Clint Eastwood’s Oscar-nominated Iraq war movie American Sniper has managed the difficult feat of being both a huge box office success and a critical hit, but not without some significant backlash. The film is about real-life Iraq war hero — or villain, depending on whom you ask — Chris Kyle. Kyle is known for being the deadliest sniper in the history of the U.S. military, which is a valiant or cowardly accomplishment, again, depending on whom you ask.
Bradley Cooper plays Kyle in a performance that is unanimously being praised by critics, even critics of the film, and has landed him an Academy Award nomination. The film is also nominated for Best Picture and Adapted Screenplay, among the six Academy Award nominations it garnered. A rave review from Time says of Eastwood, “Utterly in command of his epic material, he films the Iraqi action in terse, tense panoramas with little cinematic editorializing, as if he were an old Greek or Hebrew God who is never surprised at man’s ability to kill his fellow men, or to find reasons to do so.”
The issue that some are having with the movie is the way in which Eastwood has chosen to portray Kyle. Kyle served four tours in Iraq and is credited with more than 160 kills, according to an article criticizing the movie from the New Republic. The Wrap reports that this article has actually been passed around by members of the Academy, and all this controversy could cost Eastwood and company their Oscar chances. The film’s critics are saying that Eastwood has taken a story that’s really very black and white and tried to make Kyle seem more complicated than he actually was.
In the movie, Cooper’s version of Kyle is conflicted over the Iraqis he kills, and he suffers from a tortured psyche as the result of his time spent fighting in the Middle East. The film is based on an autobiography Kyle wrote of the same title, and critics are pointing out the book’s less-than-savory passages as reason why Eastwood’s take on the man is completely wrong. According to the New Republic, in the book Kyle says his only regret is that he couldn’t kill more Iraqis, and that rules of engagement were holding him and the rest of the military back from fighting a more brutal war.
“I hate the damn savages,” he wrote. “I couldn’t give a flying fuck about the Iraqis.” He also details how his philosophy was to kill every male Iraqi he saw, discusses looting the homes of the Iraqi people he killed, and describes killing as “fun.” The U.K. paper The Guardian had this to say: “The real American Sniper was a hate-filled killer. Why are simplistic patriots treating him like a hero?”
The movie’s huge appeal for Americans is undeniable. Eastwood’s tense, R-rated war drama is performing at the box office as well as a family-oriented superhero movie. Over the four-day Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend, American Sniper made $105.3 million, according to Box Office Mojo. Even not counting the extra day for the holiday, the movie made $89.5 million and set a box office record for a January opening. Box Office Mojo said the movie performed comparably well to last year’s superhero hits, and without the advantage of 3-D ticket pricing, probably sold more tickets than the superheroes.
The New Republic article hypothesized that such a film is so popular because it essentially tells Americans what they want to hear about the Iraq War — “Because many Americans are unable to accept that nothing was won in Iraq, and that the sacrifices Kyle and others made were not worth it.”
The film has been turned into a piece of propaganda for the right wing, and much has been made about the hateful reactions people receive on Twitter for criticizing the movie, which Alternet has collected. Those calling into question Kyle’s status as a hero have been met with death and rape threats on social media.
Kyle died in 2009 after being shot by a soldier suffering from PTSD at a gun range in Texas. The question the Academy now faces is whether Eastwood and the others who worked hard to make the film deserve to miss out on being honored for their accomplishments due to their mis-portrayal of a figure like Kyle. While America might be lapping up the patriotic vision Eastwood presents, the facts about Kyle was just don’t add up to the character Eastwood created in the film.
As an artist, how much should Eastwood be required to adhere to the truth in presenting a story like Kyle’s? Should the Academy care when he’s made a film it’s deemed Oscar-worthy? Does it matter that a hateful and violent person like Chris Kyle could go down in history as a hero because of a Hollywood movie?
Follow Jacqueline on Twitter @Jacqui_WSCS