After bellowing his famous “Freedom!” cry, William Wallace dies following a gruesome series of physical and emotional tortures. The elderly Private Ryan breaks down in sobs over the graves of the men who sacrificed their lives to bring him home from the battlefields of WWII. Peter Parker cradles his dying uncle in the moment that launches him into embracing his Spider-Man identity. Are these violently driven scenes any less moving because they are from fictional films? When a viewer’s emotional investments move between the real and the fictional it is important to consider the effects of truth and accuracy on the reception of film, especially action films.
I collided with this question head-on last month when I saw American Sniper during its opening weekend. There was a palpable tension as the lights dimmed in the packed theater, but before Clint Eastwood’s war drama hit the screen we were pummeled by an onslaught of violent and fast-paced trailers for this summer’s action movies. Deranged desert gangs battled each other amidst apocalyptic sand storms; slummy British spies-in-training were heaved from airplanes; Marvel’s fiercest heroes fought each other and the unstoppable Ultron in a slew of epic battles.
After each preview my parents remarked at the ridiculousness of such films, that they were outrageous and excessively violent. As someone who enjoys action and superhero films, I was unfazed by the content but intrigued by my parents’ comments. The millennial generation has been pinned down for its inclination to enjoy the video game quality of fictitious action flicks, with LA Times’ Neal Gabler suggesting that millennials think “movies have to be new and cool to warrant attention,” not unlike fashion trends and twitter updates. But is novelty-seeking-attention entirely preferable to producing more “truthful” narratives?
In the midst of the current awards season films such as Imitation Game, The Theory of Everything, and Selma have been vigorously scrutinized for their historical accuracy (or lack thereof). These “true stories” excel in popularity but the critical focus too often lands on their historical veracity rather than their overall effect as a compelling story. Francine Prose from the New York Review remarks, “It’s so much easier and less threatening to talk about whether (or how much of) a film is ‘true’ than to confront the unpleasant—and indisputable—truth”. Are filmmakers bound to be accurate historians or are they merely providing entertaining stories? Or is it simply the case that the most accurate version of historical events and figures may not be as entertaining or relatable as a fictionalized or adjusted retelling.
Fictional action flicks are confident in their playful unreality, often winking in self-awareness and over-the-top violence. Indeed, the success of this stylistic mode seems a surefire Hollywood staple. The five highest grossing domestic films in 2014 were Guardians of the Galaxy, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 1, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, The LEGO Movie, and The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. In fact, Gone Girl and Neighbors are the only films within the top twenty that are not action films. American Sniper, however, is grounded in the dangerous milieu of a very real and ongoing war, jeopardizing a clear categorization within the realms of “true” and “imaginary.”
Based on Chief Petty Officer Chris Kyle’s autobiography, American Sniper falls well within the “based on a true story” genre, and yet as a cinematic telling of such a harrowing and ultimately tragic story it seems to rely upon (indeed, relish within) the very tropes of the sensational fictions we seem to enjoy watching so much more.
I found myself wondering whether this was a frank but tender look at war and the toll it takes on American soldiers, or just another Marvel-esque action flick. And if it was the latter, is there anything actually problematic in the cinematic dramatization of a soldier’s life when that dramatization finds itself reliant upon the same cinematic devices we associate with, say, The Matrix trilogy?
There are a plethora of scenes in American Sniper that seem to borrow in bulk from the imaginative feats achieved by earlier—albeit mostly digitalized—heroes under duress. Consider this one: C.P.O. Kyle, sniper for the US Navy SEALs, played by a significantly beefed-up Bradley Cooper, is seen chasing down Mustafa (Sammy Sheik) – an enemy sniper made out to be Kyle’s arch-nemesis – and he finally has a shot at killing his enemy. Putting his personal vendetta ahead of the safety of the group, Kyle takes a shot from the roof of a building while the camera follows the bullet to it its impossible target 2,100 yards away. A good bit of time is given to this digitally crafted shot: the bullet stays in focus as it travels (slow motion) toward its designated enemy, evoking innumerable crosshair moments on screen.
This Hollywoodization of American Sniper creates a problem for its appeal as a “true story” but allows for a more satisfying conclusion as it pertains to the viewer’s experience and understanding of the War. Kyle kills Mustafa, American heroes gun down insurgents, and Kyle eventually returns home to repair his marriage and recover from the combat zone. As Danny Leigh comments in his review for The Guardian, “Your time is not wasted and your attention never wavers because [Clint Eastwood] always knows just what to show you – and, crucially, what to leave out.”
American Sniper rides the fine line of reality packaged as entertainment, opening up a new dialogue about the way we watch such films. Do historical films require perfect accuracy, compelling filmmaking, or a tasteful combination of the two? Does the responsibility of “accuracy” and “truth” lie with filmmakers, or viewers who have information at the tips of their technologically connected fingers? Or is it that certain subjects remain taboo, such as the all-too-current wars overseas?
Perhaps our current generation is not only entertained by action movies, but needs them. The extreme violence and snarky humor surrounding fast-paced narratives of “good vs. evil” accommodates the short attention span of (most) millennials and allows all-compassing evil to be defeated by (flawed but likable) good guys who always come out on top. American Sniper, at times, fits the mold of an entertaining action flick, yet also exposes the reality of a long and complicated battle with an unknowable and uncontainable enemy. It becomes easy for civilians to distance themselves from the War in Iraq as they focus on their own safe and comfortable lifestyles, and a movie like American Sniper, even if blatantly incorporating superhero violence and themes, can disrupt the disillusion of those not directly involved with war overseas.
 Mad Max: Fury Road, Kingsman: The Secret Service, Avengers: Age of Ultron.
 Neal Gabler, LA Times: http://articles.latimes.com/2012/jul/14/entertainment/la-ca-film-novelty-20120715
 Francine Prose, New York Review: http://www.nybooks.com/blogs/nyrblog/2015/feb/10/case-for-hollywood-history/
 Box Office Mojo 2014: http://www.boxofficemojo.com/yearly/chart/?yr=2014
 Danny Leigh, The Guardian: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/jan/29/american-sniper-old-fashioned-western
Heidi Ippolito is currently pursuing her MLitt in the Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Arts.