Like the lethal sharpshooter that is the film’s subject, Clint Eastwood’s war drama “American Sniper” snuck into the awards derby and unexpectedly inched Ava DuVernay out of the DGA running, David Oyelowo out of the Best Actor race, racked up six Oscar nominations including Best Picture and became a box office phenomenon that garnered over $100 million over its first wide weekend. (We break down why here.)
But is this account of controversial, real-life, Texas-born Navy SEAL Chris Kyle a film of flag-flying jingoism or morally ambiguous, soldier-sympathy? “Sniper” has drawn a swift line in the sand, and celebrities have taken sides, and aim.
Academy Award-nominated screenwriter Jason Hall sat down with TIME’s Eliana Dockterman to address concerns about the film, which he adapted from Kyle’s posthumously published memoir, its controversial politics and why he and director Clint Eastwood decided against showing his 2012 death at the hands of a traumatized marine.
On the film’s controversial political stance:
“People see the movie poster, and it’s got a guy and the American flag, and they know Clint Eastwood–the Dirty Harry guy and the Republican convention guy–directed it… So they think it’s some jingoistic thing. I would challenge that in a big way. Chris was a man who believed in something and who therefore was useful to a government that needed him to go to war. It cost him his physical health, his mental health and almost cost him his family — but Chris probably would have paid the price over and over again if he’d been asked, which is both patriotic and totally tragic.”
On convincing Hollywood to make the movie:
In “that book — you hear the voice of the warrior, not a civilian, and I think it turned people here in Hollywood off…Everybody in Hollywood was like, ‘We don’t want to see an Iraq war movie. Everyone was against it, and we kind of lost, didn’t we?'” And so Hall pitched a portrait of Kyle as a spiritually troubled man grappling with PTSD, and this pitch convinced star Bradley Cooper to buy the rights. Hall firmly believes that Kyle, in writing his memoir, had to soften how affected he was by his high body count for the sake of sales.
On choosing not show Kyle’s death:
“I’ve spent time with their son, and that kid is going to grow up without a dad… I don’t want to be the guy who made some f—ing movie where I show his dad getting his f—ing head blown off. I made a promise to Taya that I was going to tell her husband’s story right.”
Hall also recounts getting into a scuffle with another NAVY Seal at Kyle’s funeral: “I took him down. He clipped his head. It was nasty. I was bleeding — he was bleeding. I let him up, and he wanted to go again. We went four times. And at the end of it, I think he threw up. He gave me a big hug, and was like, ‘You’re a f—ing badass. I’ll tell you whatever you want to know.”
He concludes: “When anyone challenges this story or thinks that I didn’t try to put the whole story out there, I’m like, ‘You know what? I bled for this thing.”