Considering they have been accused of flouting history, propping up an unjust war and possibly “validating racism, murder, and dehumanization” — as one writer suggested — it’s been a surprisingly gratifying week for the makers of “American Sniper.”
Box office domination has offered major affirmation. So has the praise of some prominent liberals (read: Jane Fonda.) For screenwriter Jason Hall, though, the most satisfying response to the Iraqi war biopic has been the outpouring of tweets, Facebook posts and emails from several generations of veterans and their families.
Hall, an Oscar nominee for best adapted screenplay, said he has received roughly 250 Facebook friend requests from veterans and their families. Some of them told him the Clint Eastwood-helmed film finally told their story and opened conversations about the tangled emotions they hold about the wars dating to Vietnam, feelings they previously felt they couldn’t share.
“It’s like ‘goal accomplished,’ in my mind,” Hall said. “People are talking about this. They are talking about this war. They are talking about these soldiers and who these guys really are. And the soldiers are talking about their experiences, sometimes for the first time.”
“Sniper,” which opened with a record $107 million-plus over the Martin Luther King Day weekend, has so far taken in about $136 million domestically and is projected to be the box office champ again this weekend. But there was also blowback when it appeared that Michael Moore and Seth Rogen were criticizing the film, though they both later clarified that they were not, as well as others who said the movie went too easy on its subject, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, and painted a rosy picture of a failed war.
The screenwriter said he thinks much of the tempest has been generated by the critics’ predispositions and a misconception about the nature of the film that Eastwood set out to make.
In his best-selling book, also titled “American Sniper,” Kyle did nothing to dilute his image as the vengeful warrior. He called the enemy “savages and despicably evil,” adding that his “only regret is that I didn’t kill more.” Kyle’s account drew additional controversy when journalists could not corroborate some of the details.
But screenwriter Hall has said his telling of Kyle’s story is based at least as much on his own meetings with Hall — before he was murdered, allegedly by a fellow veteran — and by more than 200 hours of conversations with his widow.
That Chris Kyle was considerably “softer” and more reflective than the one who penned his memoir (“A soliloquy told from a bar stool into a tape recorder,” Hall called it.) not long after finishing his fourth tour of duty in Iraq.
This gentler view did not sit well with critics like Lindy West of the Guardian, who wrote: “The real American Sniper was a hate-filled killer. Why are simplistic patriots treating him as a hero?” West went on to ask whether Eastwood’s sympathetic rendering of Kyle made the director “responsible for validating racism, murder, and dehumanization?”
But liberals have been far from united in condemnation, most notably with the defection of Fonda, the virulent Vietnam War opponent. She tweeted at midweek that “American Sniper” was “powerful” and that she felt echoes of “Coming Home,” her own film on the damage wrought by Vietnam.
Warner Brothers and Eastwood have been mum about the controversy, with the studio apparently believing it is winning the war of public opinion.
That has left the screenwriter as a principal point man for the unlikely hit. He said he and Eastwood never intended to summarize the totality of the Iraq war. “This is not a documentary,” he said. “It’s not to educate people on why we went to war and whether it was right or wrong.”
Hall said the most gratifying notes he received were from those who said “American Sniper” had opened up their feelings about an earlier war. A wife of a Vietnam veteran said her husband, prone to violence after that war, had talked for the first time about his experience. A Hollywood director told Hall he had the same experience with his father, another Vietnam vet whose emotions on the subject had been pent up for decades.
“He told me ‘Thank you. This changed my relationship with my dad,’ ” Hall said. “That had been my hope. That the truth of one soldier’s story, cutting to the bone of his truth, would become universal for all soldiers.”