These days I go to the movies at least once a week if not twice or even on rare occasions three times. But before I started that habit, I went a lot less frequently and there are a number of movies from only a few years ago I still haven’t seen. One of those was American Sniper, a movie both of my parents spoke highly of, as well as dad’s brother-in-law, a man who served as a Green Beret in Vietnam who didn’t generally like war movies. As such, I did (finally) get around to seeing the movie this past week.
But this feature is more about books that are the inspiration for movies, so here we are. What about the late Chris Kyle’s autobiography?
Why this one?
I initially had no interest in the book version of American Sniper. My understanding was Kyle had ambitions to be a conservative pundit type, and that he’d tailored his book a bit to appeal to that audience. I don’t like reading most political books because many of them, conservative or liberal, strike me as poorly written things designed only to appeal to people who already agree with the author anyway. That’s not my thing. Factor in as well the hits Kyle’s reputation for honesty has taken since his book came out, and I had even less of an interest in reading his book.
But then one of my students was reading it and I asked him if he knew about the accusations made against Kyle, such as his losing a lawsuit to Jesse Ventura, and a few of said student’s classmates who had read the book said they knew nothing of the stories I was talking about since they weren’t in Kyle’s book, and how would I know if I hadn’t read it myself? Well, that’s a good point, so I found the book on a discount table at Barnes and Noble, bought it, and read it, figuring if nothing else I could get a good column out of it for here.
Besides, I do enjoy the work of both Clint Eastwood and Bradley Cooper, so if it gave me a good excuse to finally get around to the movie version of American Sniper, that could hardly be a bad thing. Sure, Eastwood seems to have settled into a thing where he only makes movies based on real people these days (even The Mule was partially based on a true story), but I’ve always liked his directorial style and Cooper has been impressing me as an actor since Silver Linings Playbook.
Let me start off by putting it bluntly: I did not like this book much at all.
Part of it was a general philosophical disagreement with things Kyle said. In his six page introduction, he managed to piss me off three times. Two of them I could excuse. First, he said everyone he killed in Iraq was an evil savage. That’s very reductionist thinking, taking the no doubt complex social and psychological factors that drive a person to do horrific things down to a very simple explanation. I am very much inclined to call a person’s actions evil and less so to call the people causing those actions evil for a wide variety of reasons; however, I could excuse that statement as a necessary thing almost anyone in the military has to do in order to justify killing other human beings. Then he said he’s a humble guy who doesn’t want a lot of attention, and I don’t think humble guys who don’t want attention write memoirs, even if it is to the set the record straight before someone else does. Besides, if he did want to be a pundit, that could have been a lie. But then I thought maybe he wrote the book before he became a famous war hero, so it might have been true at the time he wrote the book. So, I could excuse those two things, but then he angered me one last time by saying he thought war was fun, and he had a good time over there.
That was, for me, inexcusable. War isn’t supposed to be fun. Even if you think it is necessary, it shouldn’t be fun. People on both sides of the conflict are dying all over the place. It’s not fun.
Now, part of these sorts of issues could have been resolved if Kyle had shifted his focus to other places in other ways. For example, if he’d put less emphasis on killing the bad guys and more on saving the lives of his fellow Americans, that would have worked better for me, but Kyle puts a lot of emphasis on killing, even trotting out the verb “slaughtering” at times to describe how American military superiority was handling the Iraqi insurgency. Or, if he spent time talking about, say, hanging out with other SEALs and the camaraderie he felt with other members of the military, then I could see how he could talk about “fun”. And though he does talk about saving lives and even just hanging with other SEALs, most of the book is still about killing the enemy, and he even seems to take some pleasure in that. At one point, he mentions watching a group of armed and armored insurgents trying to cross a river using inflatable beach balls. He does what he needs to and shoots the beach balls one by one before the insurgents can cross the river to cause harm to American forces as he should. He talks about the somewhat comical sight of seeing the guys whose balls were shot desperately trying to get to one of the still-inflated beach balls to stay afloat. But then Kyle had to go and mention watching men drown as if that was also an amusing sight. I could be misreading that, but if he’d cut the story off a little sooner, it might not have been as bothersome to a reader like me as it was.
Plus, given the way his reputation has taken hits over his honesty in recent years, there were numerous instances where I found myself actually skeptical over some of the things that had happened. Kyle mentions being stationed briefly on an aircraft carrier at one point that had a gang problem until the admiral on board asked the SEALs to take care of them in the way SEALs are implied to always handle problems. I have a friend who was in the Navy, and he did assure me that gang problems on aircraft carriers can happen, but he didn’t think any admiral would ask the SEALs to just go beat some guys up to settle it. Did that incident actually happen? I don’t know, but it somehow doesn’t seem like something likely to have happened.
Now, that said, all this could have been forgivable if Kyle were at least an interesting writer. If Kyle could craft a good story or made his life interesting, as a reader I could forgive a lot. I can say, well, I don’t agree with what he’s saying in places, but at least he makes a good case or he gave me an interesting narrative. But Kyle couldn’t do that either. His book reads like a series of stories from his life, but he rarely gives much in the way of details on anything. At one point, Kyle found himself and a handful of other SEALs stuck in a building, surrounded by untold numbers of insurgents, and the SEALs were just mowing the insurgents down, unsure if they would survive. It sounded a lot like the Blackhawk Down incident, and someone had managed to write a whole book about that, but Kyle covering the whole thing in a page and a half. Anything that came across as potentially interesting is glossed over or never mentioned at all. Kyle mentions how he got a tattoo of a red cross on his arm to symbolize his Christian faith and all that he’d lost in the war, but by then he hadn’t mentioned losing anything in the war aside from maybe time with his family. Were there loses? I don’t know. When he does mention friends of his who were killed in the war, he says he doesn’t want to talk about the details much there (understandably), but none of his stories have many details, and they often come in haphazardly. Even if Kyle was restricted from going into detail on things that happened in the war itself, he still keeps the details low on everything else. Kyle as an author was just not a particularly introspective person. He maybe hints at things, but then doesn’t say what those things are. He and his wife are fighting at points, but he doesn’t say much about what they were fighting about other than his general distance from the family over the course of his military career. Did he have PTSD? His wife, in one of her sections, mentions he slept oddly at one point, but that’s it.
Now, there was one section of the book that did grab my attention, and that was when he stopped to describe the different kinds of gear and weapons he carried into combat. Another friend said he also thought Kyle’s memoir was badly written, but his history of firearms was actually really well done, so that made sense. I learned a few things about guns and military gear that I didn’t know anything about before, but at the end he discusses the helmet and why he didn’t wear if as much as his preferred headwear of a ball cap. If he’d stopped at saying the helmet wasn’t really all that effective as head protection or comfortable for someone who mostly stays hidden and hits targets from great distances, then that for me would have been fine, but then he adds that the real reason was because 90% of being cool is looking cool, and ball caps look cool. If you’re in a combat zone, who the hell cares if you’re cool?
That, in a nutshell, is what American Sniper the book is. Chris Kyle believed the best thing in life to be is a badass. Everything he did is to show how much of a badass he is. Winning wars is about being the bigger badass than the other guys. The best compliment he can give someone is to call them a badass. Like I said, he didn’t write a particularly introspective book. Maybe the real Chris Kyle wasn’t that guy who just shrugged off everything, but this was the version of himself he presented for the public. There’s probably a good story to be found in the life of Chris Kyle. It’s just not the one he told in his own book.
So, what about the movie? Well, I really liked the movie. It took a lot of the more problematic aspects of Kyle’s book out–Kyle mentions numerous bar fights he got into, along with having a taste for physically hazing the new guys–and leaves in a more humble, soft-spoken guy who even tries to have positive interactions with Iraqis a couple times, something he never really does in his book. There isn’t much of a narrative structure to Kyle’s book. Like real life, it seems more like a series of events of stuff that happened. The movie takes it in an interesting direction by essentially giving him a rival sniper in the insurgency. There’s no such person in his book, but as a symbolic representation of what the war was for Chris Kyle, it really worked. Director Clint Eastwood really knows how to create tension at the appropriate moments, and Cooper is a charismatic lead. As I said above, I’m a fan of both Eastwood’s and Cooper’s work, so it didn’t surprise me that much I really enjoyed a movie based on a book I didn’t care for much at all. And yes, the fake baby in the movie is obvious, but if that’s the worst thing I can say about a movie, then it must have been doing a lot of other things really well.
Book grade: 3 out of 10 moments where the author believes he knows better than other people on whatever subject he’s discussing.
Movie grade: 9 out of 10 fake babies.