Two of this year’s awards season releases celebrate the lives of people whom some consider heroes. Director Clint Eastwood’s enormous box office hit “American Sniper” tells the story of military marksman Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL sharp shooter who did four tours in Iraq, while filmmaker Angelina Jolie’s modestly successful “Unbroken” profiles the experiences of World War II veteran and U.S. Olympian Louis Zamperini. Both pictures have been hailed to critical acclaim, with “Sniper” capturing six Academy Award nominations (including best picture and best lead actor for Bradley Cooper) and “Unbroken” snagging three Oscar nods. Unfortunately, despite their financial and critical successes, both films in my opinion seriously miss their marks. Why? Because they both come up short when it comes to telling the stories they should have told.
How can a biographical film supposedly based on actual events get it wrong? Easily, especially when it comes to those in charge not seeing what the real story is, what truly makes the narrative compelling and engaging. And, in both of these instances, that is precisely what happened.
Much of “American Sniper” focuses on the protagonist’s wartime experience, with numerous, lengthy battlefield sequences reminiscent of many old-time World War II movies. Those episodes are capably filmed and directed, but Kyle’s story involves much more than just surgically taking out insurgents. His wartime experience affects him profoundly, leading him to suffer from a bout of PTSD that impacts him considerably but that he initially tries to deny. He eventually acknowledges and conquers his condition, though, largely by helping other vets similarly affected. And that last part of his saga is the real story here, though one would hardly know it from the film; it’s handled largely as an afterthought, thrown in with what amounts to little more than cinematic lip service.
Likewise, much of “Unbroken” emphasizes Zamperini’s experience in a Japanese prisoner of war camp during WW II. Throughout his incarceration, Zamperini is subjected to repeated indignities, not to mention a string of beatings rivaling what was portrayed in “12 Years a Slave” (2013). His time in a Japanese forced labor camp is also featured, with seemingly endless depictions of punishment for disobeying his captors. With the end of the war, however, he and his fellow prisoners are eventually released and sent home. And, in a fleeting footnote at the film’s end, the director throws in a passing reference to how Zamperini forgave his enemies. Again, we witness yet another lost opportunity to tell the real story; Zamperini’s saga is not just about showing how many times he can be brutally roughed up but how he could also successfully summon up the courage and conviction to absolve those who committed such horrific atrocities against him.
In both of these cases, I couldn’t help but wonder, what were the directors and screenwriters thinking? Couldn’t they see what the more absorbing plot lines were in these stories? Movies glorifying battle and showing the pain of torture have been made so many times before that there’s really nothing new about them, and these pictures mostly offer little more than modern-day rehashings of these time-worn narratives. However, when one is presented with a story that has a built-in distinguishing twist, a wrinkle that sets the story apart from virtually anything else that has ever been committed to film, how is it that a filmmaker or screenwriter can so blithely overlook what truly makes the narrative unique? These two examples of this glaring oversight are both baffling – and disappointing.
Both movies (particularly “Sniper”) have come under scrutiny for their politics and for the messages they send. There has even been considerable speculation about the credibility of Kyle’s autobiographical account, which formed the basis of the film, in light of other stories that he allegedly told that have since proven questionable at best. In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll admit that I, too, hold my own strong opinions about what messages are being conveyed here, and I’ll confess that my mindset probably colors my views about what versions of these stories were – and should have been – made. However, as someone who is first and foremost concerned with the quality of the finished cinematic products, I’ll limit my comments here to that aspect of the story, much like what movie critic Keith Phipps of The Dissolve did in his recent piece on the subject, “The American Sniper controversy proves film critics matter.”
One reason why I believe the stories in these films missed the mark has to do with the character of the protagonists. Kyle and Zamperini are both complex and multifaceted, yet their stories tend to leave these qualities underdeveloped. They each go through personal transformations (in Zamperini’s case several times), yet their changed selves receive far too little attention to reflect these metamorphoses and the significance they hold in their lives. The films’ failure to capitalize on this further holds back these stories from becoming what they could have been.
When I was a journalism student years ago, one of my professors related a story about a cub reporter who was assigned to cover a mayor’s speech at a town council meeting. When the reporter returned to the newspaper office, the neophyte’s editor asked him what the mayor said.
“Nothing,” the reporter replied.
“Nothing?” the editor asked. “Then what’s the story here?”
“There is no story,” the reporter said. “Somebody shot the mayor before he got to say a word.”
I’m reminded of this anecdote whenever I come upon films like “American Sniper” and “Unbroken,” instances where the story that should be told gets lost in the midst of the story (or lack thereof) that actually is told. I can only hope that the filmmakers and screenwriters involved in these projects learn from that cub reporter’s miscalculation – and get it right next time.
Copyright © 2015, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.