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How Steven Spielberg's 'American Sniper' Would Have Been Different

by
January 20, 2015

American Sniper / Steven Spielberg

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?

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  • Mr Chatterbox
    Excellent article. Agree with everything you say and find Spielbergs approach would have worked much better. Hopefully the producers have learnt a thing or two.
    • I agree that the movie is noticeably flawed, yet I think it's still enjoyable to many, many people, as evidenced by the remarkable box office performance. And as long as the producers keep receiving that positive form of feedback and reward$$, the only thing they're learning is to keep doing it.
      • Mr Chatterbox
        You make a valid point. Do you think that it will do well internationally as well as in the US though? That's where I think Spielberg could have helped. His film language is loved and respected worldwide and I think given his track record with Private Ryan and Schindler, he would have made this much more appealing. I felt it was very forced at times.
    • Spielberg gets it. I have no in depth comment about AS to avoid getting too much into current politics. All i can say is that i found this movie neither entertaining or patriotic. However i was shocked when i found out that his wife was played by Sienna Miller. What a great actress.
  • Matthew
    I just can't understand why anyone chooses to bring this movie to life. He clearly had issues but he outright enjoyed killing women and children, there was no in between. Worst of all it's possible he killed Americans during Katrina who were possibly looting. Sure if you want you can point out to good things he's done, I suppose depending on your stance on the war and Americans involvement but personally this is a story I rather not be brought to light. However Eastwood is a fine director, he continues to impress with his work.
    • Raycheetah
      Chris Kyle "outright enjoyed killing women and children"? Is that what you took away from watching this film? =0[.]o=
      • ff
        I haven't seen the film but have read much about the guy and he was definitely a delusional sociopath in real life.
        • Raycheetah
          "Read much about the guy..." Where? In leftist propaganda rags? Typical. =^[.]^=
          • ff
            Hmm well I'm not a liberal, but then again I actually can make up my own mind, don't watch Fox, and am not an idiot, so clearly not a right winger such as yourself. Maybe you should try to read more about the guy yourself before making judgements.
          • Raycheetah
            I've read and seen plenty, and nowhere do I see any indication, least of all from man himself, which supports your rather extreme indictment of his motives. Again, I invite you to share your source for this opinion. =^[.]^=
          • Raycheetah
            No answer? Here, let me help you out. I am aware of only TWO instances in which Chris Kyle describes having a woman or a child under his sights. In the first, a woman was about to attack a group of Marines with a grenade; Kyle shot her. He said nothing about "enjoying" it, only that he didn't regret his action. In the second, he describes an instance in which he shot an insurgent who had a rocket propelled grenade launcher. Other insurgents attempted to retrieve the weapon, and Kyle shot each of them. Finally, they sent in a boy Kyle estimated was about ten years of age, apparently seeking to exploit Kyle's moral limits. It worked; even though the RoE made anyone who handled that weapon a legitimate target, Kyle declined to take the shot. So much for Kyle being a man who "outright enjoyed killing women and children." IF you have any other documented instances in which Kyle killed a woman or a child, or in which Kyle, himself, explicitly stated that he enjoyed killing them, share them. Otherwise, stop perpetuating negative hearsay. =^[.]^=
          • capt3292
            "it worked; even though the RoE made anyone who handled that weapon a legitimate target, Kyle declined to take the shot." He didn't decline to take the shot, the boy dropped the weapon and ran away. That's why he didn't shoot.
  • Biji M.
    As long as Spielberg was channeling the tough-as-nails violent reality he did so well in "Munich", this movie could have been incredible. The lack of sentimentality in that film makes it absolutely Spielberg's most adult, thought-provoking picture. Even "Saving Private Ryan" had a little schmaltz towards the end, there... that is a big no-no as far as I'm concerned. War does not need to be made any more dramatic by a sweeping score and on-screen tears. That's MY opinion, anyway.
  • Biji M.
    Also, speaking on Eastwood's "clear cut, good vs. evil" approach? why the hell do you think this movie is making so much bank?? "complex"? "Three-Dimensional"?? NOT concepts moviegoers want anywhere near their two-and-a-half hour popcorn maw-stuffing sessions (unless of course "Three-Dimensional" refers to the film itself, and there are transforming robots and Mark Wahlberg in it.)
  • Bo
    Well done, Ethan. Very intelligent and well articulated article. I smelled this all over the movie and for that reason have not gone to see it. Might take a look when it's on (free) cable; might not. Thanks though; it does my heart good to realize that there is still intelligent people out there seeing and writing truthfully about films.
    • ari smulders
      if you are a intellectual and never ever bin in a situation that you have to decide :they or fellow soldiers than it's a great article ... I agree...
  • Reggie1971
    I found American Sniper to be a superb film, and I think the author's thesis is quite wrong. Sometimes things are viewed as black and white on the battlefield. Sometimes things ARE black and white on the battlefield. I'm glad the film didn't play a game of moral relativism that others do, and instead boldy portrayed it from the perspective of an American who was not in a state of inner turmoil about what he was doing. Eastwood was the best choice for this film.
    • ff
      The guy is real life was a sociopath and a liar as well. He saw the world as black and white and in that way I completely agree with you. If anything they should show how much of a delusional douch he was.
  • Alboone
    Spielberg's interpretation would've made a world of difference and a much more compelling film. As it is now there's just not enough meat on the bones. It's pretty flat for as a movie.
    • capt3292
      Spielberg's vision appears to be of the same format as depicted in "Enemy at the Gates". A WWII film of pitting a Russian sniper against a German sniper. A been there done that Hollywood approach.
      • ari smulders
        exactly...
  • IamSlave
    I really enjoyed American Sniper but I think Spielbergs ideas could've taken this from being a good film to a great film.
    • Jim Dawkins
      Agreed and why I wish he had directed it.
      • capt3292
        Why?
    • ColtNoir
      it's already great. Eastwood did wonders with it.
  • ari smulders
    Why do people think that every human have moral problems by killing people? history shows that there are millions of guys who kill and still have a good night sleep. If you want to become a sniper you want to kill people otherwise you apply for a job at toys are us. This is a intellectual talking who thinks loves conquers hate but in the truth is they are both sides of the coin. Sometimes things are black and white and we need soldiers who kill people by the dozens,otherwise we are still talked german overhere in the the netherlands after 1945. Steven Spielberg would have ruined this movie by adding more depth and i am glad he thinks 60 million wasn't enough because his 500 million yacht needs a 300 miliion refurbishing...
  • ColtNoir
    disagree with this article - but not surprising. the notion that there isn't a "black and white" to the world we live in, at least sometimes, is quite ignorant.
  • bangle
    Yea, the other side has lots of good guys who crucify kids and decapitate on camera. May the Marines and Navy train many more snipers for these vermin.
  • ITITIT2IT
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  • Debbie
    Makes me so glad that Spielberg wanted a bigger budget:)
  • capt3292
    Is that what we did in 1941? Went after Japan for revenge and our military lost our humanity? I kind of recall almost 3000 people who went to work in September of 2011 and never came home. I recall two well recognized buildings in N.Y. reduced to ruble. I also recall on that same day the attempt to do the same to another well known building in Washington DC. Also a farm land in Pennsylvania that became a grave for other civilian heroes on that same day. Our response was pretty much restrained considering the violence thrust on us.

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