While it’s been a few months since American Sniper hit the big screen and the headlines, the film offers a chance to look at some key challenges associated with bringing recent history to screen and, in particular, how the screenwriter can tackle sensitive and subjective source material…
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Jason Hall (read the screenplay here)
Based on: American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History by Chris Kyle, Scott McEwen and Jim DeFelice (2012)
Synopsis: *Spoilers* Following the 1998 US embassy bombings, Texas-born Chris Kyle, a former rodeo rider and ranch hand, enlists in the Navy SEALs, undergoes grueling training and eventually becomes a sniper. He also meets and marries Taya.
Following the terrorist attacks on 9/11, Chris is sent to Iraq. He becomes a prolific killer, earning the nickname, ‘Legend’. He is assigned to hunt for an al-Qaeda leader and takes part in a failed mission to capture him. Insurgents issue a bounty on Chris’ head.
Chris returns to the US where Taya gives birth to his son. However, he’s distracted by war. Taya expresses her wish for Chris to focus on his home and family. But he returns to Iraq for a second tour.
A third tour follows, during which a fellow SEAL is killed and another seriously injured. Plagued by guilt that he couldn’t protect them, Chris goes back for a fourth tour. Taya does not support his decision. During his fourth tour, Chris makes his famous 2,100-yard (1,920-metre) kill.
Chris returns home one last time but struggles to readjust to civilian life, remaining “haunted by all the guys [he] couldn’t save”. He finds solace in helping other veterans overcome their post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and physical injuries.
The action moves to February 2013. A subtitle reads that, at a shooting range, Chris was killed “by a veteran he was trying to help”. Thousands of people stand in line along the highway for his funeral procession and thousands more attend his memorial service.
How does the film depart from the source material and why were the changed made?
Hall’s script departs from the named source material in a number of ways.
*Spoilers* The script includes several set-ups and peripheral characters not found in the book. These include a sequence in which Chris has to decide whether to shoot a child; the Iraqi characters of Mustafa and the Butcher; and aspects of the climactic battle.
As might be expected, the script condenses events that happened over a longer period of time and constructs a coherent story in which Chris is tasked with pursuing a named enemy. The story contrasts with his increasingly fractured home life. Chris is compelled to protect his country while being shown to distance himself from those he’s closest to.
However, going through the book and checking off elements that are absent/different from the script is a pretty futile exercise, as , in this case, the challenge is not to adapt a non-fiction book, but rather to adapt a man’s life. As Hall himself says: “The book was one side of this man.”
In order to thoroughly research the screenplay, Hall worked closely with Chris and his wife (Chris was killed after the first draft of the script was completed), going to their home and having long discussions with them. As a result of these interactions, Hall was in a better position to move beyond the ‘bravado’ that comes through in Kyle’s own words and find the real man whose story he wanted to tell.
Indeed, Hall notes that Chris “dictated the book from a bar stool when he’d been home [from Iraq] for six months”, inferring that the Chris Kyle who comes across in the book is not the ‘real deal’. Chris still had his ‘war face’ on and the book reads as such.
It was only when the ‘real Chris’ finally emerged that the writer was able to assemble all the pieces and start the process of fictionalising the man’s life.
For the full story behind the screenplay, take a look at this interesting and illuminating 50-minute interview with Jason Hall by DP/30, which has been quoted from in this article:
So, how successful was the adaptation?
Did Hall obfuscate the facts?
Does Chris Kyle deserve to be remembered as a hero?
Does American Sniper glorify war?
Is the way the war is presented too simplistic?
Is the whole project just a piece of flag-waving jingoistic propaganda?
These are all highly-debatable issues, which, to date, have received pages of coverage, and will no doubt receive pages more as the movie enters the pantheon of 9/11-inspired screen stories.
But, overall, Hall took a subjective book written in the immediate aftermath of one man’s intense and life-altering experiences fighting in a hugely controversial and seemingly never-ending war.
He delved further into the lives of people he portrayed and the world they inhabit(ed) in order to get under the skin of his protagonist.
He structured a workable screen story around the true life events that occurred (about which the ‘truth’ will probably never be entirely known).
He attempted to capture the wider experiences of the military both during and after deployment.
He attempted to say something about the US’s place on the world stage.
He wrote a good enough script to attract Bradley Cooper and Clint Eastwood et al to devote months of their lives bringing it to fruition.
Not a bad outcome for any screenwriter, eh?
Seriously, though, given its polarising subject matter, this was always going to be a ‘baggage’ movie (i.e. people bring their personal views to the cinema with them). Therefore, any opinion expressed is going to encapsulate not just the quality of the film, but also the feelings the individual has about the war itself.
Specific criticisms of American Sniper referred to a ‘lack of contextualisation’ with regard the wider issues associated with the Iraq war. They also pointed to the flag-waving aspects, such as Chris referring to Iraqi insurgents as ‘savages’ (i.e. reducing the conflict to goodies v baddies).
However, the point was to show the effects of war on this one man and his family and by doing so explore how war impacts on everyone who serves, as well as the people who care about them. As such, it highlights the toll of war and the act of killing and how military personnel deal with that on their return home. It also shows how war can change a person’s character and force them to do what’s necessary in order to aim and shoot over and over again at human targets. Not something most of us could even imagine doing.
Beyond that, there are issues regarding the US’s role in the Middle East and the choices made by those in charge to send people into battle. Indeed, Robert McKee refers to the morality of American Sniper and how it “tries to sort the good from the evil”. He also suggests how, by turning traditionally negative connotations of snipers into a more positive one, the film somehow “rationalises” America’s role in the Middle East.
On a personal level, in the interview, Hall discussed the responsibility he felt, not only to Chris and other military personnel, but also to Taya and the Kyles’ children. According to the writer, after a screening attended by Kyle’s widow, Taya said that in her mind the film “brought her husband back to life”.
See how powerful screenwriting can be?
The lesson? Actually, that should be lessons, as American Sniper offers up quite a few for the screenwriter:
- don’t be afraid to tackle controversial material if you can see the human story within
- always be aware of the wider themes in the story and think carefully how you can draw them out to give the script gravitas and relevance beyond the confines of the story
- be willing to really get under the skin of your protagonist and see the world through their eyes
- stick to your guns and commit to the story if you really believe in the material
- don’t assume a biography/autobiography tells the whole story
- always be asking yourself: how can I make this story fill the screen?
Assignment: Read the source material, read the script and (re)watch the film…
American Sniper is out to rent/buy from 19 May in the US and 1 June in the UK.
For Issue 2, we take a look at a 1975 classic. (Hint? “Attica…”)