American Sniper and the Fault in Biopics

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Posted February 10, 2015 by Spencer Maxwell in Movies

Biopics are a positive way of breaking up the fatigue created by so many blockbusters. Rather than see false lives play out, we get to experience amazing true stories. We are given something concrete to hold onto in our cinema. We know that these are real people and through the window of film we are given the opportunity to witness actual struggles and adversity. But the question is: How much of it is actually true?

These stories sole purpose is to entertain (cynically speaking: make a profit). Education is a tertiary goal, and for many, not a goal at all. It’s almost inevitable liberties will be taken, as fiction has the potential to be more entertaining than the truth. Technically, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre is based upon a true story. It’s so far removed from what actually happened that it’s hard to say it’s based on actual events. The true story is based on Edward Gein, who was guilty of murdering two women and fashioning furniture from body parts. The connections between him and a family of cannibals are very minute. The only reason we are to understand it’s a biography is that the movie tells us so. “Based on a true story” is a term that plays so loosely with accuracy.

A large problem with biopics is how they treat the main character. The films aren’t necessarily based upon the actual person, it’s more of the story of the events that play around them. The filmmakers decide how they want the personality of their protagonists to be displayed. As long as the events mostly coincide with what actually happened do we consider it a true story. The Social Network paints Mark Zuckerberg in a cold and calculating light. His speech patterns are  tense and rapid, while his dialogue is perfectly precise. In reality, Zuckerberg doesn’t display these features. He’s more relaxed and smoother in his vocalization and personality. He’s presented to be a robotic social outcast, when he’s just a normal guy who happens to be one of the wealthiest people in the world. The film remains that he did do some shady things in order to achieve his goal of the creation of Facebook, which was necessary in presenting him. We get this falsification of the man because the audience needs to seem him as the antagonist. The filmmakers understand that we can’t relate to somebody who has seriously wronged so many people. In order for the general audience to accept this movie, they present him in a way that we can all agree to hate him. If we see that he is unlike us and unwelcoming, then we feel perfectly okay with watching him fail (or at least get partial comeuppance). We are given this false sense of who these people are. They are characters placed in these people’s actual lives.

The Imitation Game gives us an Alan Turing that didn’t actually exist. In the film, he’s quiet, unaware of social norms, doesn’t understand comedy and keeps to himself. In reality, he was known for being friendly, sociable and one to make a few jokes. The Imitation Game wants us to see the struggle of the outsider, it wants to drum up compassion so we can feel more concerned with his plight. He did have struggles cracking enigma, but with this concept of the man it’s much easier to garner sympathy. If we saw him take comfort in his colleague’s assistance and laugh it off when he struggled we wouldn’t have the same emotional response. Taking liberties with the characters based on people gives the viewer a stronger emotional punch so we can breathe a deeper sigh of relief when the plot is resolved.

As long as the beats of the story are somewhat accurate, it can be considered a biographical film. Public Enemies is a shining example of this. The protagonist is John Dillinger (played by Johnny Depp) who is depicted as a charming and suave individual. While he was seen as a folk-hero by only robbing banks and not people during the The Great Depression, he still was not a good man. Michael Mann’s direction gives us the idea that he was a Robin Hood-esque character. In reality, he put so many lives in danger, caused so much damage and even murdered a man. As he was the central character, the studio believes we cannot condone the efforts of such a self-absorbed man, so they alter who he was. The John Dillinger in Public Enemies is not the John Dillinger that of the 30’s.

The main issue with portrayal are in films like American Sniper. The film has received so much scrutiny for how Chris Kyle is depicted as the all-American hero. He was not the man that Clint Eastwood would have you to believe. It’s an area of debate whether you think his deeds were heroic or not; it mostly boils down to how you feel about the Iraq war. I believe that his actions were heroic in the sense of putting his life on the line for his allies and defending who we thought was a threat to freedom. The war itself was a horrific waste of time, taxpayer money and, most importantly, life on both sides. But, to a lot of soldiers they believed they were doing the right thing, and many were not aware of the dire consequences of their perceived honorable deeds. I think this was only partly the case for Chris Kyle.

Bradley Cooper’s portrayal of Kyle is incredibly precise. He perfects the way he carries himself, his strong sense of respect and strong/silent type routine. But, that’s the way he presents himself in public appearances. In interviews, he’s humble, noble and hard not to like. The problem with his own presentation of himself is that he released an autobiography of his time in Iraq. This book obviously contains all the great things he’s done in service of his country, but he also decided to leave in the terrible. His novel is the source material for his biopic, so it’s quite evident that it was an intentional choice to portray him in a heroic light. Eastwood didn’t want us to see a real man do honorable deeds and deal with his actual issues along with his inappropriate thoughts on those he’s fighting, he wanted to let us to have a particular notion of a real man.

Kyle confesses in his autobiography that he loved to kill, and had a callous indifference to those he slaughtered. “But I wondered, how would i feel about killing someone? Now I know it’s no big deal.” He claims that they were all savages, and he felt a sense of duty that he must murder them. “I don’t spend a lot of time philosophizing about killing people. I have a clear conscience about my role in the war.” It appears that he thought of himself as a killing machine or a crusader of sorts who felt that these sub-humans must be eliminated. The most devastating of all of his quotes is that he stated: “I don’t shoot people with Korans. I’d like to, but I don’t.” His mindset was so ignorant on the people of the Middle-East, he had this powerful xenophobia which is what drove him to be what many consider a hero.

There is a strong amount of context needed for what he is saying and it also doesn’t help how scatterbrained his book and quotes are. People are either for or against Kyle. He called them savages not because of their race, but because how they hurt and negatively influenced others. His quote about his role in the war aren’t about how he took pleasure in killing, but because he had this idea that every single kill he made was necessary in order to protect the United States. Maybe this isn’t agreeable, but it’s clear that he believes that his intentions are noble. What makes it clear that he is not the man we are lead to believe in the movie is that final quote. It’s offensive and inexcusable. Whether it be part of the military culture or solely his personal position, it presents that his time as a marine has warped him into a spiteful and twisted person. Eastwood doesn’t show any of this in American Sniper. We never get to see what war actually did to Chris Kyle. We are given a very sanitized look at his life, receiving more about his contribution to the war effort over the actual man.

It’s all about the agenda of the director or studio. Rather than have a restrospective of his life, the object was for us to feel a “rah-rah” sense of military patriotism. It’s clear that they believe we wouldn’t get this ideal from an actual man and his genuine harsh reality, so they felt obliged to paint him in a particular fashion. Even with minor amount of post-traumatic stress disorder it still presents the army as a source of righteousness in the world. Displaying his PTSD was more of a way to portray him as a flawed hero than just a soldier. He was afflicted with this, but it was strictly for his own hamartia in the film.

We may actually never know the real Chris Kyle. We don’t know what the actual truths are to his stories as he has been caught with so many lies. The highly publicized knocking out of Jesse Ventura had actually never happened. Which is something he purports in his autobiography. There are many accounts of him being drunk and violent, and many have stated accounts of the American heroes physical abuse. There’s heavy debate on whether he did right in the Iraq war, but he’s done so much to besmirch his own name with actions like these.

American Sniper is more of a political tool than it is a story about a very flawed man and his demise. It would have been less problematic to not base the film after any soldier in particular as no one can live up to the greatness of the man that was portrayed. The story is almost always more grey than the studio wants you to believe. It’s not easy for people to swallow the negative truth behind a man doing something brave and noble in fighting for his people. We don’t want to see our legends torn down, we want to see them built up. The studio believes that viewers will have difficulty seeing that their hero is not who they think he is, and certainly won’t accept them being an awful human being.

Biopics more often than not take advantage of medium to embellish real people to make them more easily accessible to viewers. American Sniper is evidently not the only film guilty of this. Exaggeration makes for more interesting storytelling. It’s important to note that at the tail end of the credits in biopics there is a notice that states that people and events have been dramatized for the film. General audiences take these films purely as facts even though it is a story and not an excerpt from a life. It’s not to take away from these movies as they are all great pieces of cinema. People should take what they see with more skepticism than simple acceptance. Biopics alter our perception of actual people in a way that is easiest for an audience to digest. It’s not a medium meant for accuracy, it’s soley for entertainment, and the director or studio will do whatever possible to make it more engaging. We should take it more as a source of leisure than a source of historical information.


About the Author

Spencer Maxwell

I write about pretty much everything surrounding nerd culture. @CSpencerMaxwell