Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” is one of the reasons why I don’t take “historical” films and their critics seriously. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a fantastic film and I enjoyed it. I could gush over how inspirationally human Chris Kyle’s character was. But that’s the problem; Kyle is just that — a character.
The film was based on the veteran Navy Seal’s identically titled memoirs about his service in the military. Close to the film’s release, former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura won a defamation lawsuit against Kyle’s estate. In his memoir, Kyle claimed that he knocked Ventura out at a bar. The trial more or less declared that it never happened.
Similarly speaking, Kyle’s outlandish tale of gunning down looters in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina is even more unlikely. As of yet, no one has confirmed whether his allegedly taped encounter with two carjackers is true. Alas, we can’t ask Kyle this because he’s dead.
This isn’t the first time that Hollywood has gotten history wrong. “Braveheart” — the Mel Gibson film about the Scottish patriot William Wallace — is riddled with inaccuracies. The most amusing of which is that Queen Isabella of France, whom Wallace impregnates in the film, was merely three years old during the events of the film.
In the same way, “The Imitation Game,” which is about the late computer scientist Alan Turing, features a subplot where he colludes with a Soviet double agent when the latter blackmails him under the threat of outing his homosexuality. In real life, Turing was persecuted for his lifestyle, but fictionalizing his speculative treason is nothing short of slanderous. I’ve even heard people laughably claim that “The Last Samurai” had good history.
In all fairness, the reason why Hollywood has such a difficult time is due to the uncertainties of history. Writing history alone is hard. It’s even harder to reconcile it with fiction. This is one of the reasons why postmodernists view history as narratives. The topic is no less fictional than a novel or film.
Kobo Abe, the novelist, playwright, and critic who inspired Haruki Murakami and Oe Kenzaburo’s novels, devised his own literary philosophy on such a view. Earlier in his career, Abe dabbled in journalism. However, he soon realized the limitations of “reportage.” “Objective” reporting was insufficient to reach the truth.
“Mokugekisha,” a “pseudo-documentary” written by Abe, recounts a real-life murder. The drama’s structure is a film-within-a film about “the making of a documentary.” In it, the actors interrupt the narrative and acknowledge the film crew during a take. It proves one overlooked, but fundamental point: even documentaries are subject to the authorial control of directors.
In this sense, the label “documentary fantasy” for Abe and director Hiroshi Teshigahara’s film “Pitfall” isn’t contradictory. Not even documentaries are immune to the mythical delusions of the human imagination.
To return to “American Sniper,” this is a film that has stoked a lot passion from audiences across the country. Director Michael Moore made some incendiary comments about Kyle’s background. In turn, other audiences took offense that Moore would insult their hero. The success of “American Sniper” — as some have speculated — owes a lot to the values of key demographics in America with military backgrounds. It represents a cultural and political rift in the country. Moore sees soldiers as either helpless victims or murderous scoundrels. His naysayers see soldiers as saints.
“Myths” frightened Abe. He feared authorial manipulation of his readers to the extent that critics and fellow novelists like Yukio Mishima often described his writing as “dry.” But for Abe, writing to empathetically appeal to emotions was unethically manipulative. He felt it was a moral duty to sacrifice style for substance.
“American Sniper,” like all good films, is complicated. It deals with post-traumatic stress disorder amongst returning veterans. At the same time, one has to wonder whether it’s unintentionally fomenting jingoism amongst its audiences, given how vociferously defensive fans are of Kyle.
That being said, I’m offended by Moore’s views. Feeling sorry for veterans — at times — is almost as offensive as spitting on them. Those who agree with Moore wouldn’t like it if I said his fans are idiots. Similarly, I’d be furious if he insulted the 442nd RCT. Much like his critics, Moore’s politics are intertwined with his identity and “American Sniper” is a good Rorschach test in that respect.
This is one of the reasons why I avoid films “based on true stories.” I don’t like being lied to and I hate being emotionally manipulated even more. But at the end of the day, I’m conscious enough of Kyle’s background to enjoy “art for art’s sake.” Any author, director, or critic who believes audiences need their hands held neither respects cinema nor its viewers.
Again, “American Sniper” is a good movie. I still love “Braveheart” despite its many, many errors. Both are well-crafted works of popular art. And art is always dependent on the weaknesses of human perception.
Brett Fujioka can be reached at [email protected]. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.