‘American Sniper’ Script Looks for the Human Behind the Hero
By Robert Ito
January 28, 2014
In “American Sniper,” Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) peers through the scope of a high-powered rifle, finger on the trigger, preparing to shoot a young boy. A Navy SEAL on his first tour of duty in Iraq, he has been tasked with protecting the lives of the Marines under his watch, and the boy is running full speed at a convoy of them, his hands wrapped around an enormous Russian-made grenade.
Given the nature of a sniper’s assignment, any reasonably intuitive moviegoer has a fair idea how this is going to end. (If you’re still not sure, now would be a good time to stop reading.) Mr. Kyle shoots the boy square in the chest, and when a woman grabs the grenade and tries to finish the job, he shoots her, too. Both die.
The scene is crucial to the film, but you won’t find any mention of a boy being killed in the book “American Sniper,” the autobiography upon which the film is based. After Mr. Kyle submitted the galleys to the Department of Defense and the United States Naval Special Warfare Command for review, that part of the story was removed. “Things were redacted from the book,” said Jason Hall, the film’s screenwriter. “And one of the things that was redacted was the way that that went down.”
And that’s not the only way that the Clint Eastwood-directed film version of “American Sniper,” which has gone on to break box-office records, differs from the 2012 best seller. Much about Mr. Kyle’s life is already the stuff of armed forces lore: the most confirmed sniper kills in American military history; nicknamed “the Legend” by his SEAL teammates; once shot a man from an incredible 2,100 yards out (a little over a mile).
But the Chris Kyle viewers encounter in the film is a much more complicated figure than the one readers find in the book — in large part because of what took place in the months and years between the book’s beginnings and the film’s first day of shooting.
Mr. Kyle began work on his memoir in 2010, just a year after serving four tours of duty in Iraq. In the book, he refers to the enemy as “savages” and describes the “despicable evil” he encountered in Iraq.
“What you’re getting is a glimpse of a man at a particular moment in time,” Mr. Hall said. “He had been at war or training for war for a decade. In places, he sounds downright nasty, but that’s what we created. This is what these people have to be.”
Mr. Hall was already working on a screenplay about Mr. Kyle’s life at that time and had gotten to know the former SEAL through visits and calls, and by watching him interact with his wife and children. Despite struggling with his own demons, Mr. Kyle had been helping other veterans who had returned from the war. “I felt him change in those couple of years,” Mr. Hall said. “You could hear it in his voice. The laughter started coming easier, especially in those last months, when I was writing the script.”
On Feb. 1, 2013, Mr. Hall handed in the first draft of his screenplay. The next day, Mr. Kyle was killed by a former Marine he had been trying to help. Mr. Cooper, who was producing the film and set to star in it, had only been able to have a five-minute chat with Mr. Kyle before he was killed. “It was a cursory conversation,” Mr. Cooper said in a phone interview from Manhattan. “We joked around a bit. He talked about taking me to the back of his truck and knocking the pretty out of me.”
“The book was interesting source material,” Mr. Cooper added. “But it was never going be my primary tool to get into who this guy was, because I literally had the guy” there to consult with directly.
After Mr. Kyle’s death, the task of fleshing out the character beyond what was in the book fell in large part to Mr. Kyle’s widow, Taya, who provided the filmmakers and actors access to home movies, letters and a decade’s worth of emails. “Jason and I spent hours on the phone,” Ms. Kyle said, speaking by phone from her home in Midlothian, Tex. “He would catch me at any time of the day or night, at times where I just needed to cry or vent or go through something. And that was a blessing, because he ended up getting so much more than either of us would have thought you needed for a movie.”
After those conversations, the screenplay changed “immensely,” Mr. Hall said. “The draft that I had written under the tutelage and watchful eye of Chris was much more of a war film.” The focus of the film began to shift more toward the relationship between Chris and Taya, and the struggles that Chris had had in readjusting to civilian life. “What I got was the other side of Chris Kyle that wasn’t in the book,” he said. “The Chris before the war that this woman fell in love with.”
And there were other changes. In the book, Mustafa, an Iraqi sniper and former Olympics marksman, registers as little more than a four-sentence blip. “I really got on Chris about that, and he said that he felt that it was really possible that this guy shot his friend, and he didn’t want to memorialize him in the book,” Mr. Hall said. In the film, the character becomes a much larger figure, Mr. Kyle’s doppelgänger and archnemesis, a shadowy phantom whom the hero ultimately confronts in a Wild West-style showdown.
The film also depicts Mr. Kyle’s beloved brother Jeff, a Marine, bitterly complaining to Mr. Kyle about the war. The scene is shocking — the gung-ho, legendary sniper versus his war-weary younger sibling — and utterly untrue. “In real life, Jeff did not have that moment,” Ms. Kyle said. But millions of other veterans have, so the scene is true in that sense. “Jeff understands that there was a need for that in the movie,” she added. “But for him to wear, it is going to be hard.”
The movie has gained a life far beyond that of the 2012 book, with politicians, pundits and others arguing over the film’s meaning and intentions even as it drew Oscar nominations for, among other things, its screenplay and lead performance.
“It’s very easy to say, this movie’s this and that, and then write it off and say it’s propaganda, which is so insane,” Mr. Cooper said. “Because what you really neglect are the soldiers. To me, Chris was utterly human. I never had to go from icon to human. I was studying a man, and I was trying to inhabit the man.”
Correction: January 29, 2015
An earlier version of this article referred incorrectly to Bradley Cooper’s producing role with “American Sniper.” He was a producer — not an executive producer.