American Sniper

Warner Bros. Pictures

I hadn’t originally planned on seeing the movie American Sniper, but the brewing controversy around the film piqued my interest. For those who don’t know, American Sniper is a film based on the book by the same name written by former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle. 

Kyle served 4 tours in Iraq and ended the war as the most lethal sniper in U.S. Military history. The controversy over the movie, as I take it, centers around whether the film actually represents Chris Kyle as the man he actually was, according to his own memoir, or did Clint Eastwood, the film’s director, engage in creative license as many have claimed.

I read Kyle’s book—every word of it—before I went to the movie. I also watched a large number of Youtube videos of Kyle, where he discusses his book, his life, and his views.

So did the movie portray Kyle as he portrayed himself in his own book? My answer is, well, no and yes.

First, why do I say no? The movie portrayed a Chris Kyle that appeared more sensitive and emotionally affected by the war and the killing than the book portrays. The Chris Kyle of his memoir makes it clear he enjoyed war and had no problem with anyone he killed — men, women, or in some cases, young boys whom he judged a threat to American soldiers. At times Kyle does come across a little raw in his book, which I think we can mark down as part warrior mindset, part bravado. The Chris Kyle of his book, for example, can say things like “I don’t shoot people with Korans—I’d like to, but I don’t.” That scene, those words, aren’t in the movie. 

Kyle is credited with killing somewhere around 160 Iraqi insurgents. At least, as he would tell you, that’s the “official number.” The impression he likes to leave in the book, and I believe he admits somewhere else, is that he killed a lot more Iraqis than the official number he’s credited with. No one knows exactly how many people Kyle killed unofficially, or under what circumstances, since only the official kills had, as he reminds us multiple times, a “witness” to each of them.

In the book, Kyle has the habit of reminding us there is “the official” side of the story and then there’s — wink and a nod — the unofficial side of the story. Of course we all know there’s an unofficial side in war. But most of us probably wouldn’t highlight or hint at that in regards to the number of people we killed without witnesses around. In fact, Kyle says he wished he could have “killed more.”

I will also add the movie took a number of liberties with events. For example, there is one paragraph in Kyle’s memoir about an Iraqi sniper by the name of Mustafa. Kyle said he never saw Mustafa and he “believed” Mustafa was killed by some other U.S. soldiers. However, one of the movie’s main themes is the hunt for Mustafa. At the end of the movie, in typical heroic Hollywood style, Kyle kills Mustafa with an incredible 2000 yard sniper shot. This is pure fiction. The movie has a number of other scenes and events that aren’t in the book and appear to have been added to the movie for the sake of dramatic tension. 

On the yes side of the movie—that it did portray Chris Kyle’s life. Well, I think the movie did a good job of showing the strained relationship between Chris Kyle and his wife, Taya. The movie was faithful in following the struggles they personally went through as a military family and as husband and wife. 

Bradley Cooper, who plays Kyle in the movie, also did a good job of playing Kyle. I thought Cooper did a good job with Kyle’s mannerisms, speech, and Texas twang. The movie did show some scenes right from the book, such as when Chris and Taya first met at a bar in California. I thought Bradley Cooper, while not giving an entirely accurate portrayal, which is not possible anyway, did give us a version of Chris Kyle. A version we should expect when Hollywood writers and movie making are involved. I wasn’t surprised, in fact, I rather expected it.

I think the controversy over the movie is partially driven by the fact that the war in Iraq was (and is) controversial. I think it’s fair to say now the war in Iraq was an epic mistake. I don’t think an honest person can disagree. But it’s also important to remember that soldiers have no vote in the wars they fight. They sign up to serve their country and are tasked with fighting the wars the nation’s commander-in-chief directs them to fight, regardless of whether any of us agrees with the decision. That’s a soldier’s duty and it’s important point to keep in mind.

When people began seeing the movie and the media began referring to Chris Kyle as “a hero” the critics jumped. In their mind, an illegitimate war doesn’t have legitimate heroes. It has legitimate victims: Iraqis and American soldiers. Secondly, the critics felt the portrayal of a more humane and sensitive Chris Kyle in the movie was nothing but Hollywood sugar coating, not an honest portrayal of a man who actually enjoyed killing “savages.”

Critics are correct in saying the movie doesn’t give us an accurate portrayal of the Chris Kyle of his memoir. So, again, they do have a legitimate point there. Kyle was, according to his own words, unmoved by the large numbers of people—basically a small village—he killed personally while in Iraq. In his mind these killings, each and every one of them, were justified. None of us, I remind critics, have any evidence at this time that Kyle killed anyone unlawfully or without justification while serving in Iraq. As far as we know “officially” (Kyle is grinning…believe me), everyone Kyle killed deserved it.

I have mixed feelings about Kyle the man of his memoirs. But I can say without hesitation, if I’m going to war I’d want Chris Kyle on my team. Regardless of whether we agree with the war, our mission must be to win it once we’re in it. Chris Kyle was a warrior to the core. Some of us may not like his manner or his bloodthirsty spirit, but when the shooting starts and you’re fighting for your lives Chris Kyle is the man you want there fighting beside you. It’s because of warriors like Kyle, sitting at his position of overwatch, that many American families were spared the loss or maiming of a loved one in Iraq. For that he certainly is a hero.       

To conclude, as a movie I recommend seeing American Sniper. While the movie does take license in its portrayal of the protagonist, and does have some factual flaws, it isn’t such a break from the Chris Kyle of the book that we can’t get a slightly blurred picture, or modified version, of the real Chris Kyle and the struggles our military men and women and their families go through in war. And the plain truth is, it’s a good war movie. It does give an accurate portrayal of the harsh realities of war—the life and death decisions, the struggles, the costs, the sacrifices and even, while some of us may not always feel comfortable with it, the type of people it takes to win.

Note: Chris Kyle was tragically killed at a Texas firearms range in February of 2013 by an Iraqi war veteran he was attempting to help. As of this writing the accused killer, Eddie Ray Routh, is about to go to trial for capital murder. 

6 thoughts on “American Sniper

  1. I read this book over Christmas. I was in Dulles airport when I bought it and thought I’d use it to spare the time. I finished it a couple of days later during down time. It was pretty light reading but entertaining. As far as war memoirs go, I’ve read better. This one is shelved under different but growing genre. It’s a war memoir for the everyman, a page turner not necessarily because of the scenes and flow but because it was styled that way. You can thank his ghostwriter for that. I detest that kind of writing but it is becoming the norm. Hell even the once lauded state of the union has been dumbed down to about an 8th grade reading/comprehension level according to the experts who trouble themselves figuring that stuff out.

    As Kyle’s nature: he is a badass. There’s no two ways about it. If he stepped on my foot in a bar, I’d say, “I’m terribly sorry I put my foot under yours.” Then I’d hit the exit before he finished processing my strange apology. He knew he was a badass and probably always knew he was a little different than everyone else. As I said, I think he was born with that nature.

    As Kyle the soldier-warrior, I have a feeling we can think his ghostwriter for that too. This book was carefully marketed for two demographics in mind: Those that would set it beside their bible at night and those that would use its pages as toilet paper and post the proof on Facebook–the liberal hashtag brigade, in other words. Either way it was a marketing coup and it would receive publicity and power from two opposing camps! It had success written all over it the moment it was conceived. Aside from that, Chris Kyle was hired, trained, and deployed to a specific job on behalf of a grateful nation and at the behest of his superiors. I’d say Kyle did his job dutifully and enthusiastically. In the end, if his job was to be an instrument for warfare and was deployed in the fashion, how can one find fault with him? He wasn’t a mass murderer. He killed bad guys. Who are the bad guys, well whoever his superiors tell him are the bad guys. Whey did he kill them and in so many numbers? Well, his superiors never told him to stop killing bad guys.

    As Kyle the man; his own wife has said that perhaps Kyle was a little more affected by the war than led on to believed. That there was more humanity in him then the pages revealed. And who else to know this stuff more than a man’s wife? Certainly it wasn’t the ghostwriter to portray this.

    As for the entire work, the sum of all its parts, I guess it’s a product of our age of celebrity. It was all carefully written, the language, the exploits as to easily be fed to the big screen. Sort of like those Dan Brown and Grisham novels. However, within some of those pages and stories, there is Chris Kyle and I think his place is secure in the history of warfare as a dynamic soldier. I really don’t think he wanted to be much of anything else, so perhaps we should judge him strictly on those terms.

    My moral/patriotic/cynic/dissident/bias/contradicting point-of-view is as same as yours, Jeff. Chris Kyle isn’t your mailman, a librarian or a philosopher on the finer things in life. He’s a bad man but he was our bad man. And the world needs bad men. (I don’t mean evil or without virtue, I mean bad man as someone who is okay dong the things we ourselves would find detestable or impossible). There’s been plenty of Chris Kyles in this Old World. They’ve been soldiers of fortune, paid assassins, brute killers, geniuses in warfare, brave and unforgiving in battle, in every place, under every kind of flag that ever cast a shadow, from their time as soldiers for the Carthaginians, Romans, Gauls, Turks, Mongolians, English Knights, Scottish patriots, Spanish Conquistadors, the Grand Arm’ee, Vietcong, Communist revolutionaries, so on and so forth as far back in time we’d like to imagine.

    It’s just Chris Kyle lives in this era, where everything and everyone’s agenda must be weighed, measured, and counted against another’s and if found wanting, then he or she is an unforgivable demon who must be silenced and driven back under that same rock from which it dared to slivered out.

    Lastly, I’d say Chris Kyle was an exceptional warrior living in unexceptional times.


      1. I think Chris Kyle was like most of us: complicated. He was a highly efficient soldier that did his job well. There is no doubt American soldiers are alive today because of him. We don’t all have to love him, but we should all be thankful for people like him when war comes.

        Liked by 1 person

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