‘American Sniper’ and the Lens of Truth in Film

Posted in The Screening Room by - July 15, 2015

I recently got a chance to view the momentary phenomenon known as American Sniper. Based on the “true events” of fallen veteran Chris Kyle, the film drew a lot of praise and criticism after its release. Many pointed to the fact that the film portrayed Kyle as a sympathetic hero, while the real life anecdotes were less forgiving in their portrayal of the man. Numerous outlets did pieces on the reality vs. fiction duality of the film, and after finally viewing it myself, I left with conflicting feelings. On one hand, while far from a masterpiece, I did find myself enjoying the film, and I felt a true sadness for the Chris Kyle as portrayed by Bradley Cooper. American Sniper probably has the most interesting and insightful portrayal of PTSD I have seen in popular media, which added an extra layer of understanding toward this character’s internal struggle. Finally, as the credits rolled, I realized, despite my mixed feelings towards the real life character (admittedly, I know nothing more than what has been reported in the media, so I don’t claim to be a Chris Kyle historian), the film, as a product, was relatively good. Just because a film is “based on a true story”, do we, as an audience, have to judge it against the source material, rather than on its own merits?

Divorcing the film from the actual truth is something many struggle with. We go to see certain films because they promise us something grand that has actually occurred in real life. There is a feeling of betrayal when we find out certain things are embellished, but unless the creator directly states they intend to show the most honest portrayal of the story, they owe us no obligation other than to create what is the most accurate form of their vision for the story. Yes, Clint Eastwood leaned on Chris Kyle’s own memoir and exploits, but do we have to expect him to show only truths? Watching the third season premiere of Masters of Sex (based on the scientific exploits of the sex researchers, Bill Masters and Virginia Johnson), a disclaimer appeared at the end of the episode declaring that while the story is based on the lives of the two leads, all the interactions with their children were purely fictional. Three of the children didn’t even exist in real life. I recall taking a second to take this in because I felt somewhat misled myself, but it became clear to me soon afterwards that I’m not watching a documentary. This is a piece of fiction that merely draws inspiration from reality, and the show benefits from it. The manufactured drama and character dynamics make the show a living, pulsating thing, rather than some pages in a book given a face. 

Perhaps it’s all personal preference on how to take in the information being portrayed on the screen, but ultimately the film product exists in its own reality. We should acknowledge the source material and definitely have it disclosed what is truth and what is not, but we should not demand that only the truth is projected to us on the silver screen. We are not owed a step by step retelling, but rather a wholehearted effort to give us something interesting to view. If deviating from the reality is necessary to provide a quality product, I cannot fault the filmmakers. The fact that I felt any sympathy towards Chris Kyle in the film is a testament to the talent behind it, even though it left me with some cognitive dissonance by the time the credits rolled. Even as I sit here preaching that we need to be more lenient in how we view films “based on true events”, I struggle with not holding the films to a standard of complete truth myself. The truth and fiction sometimes find themselves intertwined, and it’s up to us, as viewers, to be able to discern them. 

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He's a native Texan (YEE-HAW) who loves everything Michael Bay has ever touched. When he's not blogging, he's working on his mobile app, BoxHopp, or tinkering with his fantasy football lineups.
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