[This post contains SPOILERS for American Sniper.]
Warner Bros. clearly anticipated that American Sniper – the film adaptation of the late Chris Kyle’s memoir – could be a contender in the 2015 awards season, once Clint Eastwood agreed to direct the film. However, even the studio couldn’t have predicted that the movie would rack up multiple Oscar nominations (including for Best Picture) – before opening to more than $100 million at the U.S. box office over the four-day MLK holiday frame, when it expanded nation-wide.
The overall critical reception for Sniper has been a positive one but, given the current political climate, it probably comes as little surprise to learn that the film’s success has now ignited a larger debate about not just its accuracy, but also the political statement the movie makes… assuming you think it makes one at all. For those reasons, it’s all the more interesting to learn what the movie’s original director, Steven Spielberg, had in mind with his planned rendition of Kyle’s life story.
THR has published an article (hat tip to both /Film and From Director Steven Spielberg) that offers a brief history of the American Sniper movie; starting in 2010 with screenwriter Jason Hall’s first meeting with the real-life Kyle: the ex-Navy SEAL credited with the most sniper kills in U.S. military history. Hall’s script, as presented through Eastwood’s movie, spans Kyle’s life from his time as a child – being taught life lessons by his father Wayne (Ben Reed) – to his choice to join the military as a grown man (Bradley Cooper), and undergo multiple tours of Iraq during the 2000s, after he’d met and started a family with his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller).
The second and third act of Eastwood’s American Sniper (and, in turn, Hall’s script) are framed by Kyle’s ongoing battle with an Iraqi sniper known as Mustafa (Sammy Shiek) – an expert marksman and ex-Olympic athlete, whose life outside war otherwise remains a mystery, even after he is killed in battle by Kyle. It turns out the treatment of the Mustafa character was perhaps the main difference between Spielberg and Eastwood’s versions of Kyle’s experiences.
Here is the relevant excerpt, from the THR article:
For a few months after Kyle’s funeral, it looked as if Steven Spielberg would be directing American Sniper. Spielberg had read Kyle’s book and Hall’s screenplay and was willing to commit to it as his next movie, with DreamWorks co-producing. But he had some ideas of his own. For one thing, he wanted to focus more on the “enemy sniper” in the script — the insurgent sharpshooter who was trying to track down and kill Kyle. “He was a mirror of Chris on the other side,” Hall explains of Spielberg’s vision. “It was a psychological duel as much as a physical duel. It was buried in my script, but Steven helped bring it out.”
As Spielberg added more and more ideas to the story, the page count continued to grow, bloating to 160. Warner Bros.’ budget for the film, though, remained a slender $60 million. Ultimately, Spielberg felt he couldn’t bring his vision of the story to the screen for that amount of money and dropped out of the project. Within a week, Warner Bros. president Greg Silverman, one of the three executives who run the studio, asked domestic distribution chief Dan Fellman to call Clint Eastwood.
One of the common criticisms that’s been made of American Sniper (it’s also an issue raised in our 4-star review of the film) is that it works better as a wartime-set action/thriller than it does as an insightful biopic about the real Chris Kyle. As our Kofi Outlaw put it, by the time Eastwood’s film begins to draw to a close (and Kyle calls him wife in the heat of battle to tell her he’s ready to truly come home at last), “we’ve simply witnessed a journey, with no larger statement about what the journey means, thematically, or how/why we should relate.”
Spielberg’s plan to beef up the Mustafa character – so that he might serve as a proper reflection of Kyle and his own personal beliefs – might’ve corrected this problem, while at the same time providing a more human face for the Iraqi population in the story than Eastwood’s version manages to offer (an issue that’s sparked more than a little in the way of heated debate about the film). This, in turn, might have given American Sniper a more cohesive thematic backbone, as a whole, and improved the film purely as a work of cinematic storytelling… the discussion about how accurate (or not) the whole thing is, aside.
However, it’s not clear if Spielberg’s version of American Sniper would’ve devoted more time to examining Kyle’s life after he returned home from his final tour overseas – and then, began helping other veterans with PTSD, resulting in his premature death at the hands of one such recovering soldier. That part of Hall’s shooting script (and, in turn, Eastwood’s movie) has also been criticized for playing out too much like a rushed epilogue, when it should’ve been just as fully explored as the other key developments in Kyle’s life depicted in his big screen biography.
Eastwood’s version of American Sniper is, of course, the one that actually made it to the big screen; and thus, the version that people are going to continue to debate and/or dissect not just now, but for years to come. Still, as always, it’s interesting to think about what might’ve been… and how (if at all) the general response would’ve differed, by comparison.
American Sniper is now playing in U.S. theaters.