American Sniper made a lot of money over the weekend – right now it’s projected to clear $105 million, which is a new record for a January wide release. (American Sniper opened in limited release on Christmas Day.) This caught a lot of people by surprise, not because American Sniper made money – it was for sure going to do well – but just that it made this much money during a time that movies usually don’t make a lot of money. Lone Survivor, a similarly themed – yet not as well-made – film from a year ago grossed $38 million, which is about what most people assumed Sniper would pull in. Instead, it made the kind of money that is usually reserved for superhero movies. This is kind of remarkable.
Because of the success of American Sniper, a debate is currently raging across social media (as these things tend to do) about the accuracy of Chris Kyle’s portrayal. Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper tells the story of Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper), who, during the Iraq War, was credited with 160 confirmed sniper kills (though, there seems to be some questions about if this number should be higher or lower). After returning to the United States, Kyle made some disturbing claims – examples include Kyle stating he shot looters during Hurricane Katrina and, in a separate event, that he killed two people who were trying to steal his truck; neither of these claims appear to be true – and was later murdered by a fellow soldier suffering from PTSD. He was also sued for defamation by Jesse Ventura and Kyle’s estate was ordered to pay the former professional wrestler/Minnesota governor $1.8 million. American Sniper doesn’t address Kyle’s claims and glosses over his death.
Selma, the story of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic march through Alabama, went through a similar situation a few weeks ago, and was criticized for its portrayal of President Lyndon B. Johnson. In the film, LBJ is shown balking at MLK’s plans to protest; a depiction that riled up historians who claim Johnson’s role is being diminished. It was a little odd that Selma was receiving so much backlash while Sniper seemingly was getting a pass. Well, it does appear that that American Sniper’s turn in the scorn spotlight has arrived.
Look, I’ve been very adamant that the controversy surrounding Selma’s portrayal of LBJ just felt like a distraction that was taking away from a wonderful film and from the true message of Selma, a message that is as important today as it was 50 years ago. Filmmakers do have a creative license to tell the story that they want to tell, even if that’s in a biopic. So, yes, it would be hypocritical of me to blast Eastwood for leaving out seemingly relevant information about Kyle’s life that Eastwood didn’t want to include in the story Eastwood is telling.
The only real difference for me, personally, is that I think Selma is a truly great piece of filmmaking and I didn’t enjoy American Sniper. I can’t help but think exploring Kyle’s darker behavior – and how the experience of war can lead to this kind of darker behavior – might have made a more interesting movie. But, that’s not the movie that Eastwood wanted to make, so that’s irrelevant. And, commercially, Eastwood’s choices paid off – he made a movie a whole lot of people like.
American Sniper has turned out to be an extremely polarizing movie. (I’ve already had one instance where I found myself in a series of text message apologies after a heated Twitter debate.) It’s morphed from a debate about the movie into a debate about Chris Kyle’s personal character. It really has become “Chris Kyle is a hero” versus “Chris Kyle is a monster” and the whole thing has gotten disturbingly ugly. (Adding to this is that Kyle himself isn’t around anymore to defend himself.)
There are very smart people who have found nuance in American Sniper. And, yes, there are some pretty vile things floating around the Internet in support of American Sniper – basically screenshots of tweets with racist and violent sentiments that I won’t repeat here. And, yes, this is disturbing, but these kind of people exist on every topic. If you do a social media search during any big sporting event, you can find some terrible things of you go looking for them. The lowest common denominator will always exist.
I have never been in a position where someone else is trying to kill me. I am grateful for this. My grandfather would never talk to me about his World War II service. (I once asked him if he wanted to watch Saving Private Ryan with me and he refused.) To this day, my uncle will not discuss his time in Vietnam. It’s impossible for a situation like that to not change a person. Kyle’s book (which the movie is based upon) has been quoted in which he refers to Iraqis as “savages.” No, this is not good. And, yes, it’s easy and right to say, “he shouldn’t have done that.” But it’s really hard for me to judge the mindset of someone who lived through his experience, and I think exploring how war does this to a person – how and why it makes a person think this way – is a worthwhile subject. I believe this ugly “debate” is happening because Eastwood failed to address it in the movie, so each side is posturing. To call Kyle a hero who did no wrong is as preposterous as Michael Moore alluding that Kyle is a “coward.” (Moore is now saying he didn’t do that.)
Like everything, the answer is probably somewhere in the middle. Kyle is a guy who volunteered for the military, a noble act, then fought in an ugly war and came back very damaged. This doesn’t necessarily make him anything, except human. It’s just disappointing that American Sniper didn’t fully explore his humanity.
Mike Ryan has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and GQ. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.