‘American Sniper’: based on a ‘true story’

glenn criddle | cynical celluloid | march 2015

The truth is a tricky thing; the very word 'truth' can mean different things in different situations. There are artistic truths, spiritual truths, philosophical truths, subjective and objective truths amongst others depending on the context. Postmodernism as a philosophical pursuit certainly goes some way to illustrating the muddiness of interpretation and telling of stories, which is why I always eye with healthy scepticism anything with claims of truth. Film history is filled with works bearing the phrase 'Based on a true story' or the even more self-assured 'This story is true,' it's something that is designed to lend weight to a subject, to lend it gravitas and make us, the audience, take it seriously.

From the inane reality TV shows and the dubious mondo films of the '60s, '70s and early '80s though the astounding marketing of “The Blair Witch Project" and the credibility pleading of Michael Bay's “Pain and Gain," movies have taken liberties with the 'truth' to varying degrees, often claiming artistic truth when inconsistencies with reality or indeed a total absence of factual basis are pointed out.

How important the truth in any given circumstance is, of course, dependent on the subject matter in question. Some old exploitation film that claims the story about the restless natives is based on a true story or “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre" films claim “this actually happened" is less important than when a story is addressing actual historical events, say for instance “U571." The film, which claims to be based on historical events, changes the key figures around, replacing the British destroyer crew for an American one so as to play better to the home crowd. Taking artistic license with important events is, in my opinion, problematic when key facts are tinkered with because as convenient as they may be for the drama at hand, it can often be deeply disrespectful. Take James Cameron's “Titanic" for instance, which defamed several crewmembers that were in actual fact heroes rather than the killers they were portrayed as in the film. Or the previously mentioned “Pain and Gain" that has the anti-heroes presented as lovable rogues rather than the vicious torturers they actually were, while presenting the victim as being someone who had it coming. Bay does have a history of mangling the facts in films based on real events and like so many others, has a tendency to dismiss these criticisms by claiming artistic licence. It's an excuse that seems trite and dishonest when the film borrows actual identities of people and presents them in a very specific, often inaccurate light and in full public view.

So ... “American Sniper." From the off, this is extremely divisive subject matter and one where I am unusually aware of what I'm saying. Depending on where you stand in American politics, Chris Kyle represents one thing or another: the all-American hero and patriot, or the epitome of what's wrong with American self image. The truth is undoubtedly somewhere in between. I've talked in the past about the narrator in films being the voice of the film, rather than being a literal narrator, as in the voice over kind and the book of “American Sniper" is very much Chris Kyle's voice. It's a curious mix of stories of reconciling normal life with the extreme opposite of being in a combat zone, pride and arrogance and of doing an extraordinary job but notably not really understanding, or maybe that should be acknowledging, what he was involved in other than in a technical sense (which he was apparently very good at). His view of his enemy is perhaps more understandable considering his job was in the thick of it. If you're going to kill people, it's best not to be distracting yourself with nuanced views on your targets. With our luxury of more distance, Kyle's opinions on the enemy seem, shall we say, limited. Suffice to say the book is one to elicit extreme reactions with its God, guns and gung-ho overtones. It's interesting, though questionable, particularly given Kyle's reported tendencies to exaggerate or concoct stories. He has been described as self-aggrandizing and that's not an unfair description even if you're happy to believe everything he reports, particularly when he himself tacitly acknowledges this possibility at the very beginning of his book.

The film, however, is an odd affair. Where the book is Kyle's voice, the film certainly isn't, at least not entirely or not as it is in his written words. Where the dehumanising of the Iraqi's is active in the book, in the film it's simply that they're just ignored as characters. In all respects other than they're out to kill, there's not really any attempt to make them anything more than shooting targets, animated pop up targets on a country sized shooting range. I say characters quite deliberately. This film is not a faithful retelling of the book; it is clearly a drama. The book, as it is, is desperately episodic, interspersed with pages of love letters to weaponry, lightweight passages of home life that avoid anything difficult for the most part, and lots of Kyle's desire to get back to the fighting and killing which he clearly loves. Eastwood ditched the military hardware details for obvious reasons, you don't need an NRA weapon of the month skit in the middle of a drama after all, but the rest of the film does also feel rather episodic. Unlike in the book, Kyle has a character arc here as we revisit him at various points in his career and peek into his home life in its sporadic highlights. The drama is what makes this different to the book, whether it be the dramatic retelling and reassembling of the events to make them cinematic or the characterisation of Kyle, which is far more emotional than the book lets on. It has a dual effect on the story. Firstly, Eastwood allows Kyle far more humanity than is suggested in the book, where he enjoys the killing more overtly. In the movie, Kyle is allowed more scope for reaction and reflection to his deeds, he is seen struggling with the things he's doing and his reintegration into society is seen to be at least a little tricky. Secondly, it takes the story further away from its already questionable 'truth.' This is actually the most interesting point, as the film has been described by some as being propaganda, a rather debatable assessment. Eastwood himself describes the film as being anti war and I would agree that intent is in there, particularly considering the departures it takes from the source material.

However, the problems of the subject matter, how it's handled and its reception can be boiled down to one thing, Eastwood should probably not have taken the biopic approach. Chris Kyle, love him or hate him, is a man who carries an awful lot of baggage. If you hate him then he's a murdering liar with a black heart full of hate and a lot of blood on his hands. If you love him then he's a man who epitomises the truly dedicated American soldier, highly skilled, protective of his country and colleagues and committed to his duty. Either approach to his character does him a disservice. The truth is never as clear-cut as was demonstrated in the subsequent revelations about the case for war in the first place.

Kyle strikes me as a man who has had to justify to himself, in the face of contrary evidence, why he did what he did. His story is one of minutia, one man's war as he experienced it and told in a way that allows him to be the justified hero and for him not to have been involved in a bloody big mistake (and I'm being supremely charitable here) made by politicians who would not see the front lines from a position that men like Kyle would. It also almost entirely ignores the bigger picture. Eastwood, for his part, has tried to inject nuance into a story that has next to none in its original form and in choosing such a polemic figure he waded into political territory that won't allow it. Like Kyle himself says of himself in the book, “It's pretty much black and white, I don't see too much grey," such is the political landscape in the US particularly.

Based on a true story? ... “American Sniper" runs like the films I mentioned earlier, it has one foot based in fact and carries the air of reportage but it is a contrivance. It's a dramatic piece of work that take liberties with the truth it bases itself in, it's an artistic/subjective 'truth,' unjustifiably lent the weight of being tied down to reality and that misrepresentation can be problematic when it comes to topics as immediate as this is. It is also particularly insensitive considering the background of the more disturbing activity in the conflict.

Cinema's uncomfortable relationship with the truth is nothing new and whatever the motivations behind the film “American Sniper," for now, it simply seems to amplify the worst in everyone, liberal or conservative. Maybe in time, when an appropriate emotional distance is achieved, it'll be re-evaluated and be seen more clearly for what it is, good or bad. Either way it's not a documentary, it's only a movie ... only a movie ... only a movie.

He's British so forgive the extra U's and the use of the letter S instead of Z. If there's one thing that typifies Glenn's writing it's the 'Video Nasties,' a long list of movies that offended all and sunder during the 1980s in the UK. It's those seemingly offensive fringes of cinema that informed his writing on cinema and the more political area of censorship with a more sympathetic approach to those films that push the limits of taste. But don't worry, he does talk about normal stuff too and isn't likely to go off on a horror movie fuelled rampage.

For more of Glenn's work, visit his Youtube channel under the name lampyman101.

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