How Accurate Is American Sniper?
By Courtney Duckworth
On Feb. 2, 2013, former Navy SEAL Chris Kyle was killed at a shooting range near Chalk Mountain, Texas, while attempting to help fellow veteran Eddie Ray Routh. He had gained notoriety during the Iraq war—with 160 confirmed kills out of a possible 255, Kyle remains the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history. Almost two years later, actor-director Clint Eastwood has transformed the 2012 memoir American Sniper from a best-seller into a box-office hit.
Controversy over Kyle’s credibility casts doubts on the film, however—claims that he engaged in a bar fight with former Minnesota governor and pro wrestler Jesse Ventura, sniped looters in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, and killed two carjackers all remain unsubstantiated. (The first was the subject of a $1.845 million defamation lawsuit Ventura brought and won against Kyle.) This, coupled with a New Yorker piece exploring Kyle’s tendency for embellishment, may make audiences ask: Does Eastwood’s American Sniper stick to the narrative as presented by Chris Kyle or to the known facts—or does it blend the two?
The answer is not an easy one. More than any other strategy, omission keeps the film true to life. Questionable episodes (including those mentioned above) are excised. Eastwood de-emphasizes training and non-Iraq sequences to grant breathing room to a handful of military operations, building a film around Kyle’s tense decisions to pull the trigger or grant mercy. What emerges is a morality tale—one that, unlike the memoir, reflects on what simmers beneath the surface. Below, I probe the film’s key moments for inaccuracies.
American Sniper’s Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is an all-American boy raised in rural Texas with strong Christian values and a passion for firearms. His father imparts strict lessons about the difference between sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves—and the importance of finishing a fight. And indeed, in his memoir, Kyle credits paternal influence for his black-and-white morality.
But skipping ahead, the film takes some liberties. Early on, the movie shows Kyle taking part in a rodeo before finding his girlfriend in bed with another man, whom he quickly dispatches. While Chris Kyle participated in “saddle bronco bustin’ ” from high school into college, his rodeo career ended when a bronco flipped and left him with pins in his wrists, broken ribs, and other injuries. Neither his brother nor an unfaithful girlfriend are mentioned in the book, but he did become a ranch hand to pay the bills after partying with rodeo groupies drained his income. During this time, he approached the recruitment office to enlist—not, as the movie suggests, because he witnessed American lives lost on the news, but because he had always intended to join the military following school.
When his rodeo injuries precluded enlistment, Kyle quit school to work on ranches full time. However, he soon got a call from Navy recruiters who reversed their earlier decision. In the movie, this waffling is glossed over to make his enlistment seem like a streamlined response to injustice—Kyle goes straight from busting broncos to SEAL training...
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