American Sniper: Is Your Adaptation Running Toward The Truth?
By Jacob Krueger
Hello, this is Jacob Krueger and welcome to the Write Your Screenplay podcast. As you know, on this podcast, instead of thinking about movies in terms of two thumbs up or two thumbs down we like to think about movies in terms of what we can learn about them as screenwriters.
So we’re going to look at all kinds of movies. We’re going to look at good movies, we’re going to look at bad movies. We’re going to look at movies that we love and movies that we hate. But we’re going to look at them in a way that helps us to better our own writing.
Today’s movie is certainly one of the more controversial movies that are out right now: American Sniper by Jason Dean Hall. Let me just start off by saying that my politics are certainly not Clint Eastwood’s politics and that made American Sniper a hard movie for me. I think it made American Sniper a hard movie for a lot of people.
I’m not the kind of person who believes, as Chris Kyle says at the beginning of the movie, that there are three types of people in the world: sheep, wolves and sheepdogs. I’m not a person like Chris Kyle who believes that things are purely black and white, and that there’s very little grey. Watching a movie that cuts directly from planes crashing into the World Trade Center to the war of Iraq and makes that argument all over again, linking Iraq to the September 11th attacks, politically – that’s hard for me to watch.
That said, those are the politics of the main character, Chris Kyle. Those are the politics of a lot of people like him who went into this war, believing they are the heroes. Believing that the people they are fighting are savages, and as Americans, they are purely a force of good in the world.
There is something to be said about directing and writing a movie that looks at the world through the eyes of your protagonist. The hope of course, as you work on such an adaptation, is that even as you’re looking at the world through their eyes, you’re also maybe revealing something to the audience, and to yourself, that is even more complicated than the main character can see.
These elements of American Sniper which do succeed in this way.
Clint Eastwood, in fact, has said that he views American Sniper as an anti-war film, and quite frankly, as much as I may disagree with his politics, on this, I agree with him.
I agree with him for a couple of reasons. The first is: Bradley Cooper’s performance and Eastwood’s direction of that performance. While Chris Kyle may be saying things throughout this movie, like, “I don’t regret a single kill” and “I will go to my maker happy to answer for every one of them” and while he may talk in his memoir about enjoying war, the performance of the main character (as corroborated by the interviews that Chris Kyle’s wife has given) tells us a very different story.
Even as this character believes that he’s A-Okay, it’s pretty clear that he’s suffering from increasingly severe Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Even as the character is telling himself that he is doing the right thing, that he is inside the good, it’s pretty clear that the war is changing him. We are watching him become haunted by demons that cut him off from his wife, his children, his friends, and even his country. In this way American Sniper is an anti-war movie.
It’s also a movie that looks very seriously at the treatment of veterans. It’s a movie that looks at the suffering of young kids at war. It’s a movie that’s shot, not with action that’s glorified and Hollywood-ized, but with action that is brutal and ugly from the very first shot, which involves Chris Kyle killing a woman and child.
All the way through to the end, we’re not watching the adrenaline-pumping, popcorn-popping fun of so many action blockbusters. We’re watching the kind of violence that’s much more reminiscent of a film like The Hurt Locker, a film that tries to capture a relatively honest look at the violence of war, the ugliness of war, and the horror of war.
In all these ways, I feel that the screenplay for American Sniper is quite successful, both as character driven a story, and as an anti-war movie.
And yet I also feel like there are many areas that could have been pushed much further in both the script and in the movie.
When you’re adapting a true story, a memoir, a book or a novel, your job is always to run toward the truth and step into your character’s world view, even if that world view is very different from your own.
But I believe that you also have a responsibility to bring your own world view into the writing, in order to hopefully write a movie that transcends your characters view of the world, even if the character herself or himself is not able to transcend it.
There’s something very powerful, as a writer, about looking at a character whose beliefs about the world are false, in the way that all of our beliefs are false. Because the world is complex, and none of us can fully hold on to the complete truth.
There’s something powerful about writing a character who sees the world through a very specific lens, whose beliefs about themselves are not completely true, whose stories they’re telling themselves about the world are not completely true.
There’s something powerful about taking a character like that on a journey. And, in fact, this is a classical structure for screenplays: a structure where we hone in on the lie the character is telling themselves, and force them into a situation through which they will ultimately have to confront that lie, in which they will ultimately have to confront what’s true.
For example, in The Shawshank Redemption, there’s an amazing scene where Tim Robbins’ character, Andy, after spending the whole movie saying “I didn’t do it”- and he didn’t do it – about the death of his wife – says to Red, “I killed her. I didn’t pull the trigger, but I drove her to that cabin with my apathy.”
We see this guy – who has been a symbol of hope and a persecuted innocent through the whole story, who has primarily told himself one version of the truth through the whole film – finally forced to confront the part of that story that’s not true.
And that’s a classical structure for a character-driven story: to think about the lie the character is unknowingly telling themselves, and force them into situations that cause them to confront that lie and confront the failings in themselves.
In a way, it’s a very bold choice by Jason Dean Hall, in the American Sniper script, to not arc the character this way, but to instead arc the characters around him. To let his wife and his psychologist and his fellow Navy Seals and his brother and the audience see the way he’s changed; see the way he’s suffering; see the journey he’s going on, even as Chris Kyle refuses to acknowledge it himself. Even as Chris Kyle continues to say, “I just wish I could’ve killed one more of ‘em. I just wish I could’ve saved one more U.S. soldier.”
There’s incredibly powerful irony in the fact that this man, who basically believed that there were only three kinds of people (sheep, wolves and sheepdogs) ultimately encounters a different kind of person entirely. That this man who believed that American soldiers were always the sheep dogs and Iraqis were always the wolves, that American soldiers were always the good guys and Iraqis were always the savages, will ultimately be destroyed by his own black and white way of thinking. That he will ultimately be killed by one of the sheep dogs, whose savagery he couldn’t see, or whose complexities he refused to see, because this guy is a veteran just like himself, suffering from a similar P.T.S.D., who turned out not to be the clear good guy he imagined himself to be.
The way this is handled in the movie – and, understandably, because the death happened after the memoir that they were adapting – unfortunately feels like a tacked-on ending. And that’s because there’s no relationship developed between Chris and the man who will kill him. And although I understand why, in the production process, that might’ve been a necessity, it is something we should think about as screenwriters.
We want to develop the relationships that matter most in our movies. We want to get the most out of these ironies. And I do feel like it’s a missed opportunity in the script, because the greatest irony in this movie—the thing that most illuminates the flaw in Chris Kyle’s way of thinking—is his relationship with this man.
Because this is a story about how a heroic man with – I believe – actually good in his heart, who believes he’s doing the right thing, just like so many Americans did when the war started. It’s about how that one-sided attitude and the refusal or inability to see the other side. How the inability to see the complications and complexities of people and politics and war leads him to real danger… just as our oversimplified attitude and our blindness led us to so much horror and suffering in the Iraq war.
Choosing to not develop this relationship was a creative choice. And sometimes you do have to make those hard creative choices as a writer—to say “this is not the direction I’m going to go with this particular script.” For him, this was a about the relationship between Chris Kyle and his wife, the relationship between Chris Kyle and his country, the relationship between Chris Kyle and home, and between Chris and Iraq.
But I do feel like failing to develop the relationship between Chris and that character or, for that matter, the failure to develop full relationships, as I’m going to be discussing later, with any of his fellow Navy Seals is a missed opportunity, in the script, for both the character and for the politics.
In a way, American Sniper is actually quite similar to The Hurt Locker, which is really about a guy who becomes addicted to war and can’t find his way back. But I think in American Sniper there was the opportunity in that relationship to transcend what The Hurt Locker did or take what The Hurt Locker did to the next level.
And if this had been my script I would have wanted to push on that relationship a little harder. I would have wanted to run toward the truth of that relationship, even if it was not a relationship that could have been captured fully in the memoir. Because, in a way, it was the relationship that most fully illuminated the blind spot in the character. It was the relationship that most illuminated the truth of this character and the truth of what happens when we can only see in black and white.
The second place where I feel American Sniper could’ve been pushed further is in fully exploring the dialectic of the political issues that still exist in this country about the war. And this is a kind of storytelling called Hegelian Dialectical storytelling.
Whenever you write a movie that expresses very strongly what you believe, you want to make sure that the other side is represented equally strong. In fact, you want to attack your own point of view or the point of view of your main character in the greatest way possible. You want to write characters who are not crazy, who are not sadistic, but who believe things that are different from your beliefs. You want to challenge the essence of your beliefs and hopefully in this way arrive at a more holistic personal truth. And also to test to see if your beliefs can stand up to the full test of the other side. Can your beliefs hold up in the face of the things about them that don’t work?
In this script, we see some lip service paid to the anti-war argument, to the anti-Iraq argument. There is a character, Mark Lee, played by Luke Grimes who, over the course of the war, starts to feel like the war is unjustified. In fact, during his funeral, his mom reads a particularly heartbreaking letter from him, where he asks, “my question is, when does glory fade away and become a wrongful crusade? When does it become an unjustified means by which one is completely consumed?”
So the idea of an unjustified war is given lip service here, but this feels like an early draft version of that argument. And what I mean by that is although the words are there, the structure is not. And this is again something you can think about in your own writing. There’s a difference between saying something and doing something. There’s a difference between giving lip service to an idea or a character and building that character structurally into your film.
We see in this film that war is hell, and we certainly see why a man who’s not as strong as Chris Kyle or as strong as Chris Kyle or a man who is not so unwavering in his belief might lose faith in the face of that horror. Why someone would just want to go home.
But what’s missing are the real events that would lead an intelligent man like Mark from being that gung ho Navy Seal just like Chris Kyle, to someone who would question, not just if this was something he wanted to do, but whether the causes were even justified.
You probably noticed that there are literally no good Iraqis in this whole movie. There is not a single Iraqi family who just wants a peaceful life. All the Iraqis do act like savages. Even the little boys just want to kill Americans. The nice man who invites the soldiers to have dinner with his family is secretly working with the enemy storing arms, there is literally no one who is good. There’s no one even who is moderate, who is slightly good, or just average.
And I do believe this is how Chris Kyle saw the war, and I do believe this is how Chris Kyle saw the Iraqis and I do believe this is how Chris Kyle had to see the Iraqis in order to survive the psychology of his job.
But if this was really how the Iraqis were, Mark would never have to doubt if the war was justified. He would never have to doubt because he would never see the evidence against it.
If everyone around you really is a savage. If everyone around you really wants to kill you. If nobody around you can be trusted except for the Americans, then maybe you are the good guys.
So what I would’ve been curious to see a moment or two between Mark and an Iraqi. I would’ve been curious to see how Mark can interpret the same people or the same event through a different lens than the one through which Chris sees it, I would’ve been curious to see what changed Mark from a gung-ho Navy Seal to a doubter of the war.
And that doesn’t mean the writer needs to turn this into a movie that captures my beliefs. Because I am so far to the left of Clint Eastwood. This doesn’t mean that Clint Eastwood needs to agree with me. But if you’re going to build a movie with a character who doubts, then build it structurally into your movie so we can see why.
I want to see why, beyond just the horror of war, beyond personal weakness, what were the things he saw that made him wonder if this war was actually worth fighting.
I’m okay if this writer needs us to wonder if this war was justified rather than believing, as I do, that it was not. I’m okay if this writer wants me to question my beliefs. But I want to see the characters’ journeys built into their stories.
I also think beyond the politics that these changes would have made Chris Kyle’s journey stronger. When you attack the character’s beliefs, you don’t weaken the character. You make them stronger. You don’t weaken the arc you make it bigger. You don’t weaken the change you make it larger.
The structure of Chris Kyle’s journey is actually a test movie.
So what do I mean by that? There are actually two kinds of movies. There are change movies, which are primarily the movies we get to see. These are the movies where a character starts at A and ends at Z. Where the character goes through profound changes, or as we discussed before, where they are forced to confront the lie in themselves.
And there are other kinds of movies called “test movies” in which a character doesn’t actually change, but in which their resolve to stay the same is tested by increasingly dramatic obstacles, in the face of which any other character would have changed.
To some degree Chris Kyle’s movie is a change movie in that we are seeing him become more and more traumatized. We’re seeing his relationship with his wife and his children and his brother and even his ability to be in his own country change in relation to the war. We’re seeing him make the decision to stop fighting in order to save his relationship. And we’re watching him save himself, by working with the battle-scarred soldiers returning from the war.
But the choices he makes during the movie are primarily not change choices. In fact most of what Chris Kyle is doing involves us not seeing him change; we’re seeing him tested. We’re seeing his belief that there are three kinds of people – sheep, wolves, and sheepdogs – tested. We’re seeing his belief that he was a sheepdog tested by a war that’s making everyone around him doubt who they really are.
The problem is there’s actually very little structurally to test that belief. There’s a bunch of bad things happening to him, a bunch of bad things happening to his friends. The sheep dogs who are trying to protect the sheep from the wolves abroad, who are trying to keep the wolves from coming home.
But unlike The Hurt Locker, for example, where we really do see a relationship between an American and an Iraqi develop, in American Sniper, there is nothing to test that belief. There’s one man spouting anti-war rhetoric, but there’s no physical evidence to that rhetoric. There is nothing happening that says that these people might not be savages. There is nothing happening that says there might not be weapons of mass destruction. There is nothing happening that says there is a reason why Mark is not believing anymore. There is nothing happening that says 9/11 and Iraq might not be related. And if such a thing were created, then it would be very exciting to watch Chris Kyle shut that out. It would be very exciting to watch Chris Kyle push that away. And that’s how you really build a test movie.
Clint Eastwood is lucky that he got Bradley Cooper to star in this movie, because structurally the character really has very little to work with. Ultimately the actor ends up providing structure that does not exist in the script. And I do believe that’s one of the reasons American Sniper had so much success—because Bradley Cooper delivered the structure of the character’s test and the character’s change in his performance even when it was not there in his words and actions.
But chances are that you’re not going to get an actor of Bradley Cooper’s caliber in your movie. So to build a test movie that can survive the average movie star, you need to test the character’s resolve. Not “is he willing to hold on to his belief in being a hero in the face of the need for heroes?”, but “Is he willing to hold on to his belief in being a hero in the face of a war that is all kinds of shades of grey?” Is he willing to believe that he’s a sheep dog in the face of wolves turning into sheep and sheep turning into wolves? Is he willing to hold on to believing that he’s a sheep dog in the face of events that destroy the beliefs of his own perfectly rational compatriots? Is he willing to hold on to his belief in the face of a mad American soldier who’s ultimately going to kill him?
These are the really powerful questions that American Sniper could be asking. And you can see that American Sniper could also be asking us the same questions of ourselves.
So many years after the start of the Iraq war, American Sniper could be asking us, now that we’ve all seen the evidence, how do we hold on to our beliefs about ourselves in the face of the mistakes we may have made? How do we hold on to the American Dream in the face of a war that might not have been what we thought it was?
And you can see that by just giving a little bit of that opposite side, a little bit of a stronger look, not only would the American Sniper script become better, not only would the character’s journey of the character become more powerful, but the political argument of the script would become more powerful. And this is true whether your politics agree with mine or not, or whether your politics agree with the side of your character or not.
This kind of storytelling, as I’ve mentioned, is the Hegelian Dialectic. And the idea behind the Hegelian Dialectic is that we cannot hold on to the truth. We can never actually catch the full truth of this incredibly complex world. Instead what we do is we run toward the truth.
And the way we run toward the truth is by figuring out something that we or our character believes at the core of who we are, and then attacking that belief with everything we’ve got. Making our antagonist as strong as our protagonist, our doubter as strong as our believer. Weighing the evidence as equally on both sides as we can. Not in order to pander to one side or the other, but to find the kernel of truth in both sides, and hopefully find a synthesis that is slightly closer to the real truth—to something we can fully believe.
The goal of a political movie is not to only preach to the choir. The goal of a political movie is to look at both sides as honestly as you can, and to see through your characters if your beliefs about the world, if your personal truth, can hold up to the strongest attack that you can muster against it. To look at what the costs are of holding on to those beliefs, and to see if those beliefs are still worth holding on to in the face of those costs.
Which brings me to the last element that I think could have been pushed further in this story. And you’ll see that’s a related element. As far as we can tell in this movie, all Iraqis are exactly the same. They’re an homogenized culture. Unlike America, where people from Georgia are a little bit different then people in New England, in the Iraq of this movie, there are no such things as Sunnis and Shiites. There is no such thing as tribalism. In fact what we’re really watching is a battle of wills between two snipers, one working for the Americans and one working for the Iraqis. And they are both the best of the best. The problem is that this oversimplified version of the war is just not possible, because this is not what Iraq is. This is not the truth.
If Iraq had been so clean and simple, it probably would have been won a long time ago, when that statue was toppled and the one evil dictator was finally deposed. If Iraq was so clean and simple, if that were the truth, the war would not have turned into such a morass. But what Iraq truly is, is a mess, just like every country. A mess of cultural infighting, of clans at war with each other, or rivalries that have existed for thousands of years. You could never have the same sniper working in that many different parts of the country because of the divisions among the Iraqis themselves.
As a recent New York Times article pointed out, you could never have a single enemy sniper working in that many parts of the country, because the politics of Iraq, the intertribal politics, would never allow it. The Iraqis were not one unified faction, just like Americans are not one unified faction. What the Iraqis were, and are, is a complicated society that’s as complicated as ours. And looking at it through a black and white window doesn’t turn it into black and white.
Chris Kyle travels through many, many different parts of Iraq over many years on many, many different missions, and the enemy sniper is used as a device to try to tie those missions together—to try to create a sense of order out of the chaos. Unfortunately the result in many ways is to run from the truth of the war, which could best test Chris’s black and white beliefs.
In other words, the unfortunate side effect of this is to cast the war in exactly those black and white terms that Chris Kyle sees the world. It’s to rob the war of its meaning and complexity and its to rob Chris Kyle the character of his real test.
Whether you believe that our ultimate goal should be to hold on to our beliefs about ourselves as Americans no matter what the evidence to the contrary may be, or whether you believe that our ultimate test should be to find the good in ourselves after making some terrible mistakes, it doesn’t change the fact that in order to test the character, we have to run toward the truth.
Whether Chris Kyle the character realizes it or not, Iraq, like any country, does not exist in black and white. It’s a complicated society that is not linked by one single political ideology, but by hundreds. We are not fighting a single sniper, but a fragmented and destabilized society with complicated desires and needs and struggles that you’ve just thrown yourself into the middle of with very little understanding. And that’s an exciting situation for the character. And that’s where the chaos of war comes from. And this is where the test of those simple beliefs comes from. If the writer could only run toward the truth.
Now, the idea of having two snipers, a sniper on the American side and a sniper on the Iraqi side, actually came from a person whom most of us really respect. It came from Steven Spielberg, who at one point was involved in the development of this script, and was supposed to direct it, until he ultimately decided that on the budget he had he couldn’t make the movie he wanted.
The movie Steven Spielberg wanted to make was a very different movie. Steven Spielberg’s idea was to develop the character of the Iraqi sniper. To develop the two as mirrors for each other and foils for each other. To develop the two as men who imagined themselves to be the good guys, just on opposite sides of the same war. And you can see if you do that, if you can humanize the enemy sniper, while allowing him to have some of the same flaws of Chris Kyle, then the fact that some of the political divisions are maybe glossed over doesn’t quite matter so much. That you’re approaching the truth through a different angle. If you really tell stories of two snipers who both believe themselves to be good, who both believe themselves to be the sheep dogs, who are really going on a journey, an oversimplified journey, based on their own patriotism and their own inability to see the other side, now you’re really saying something interesting. Now you’re really saying something that merits taking artistic license, that makes that artistic license okay, that allows you to tell the true story of the war, even through that fictional construct.
Running toward the truth doesn’t mean being limited by the truth. It means using your devices to capture the truth in some way, to capture some foundational element of the truth. And there are many ways to do that.
In fact, I’m going to suggest that there is a completely different way to play with that enemy sniper as well. Because I believe that the enemy sniper is, metaphorically, probably exactly what Chris Kyle believed he was fighting, metaphorically. That in fact there is something true about the idea that Chris Kyle believed that there was one function. That Chris Kyle was not capable, or not willing, or would not have been able to function at his job if he had seen the Iraqis as a complicated society; that he in fact needed to hold on to the idea of one sniper so that he could feel like there was one single thing making sense to him, whether it was true or not, just like so many Americans in the middle of the war needed to hold on to the idea of their belief in George Bush, who needed to hold on to the idea of weapons of mass destruction, who needed to hold on to the idea that 9/11 and Iraq were related.
We needed to hold on to the idea because the alternative was too horrible to consider: the alternative that we had somehow entered a war and killed all these people for no good reason. Or, even worse, for the very oil that was used to fund the terrorism we were fighting. That we had lost so many good American soldiers on a false mission. That idea was impossible for so many Americans.
And I think it would have been interesting to see what happened if instead of the sniper being portrayed as a real character, if we were left to question whether that enemy sniper was real or a figment of Chris Kyle’s imagination. If instead of running away from the full complexity, if in some way the script would have run toward it. If some character were to say to Chris, “Dude, you were in a different part of the country six years later. What makes you think this is the same guy? It’s impossible that it’s the same guy. It’s impossible that the same bad guy shows up everywhere…it’s impossible to believe that it’s the same bogeyman, the same Saddam Hussein, it’s the same one bad guy who’s responsible for all the evils in all of these different places.”
It would have been interesting to see Chris hold on to that belief in the face of the evidence against it, in the face of Iraq’s divisions, of their factions, of their tribalism, of Sunnis versus Shiites, of all the complexity of this society, watching this man insist on boiling it down with his single-minded intention of killing that one evil enemy mastermind. Here, again, is an opportunity to tell the true story of the war.
And this is what I’d like to leave you with: there are always politics in our movies. And there are always politics and biases in our adaptations. And there are always truths, and there are always things that need to be simplified. There are always lies in movies because as screenwriters, we are storytellers who use fiction to get at our personal truth.
But oftentimes, in the effort to tie our stories together and simplify, we end up running away from the essential truths. And this gets in the way of our real ability to tell the story, to test our characters and change our characters in the most powerful ways possible.
And I want to encourage you, even as you find those devices that you need to hold a really complicated story together, even as you find the plot devices and the simplifications that are required to fit a complicated story into an hour and a half, that you look for your opportunities to run toward the truth, even if that truth is something too big for you and for your character…even if it’s something too big to fully understand.
I hope you enjoyed this installment of the Write Your Screenplay Podcast. If you’re working on an adaptation of a true story, a book, a novel, a short story or an original idea, and if you’d like to study with me in New York City, online, or on one of our international retreats, please check out our offerings.