How Steven Spielberg's 'American Sniper' Would Have Been Different
by Ethan Anderton
January 20, 2015
There's no doubt American Sniper has been a hit with audiences, even as it faces some stirring criticism about its portrayal of the titular soldier Chris Kyle. But that's a different conversation entirely, and you can read more about that elsewhere. Instead, this is about a key difference that would have made the film much less two-dimensional and one-sided, adding more humanity to the real-life sniper with the highest confirmed kill count in United States military history. You may remember that Steven Spielberg nearly directed American Sniper, and now some details of how his vision may have been different have surfaced.
One of the driving forces for Kyle (Bradley Cooper) in the film is to keep his fellow Navy SEALs safe, especially from a rival Olympic-level sniper who is taking down his guys from unbelievable distances. He becomes Kyle's arch nemesis essentially. But one of the problems that myself and others have with the film is the blatantly evil villain sniper is made out to be nothing but a cardboard cutout of a character. They might as well have just called the movie Captain America: The Middle Eastern Soldier. But it sounds like Spielberg wanted to add some more meat to that character. THR says:
Spielberg had read Kyle’s book and [Jason] Hall’s screenplay and was willing to commit to it as his next movie, with DreamWorks co-producing. But he had some ideas of his own. For one thing, he wanted to focus more on the “enemy sniper” in the script — the insurgent sharpshooter who was trying to track down and kill Kyle. “He was a mirror of Chris on the other side,” Hall explains of Spielberg’s vision. “It was a psychological duel as much as a physical duel. It was buried in my script, but Steven helped bring it out.”
As Spielberg added more and more ideas to the story, the page count continued to grow, bloating to 160. Warner Bros.’ budget for the film, though, remained a slender $60 million. Ultimately, Spielberg felt he couldn’t bring his vision of the story to the screen for that amount of money and dropped out of the project. Within a week, Warner Bros. president Greg Silverman, one of the three executives who run the studio, asked domestic distribution chief Dan Fellman to call Clint Eastwood.
By adding just a little more substance and humanity to this character, it would actually have shined a better light on the flawed portrayal of what is depicted as a clear cut good vs. evil scenario. We've seen this kind of theme presented before, specifically in films like The Kingdom, but this one would have felt even more personal coming from the individual viewpoint of a sniper in the heart of the war. But instead we just get a cold bad guy, and thus the portrayal of Kyle is relegated to being far less complex as just a good guy, and his mental struggles between tours and after he's finished with his service are only fleeting and lack impact.
The reality is that war is complicated, and both Chris Kyle and this enemy sniper are both fighting for what they believe in. The only reason the other side is considered our "enemy" is because of who we are. That doesn't mean that terrorism is fine by any means, but in war, each side believes they're fighting for what is right. Having more of that dichotomy in the film would have made American Sniper feel much more even-handed in its approach to war with both sides being portrayed with substance, much like Eastwood did with Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. Instead it's just a two-dimensional battle of an American hero fighting a bunch of "savages," and that's severely short-sighted and naive.
This version of the film wouldn't have made Chris Kyle less of a hero, especially in the eyes of those who already believe he is one, but merely would have shown that war isn't simply good vs. evil as he believed. Of course, we can only imagine what else Steven Spielberg's version of American Sniper might have done different. But from this change in the details of one of the weaker parts of the film Eastwood ended up directing, it makes me wish we could visit the alternate dimension where Spielberg directed this film, just so we can see how it would have turned out in the hands of another filmmaking icon. What do you think?