‘American Sniper’ and the Problem of Adapting Memoir

American SniperBy Antoinette Weil

As American Sniper settles into the throne of top-grossing war movie of all time, the controversy surrounding the film has yet to cease. Cries of “pro-war” and “anti-war” have been hurled across the aisle by viewers with very strong and very different opinions. This sharp divide in attitudes speaks to the strength of individual perceptions and just how much our own frameworks shape the messages and meanings we take away from stories. It may be that deeply divisive and chameleon-like quality that makes American Sniper a great film. And the ensuing controversy certainly made me keener on seeing it.

American Sniper is the story of Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper), the US Navy SEAL who came to be the deadliest sniper in American history. Adapted from his memoir of the same name, and directed by Clint Eastwood, it is an intimate look into the war in Iraq and one soldier’s life.

So, does the film “glorify” war? In some ways, sure. We see “good guys” and “bad guys,” and while we learn nothing of the bad guys’ motivation, we know with certainty that the good guys are killing to “protect America.” While this is a very narrow view, we must keep in mind that it comes from the words of one man, describing his personal experience. And also that it is a Hollywood film, not a documentary. This is what Hollywood does: Make the guns loud, the enemies “savage,” the explosions big, and the heroes fearless and attractive. At some point you can’t expect “the whole truth” out of a major motion picture.

The one mistruth I did have a bit of an issue with was the juxtaposition of the 9/11 attacks with Kyle’s time in Iraq, implying that Kyle and his SEAL team were somehow avenging the 9/11 attackers throughout the film. This is not true, and it’s an irresponsible implication.

That being said, the film also gives a glimpse into the very dirty realities faced not only by American soldiers in war, but also by the people who live in the countries ravaged by conflict. We meet an Iraqi man, a Sheikh, played by Navid Negahban, and the women and children he lives with. Their home is bombarded by American soldiers. They don’t hurt the man; they simply break into his home, threaten injury, and then ask, guns pointed at each woman and child, for information on the “bad guy.” Though reluctant to give information, he eventually caves and tells the soldiers what they want to know.

Fast forward a few scenes and the Sheikh and his child are brutally, gruesomely murdered and publicly made examples of for talking to the Americans. In contemplating war, we very much think of our side as the good side and our adversaries as bad. We honor our soldiers for their sacrifice and we hope that our side is winning, and the other will soon be defeated.  But rarely do we take the time to think about the sacrifices of the men, women, and children who are bystanders of gunfire, grenades, hostility, and tension. Those who are not on any “side”.

The man in this incident was killed by the terrorist—the bad guy—but he and his son presumably would be alive had he not cooperated with American forces. Eastwood has been criticized for oversimplifying the Iraq War into a neat black-and-white package. But this horrible and powerful scene really brought home the ugly gray scale that is war.

We also get to take a look at the glaring issue of post-war PTSD. Chris Kyle is utterly unable to settle into life after war, remaining distant toward his wife (Sienna Miller) and kids, nearly beating a dog at a birthday party, and showing visible discomfort at being praised and thanked by a Marine he had apparently saved in Iraq.  He may have been addicted to the adrenaline, or to being a part of something important and bigger than himself, he may be too anxious to sit around without being on high alert, or he may feel like he didn’t do enough and has unfinished business. Whatever the underlying reasons, Kyle, unable to cope with civilian life, signs on for three additional tours in Iraq, nearly dying in the last.

In one scene, when confronted by his wife about his lack of presence, Kyle unleashes a rant about the complacency of American civilians. And he has a real point.

The benefit of being an American is that when a bloody, intolerable war takes place, we don’t have to see it. It happens in faraway lands most of us have never visited, to people whom we don’t know or understand. A soldier coming home from war is right to be outraged, to be dumbfounded when he or she realizes that no one actually knows what is going on over there or what they’ve given up. One might see footage of the same car crash, or blizzard, or professional sports scandal run on the news cycle all day, while there is little to no coverage of the war(s) we are entrenched in unless we’re pulling troops out or sending more in. There is little wonder at the high levels of depression, anxiety and PTSD of American soldiers. This particular scene undoubtedly produces some serious reflection, if not outright guilt, on the part of audiences.

So what’s the verdict? American Sniper has its flaws, like any memoir adaptation, especially one that attempts to roll an eight-year war into a two-hour movie. Some of these flaws were created in the adaptation and direction process, and some were likely in the original source material. But overall, the issues raised in this movie are worth thinking and talking about, and the film brings them up in thoughtful and powerful ways.

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