The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Making Chris Kyle’s ‘American Sniper’: Clint Eastwood’s staff weighs in on what they changed

In this image released by Warner Bros. Pictures, Bradley Cooper appears in a scene from “American Sniper.” (AP Photo/Warner Bros. Pictures, Keith Bernstein)
Placeholder while article actions load

Editor’s note: Checkpoint attended an advanced screening of “American Sniper,” which opens in theaters Dec. 25. This piece includes plot spoilers.

Navy SEAL sharpshooter Chris Kyle is on the roof of a building in Iraq partway through the forthcoming film “American Sniper” when he takes aim at an insurgent who is about to launch a rocket-propelled grenade at U.S. Marines. Kyle drops the would-be attacker with gunfire from his powerful rifle, but the SEAL is then faced with a new challenge: A boy, perhaps 8 years old, picks up the launcher instead and aims it at the unknowing Americans.

“Don’t pick it up,” Kyle whispers, looking at the child through the scope of his rifle. “Put it down,” he whispers again, his face betraying a mixture of horror and sadness at what he might have to do.

The boy drops the weapon and runs away, and Kyle, brilliantly played by beefed-up and bearded Bradley Cooper, collapses over his rifle on the rooftop. He’s overcome with emotion — one of several times that the internal turmoil racking the frequently stoic Kyle rises to the surface in the film.

The scene is representative of what the movie, directed by Hollywood legend Clint Eastwood, explores: the making and transformation of a SEAL Team 3 war hero over four grueling deployments to Iraq between 2003 and 2008. In that time frame, Kyle was wounded twice, earned two Silver Star awards for valor, and watched several of his friends die or suffer significant wounds. He’s also credited with killing at least 160 insurgents, which would make him the most deadly sniper in U.S. history.

Veterans — a notoriously tough group to please with military movies — have mostly praised the film after attending advanced screenings. So has Kyle’s widow, Taya, who said the movie’s production was healing for her after her husband was killed at a gun range in Texas in 2013 while attempting to help a Marine veteran coping with post-traumatic stress.

But the film does take liberties with reality as laid out in the autobiography on which it is based. The filmmakers, in interviews with Checkpoint, said their goal was to remain as true to the story as they could, while making it accessible to a broader audience that includes viewers who have never spent a day in a war zone.

“You have to take a little creative license to compress all the drama into two hours because you’re trying to tell the story and convey a lot in a short amount of time,” said Rob Lorenz, the producer on the movie. “You have to make choices and skip over some logic in order to fit the story on the screen in a reasonable amount of time.”

That practice is common. The 2013 movie “Lone Survivor,” for example, shows Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, played by Mark Wahlberg, watching as a helicopter sent to rescue him is blown up by Taliban fighters using a rocket-propelled grenade after his unit is devastated in a 2005 ambush in Afghanistan. In reality, his book states that he learned about the catastrophic shootdown only after he was recovered later in another rescue attempt.

In the movie “American Sniper,” the plot deviates from the book in a series of ways, including in the death of Ryan Job, a Navy SEAL who was wounded in the face during a firefight alongside Kyle in the city of Ramadi in 2006.

The movie depicts Job as a great teammate who died during facial reconstruction surgery months after being shot in a firefight alongside Kyle. That part is true, but the timeline isn’t right: The film show Kyle learning of Job’s death in Iraq from a SEAL teammate. In reality, Job’s death occurred in 2009, after he got married and climbed Mount Rainier, according to his obituary. Kyle wrote in his book that he was shocked to learn of Job’s death after he returned from Iraq in a phone call from Luttrell, his fellow Navy SEAL and author.

“Something had gone wrong in the hospital,” Kyle wrote in his book about Job’s death. “It was a tragic end to a heroic life. I’m not sure any of us who knew him have gotten over it. I don’t think I ever will.”

Another instance in which book and movie part ways: the portrayal of Mustafa, a Syrian sniper in the movie who stalks the SEALs, wounds Job, and kills numerous American troops during Kyle’s deployments to Iraq. The insurgent is a central villain in the film, a near-equal of Kyle. Kyle eventually kills him in an important moment in the film with a shot of more than 2,100 yards in Sadr City, Iraq — more than a mile.

In reality, the 2,100-yard shot took out an insurgent who was aiming at a convoy of U.S. soldiers with an rocket-propelled grenade, not a sniper rifle, Kyle’s book says.

“Maybe the way the way I jerked the trigger to the right adjusted for the wind,” Kyle wrote. “Maybe gravity shifted and put that bullet right where it had to be. Maybe I was just the luckiest son of a bitch in Iraq. Whatever — I watched through my scope as the shot hit the Iraqi, who tumbled over the wall to the ground.”

The movie does depict Kyle in a way that more fully captures his emotional and mental struggles with war than his own book. In print, he discusses the friction that those struggles created between him and Taya, but the film brings his anguish to life, showing Kyle’s emotional distance from his own family and their gradual efforts to open up to each other.

Jason Hall, the movie’s screenwriter, said he first met Kyle and Taya before the publication of his book. At that point, the family was still struggling to overcome the SEAL’s years away in Iraq and learning to communicate with each other, Hall said.

Hall said he used the book as a resource while working on the screenplay, but also did research on his own and included plot points that aren’t in the book. He focused on Kyle’s struggle and sacrifice as the main theme, and built the story around that, Hall said.

“We have this arc of him being a sheepdog and going out to protect, and what that means to him and costs him through the course of this war,” Hall said. “Certainly we did have… a couple more scenes in there, but the script at some point was inflated to up around 154 pages, and it ended up at 118. We had a budget we had to hit, and you can’t include everything.”

But Hall said it was important to include aspects of all four deployments to reflect Kyle’s long years of sacrifice. Doing so required something that would unite the separate deployments, the writer said. Mustafa, the Syrian sniper, became that connective tissue. Kyle had told Hall that he felt Mustafa was responsible for shooting his friend, but didn’t use the insurgent’s name in the book because he didn’t want to glorify him, Hall said.

“He revealed to me this story of this guy who I felt like in every way was his doppelganger, his sort of mirror,” Hall said. “In addition to providing an engine for the core story, it also provided a psychological mirror for Chris, and in my mind revealed more about the enemy than we may have been able to otherwise.”

The movie was filmed in both California and Rabat, Morocco. The remote location boosted the budget for the movie, but Eastwood and Lorenz did not see a good alternative to film many of the scenes set in Iraq, Lorenz said.

“It occurred to us that this is a movie about a sniper who spends a lot of time working on rooftops overlooking an urban landscape, and that was not something we were going to find anywhere around here,” Lorenz said. “We set our sights on North Africa, and Morocco — particularly, Rabat — came up as a likely choice because it is similar and it has sort of a flat landscape that is similar to Iraq.”

Many of the rank-and-file Marines depicted in the movie are actually Moroccans dressed to look like Americans, said the movie’s top technical military adviser, retired Sgt. Maj. James Dever. A former Force Reconnaissance Marine, he trained them to move like U.S. infantrymen, and made sure the right weapons were used in filming.

Moroccan tanks were used in some of the combat scenes, and dressed up with special effects to look like American Abrams tanks, Dever said. The Moroccans involved wanted to do the job right, and were good about taking direction, he said. In other scenes, former U.S. Marines played Navy SEALs. The weapons for Kyle and his fellow service members in the movie change just as they would in real life based on the situations they faced.

One criticism of “American Sniper” so far from Special Operations veterans has been that patches were worn on the uniforms of Army Rangers in Iraq, even though that wouldn’t have happened in real life. Dever said that was done for the viewer’s benefit.

“There are civilians who are watching the movie, and they don’t know what Rangers are. They don’t know what the units are unless we show patches on the uniforms. We could have went with no patches on anybody, but then who knows who is who?” Dever said. “The only way to do it is to put patches on them.”

The retired sergeant major has previously worked for Eastwood on other military films, including “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Letters from Iwo Jima” and “Heartbreak Ridge.” Eastwood expects that his advisers know their job when they arrive and are ready to work, Dever said.

“He expects you to do your job. He’s not going to do your job for you,” he said. “If you can’t do your job, you won’t be working with him again.”