. Attempting to rewrite history in this way has a name and that name is propaganda. The sooner everyone realises that, the better. It’s a dangerous and offensive take on actual events that tore an entire country apart.
A more minor deviation but still worth mentioning is the fact that Chris Kyle, a man known to boast about his numerous kills, openly admitted that Mustafa was not one of them. However the film changes that one moment of humility in favour of the all-American-bible-carrying cowboy getting a slow-motion revenge-shot to avenge his fallen brothers in arms.
In the end it’s difficult to give a film like American Sniper a score, do you rank it purely as a film meant as entertainment? If so it probably deserves a pretty decent score but having said that it’s hard to deny the horrible implications such propaganda brings with it. As a “true story” it truly gets a failing grade. “But the Iraq war really happened!” I hear you crying. Well this isn’t the story of the war in Iraq; it’s the story of Chris Kyle. It’s his story except embellished to the point that he seems relatable, maybe even charming when his own autobiography paints him as a despicable man.
I feel forced to give it a 50% as it is kind of a coin toss. If you’re able to watch it without feeling sick, knowing what the actual man was like, go ahead and enjoy Clint Eastwood’s take on the war. On the other hand if you know and care about what really happened out there I cannot wholeheartedly recommend it, knowing how awfully wrong it really is.