In Depth

Chris Kyle: five things American Sniper gets wrong

Clint Eastwood's film celebrates Navy Seal Chris Kyle, but it ignores some inconvenient truths. Does it matter?

American Sniper

The man who killed Chris Kyle, the subject of the Oscar-nominated film American Sniper, has been found guilty of murder and sentenced to life without parole by a court in Texas. Eddie Ray Routh, who was suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, was also convicted of killing Kyle's friend Chad Littlefield.

Kyle, a US Navy Seal credited with killing more enemy combatants than any other American sniper, died at a Texas gun range in 2013.

His life story was made into a film directed by Clint Eastwood, which was nominated for a best picture Oscar, but lost out to Birdman on Sunday. Many commentators objected to its nomination, arguing that American Sniper glorifies the Iraq war. Others simply accuse the film of inaccuracies. So what does the film get wrong?

Chris Kyle a 'hate filled killer'

Eastwood's film depicts Chris Kyle (played by Bradley Cooper) as a conflicted character, struggling with the emotional impact of killing, but Lindy West in The Guardian writes: "The real American Sniper was a hate-filled killer. Why are simplistic patriots treating him as a hero?" West admits American Sniper is effective as a piece of cinema, but "even a cursory look into the film's backstory raises disturbing questions about which stories we choose to codify into truth". She notes that the real Kyle reportedly described killing as "fun", something he "loved" and wrote in his biography: "I couldn't give a flying fuck about the Iraqis."  

Kyle was not modest

Cooper portrays Kyle as a modest, self-effacing man who discouraged talk of his status as a legend, but the real Kyle was reportedly happy to trade on his reputation and even embellish the tale. The Daily Telegraph reports that after leaving the military in 2009, Kyle went from being "a faceless killer to his enemies" to "a minor celebrity in the US, featuring on the cover of Soldier of Fortune magazine and appearing on chat-shows". The Telegraph adds that "the biggest feeder of the legend was himself". As well as setting up his own successful military training company, he also featured in reality TV show Stars Earn Stripes.

Kyle lied a lot

Amy Nicholson in Slate calls American Sniper "one of the most mendacious movies of 2014". Nicholson admits Clint Eastwood was caught in a trap because his subject, Chris Kyle, "lied a lot". In Kyle's autobiography he claimed to have killed two carjackers in Texas, sniped at looters during Hurricane Katrina, and punched a former governor, Jesse Ventura, in the face. None of that was true, says Nicholson, but instead of expose him as a liar, Eastwood leaves out that part of the story. But when a film erases the fact that its subject was a fabricator," says Nicholson "then that itself is a lie."

American Sniper is political

Cooper, who not only stars in the film but is also one of the producers, has stated that American Sniper is "not a political movie" but "a character study". But critics such as Peter Maas in The Intercept beg to differ, arguing that "when a film venerates an American sniper but portrays as sub-human the Iraqis whose country we were occupying it conveys a political message that is flat wrong." Maas adds that the film "ignores and dishonours the scores of thousands of Iraqis who fought alongside American forces and the hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians who were killed or injured in the crossfire."

Sniper battles are fiction

In the film, Kyle spends a good deal of his time peering through the cross-hairs at his elusive rival Mustafa, a Syrian sniper and former Olympic marksman. While there was a real Mustafa, he's mentioned only in passing in the book and he and Kyle had no interactions. But in Vulture, Bilge Ebiri asks: "Does that dishonor the original story? Some may think it does — maybe by romanticizing the gruesome drudgery of war — but it also, frankly, makes the movie less of a slog."Ebiri concludes that: "The film should live or die as a film, not as history."

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