American Sniper, Unbroken, Selma: Finding the Story

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January 28, 2015 by Devin

Since my last post, I have thought about and talked about American Sniper quite a bit. I imagine that I will be thinking about it and talking about it a lot more in the future. One of the things that struck me most about talking about that movie with people is what they really liked about it, which I think ironically highlights what I find most wrong with the story.

Almost every time someone has defended the movie to me, they have brought up its depiction of PTSD. Yet in the movie, the parts about specifically about PTSD probably only take up around 20 min, 30 min tops, of the over 2 hour long movie.[1]

This is not a situation like with The Avengers where the parts with the Hulk are so good because they were so distinct. This movie is not really about PTSD. Sure, Chris Kyle gets PTSD and spends the last part of the film adjusting to life as someone with that, but that is a coda to the end of the film. Kyle gets a montage about feeling better and then suddenly does. The actual climax of the film, the height of the tension, comes earlier when Kyle is sniping the bad sniper. In other words, American Sniper explores living with PTSD the same way Rocky explores following a strict exercise routine.

Yet this is the part people most remember and most point to as a sign of the movie being good.

"Why are we acting like a drama movie again?" "Because our action sucks."

Jumping to another film with a similar issue, Unbroken is film about a soldier in WWII who was stranded at sea for a long time before being put into a Japanese internment camp. Essentially, it is Louis Zamperini enduring hardship after hardship and struggling to survive.

But the film’s biggest fault is that that is all the plot is. Zamperini goes from one terrible situation to another, but there is no arc to the movie. We do not really come to a greater understanding of Zamperini at the end nor do we have a greater understanding of the war in general. The film is just a series of events without a strong thematic hold. If movies are stories told with pictures, then Unbroken is like seeing your friend’s vacation photos: lots of interesting stuff but no real story or thing to draw you in.

At the end, though, right before the credits, the film says Zamperini became a priest after the war. Later I went through some basic research on the internet and found out he had struggled with alcoholism right after the war and had to work through that.

I feel like the filmmakers behind both of these films looked at the lives of Chris Kyle and Louis Zamperini and found two examples of notable events: Kyle being the sniper with the highest confirmed kill count in history and Zamperini breaking a record for being stranded at sea before being a POW. But I feel like both of these achievements blinded the filmmakers to the real stories involved here.

Kyle, at one point, was a guy who was bragging about his kill count and his title as “Legend” while also suffering from PTSD caused by the things he was proud of. Zamperini had to work through alcoholism and dealing with committing his life to religion. Both of these conflicts are infinitely more interesting than the conflicts presented in the films. I would have loved to see American Sniper start with Kyle after the war and go into his persona and thought process, using flashbacks when necessary and delving more into his work with veterans. Unbroken could have had much more success as a drama with heavy religious imagery and ideas. It could have delved into the tolls that torture and starvation have on a man even when he is comfortable and well-fed. But American Sniper barely scratched the surface of dealing with this trauma and Unbroken did not even try.

And then there is Selma. This movie opens on Martin Luther King Jr. practicing his speech… but it’s his speech to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. In this film, MLK Jr. has already done the “I had a dream” speech. He has already walked to Washington. The Civil Rights act has already passed. By and large, the most prominent and well-known accomplishments of his life have already been done. Yet someone looked at this moment and said, “Let’s start the story there.”

This decision creates a number of interesting effects. We see a mature MLK Jr. here, allowing us as the audience to delve right into what made this man so effective at what he did. It also allows the film to explore conflicts and situations that are new to the audience members, creating suspense and tension. But by far the greatest effect this decision has is making the Civil Rights movement seem grander than a few key moments. MLK Jr. even points out at one point during one of his speeches that the Civil Rights movement is a continual movement. It did not stop at the bus boycotts. It did not stop in DC. It did not stop at the passage of the Civil Rights Act. It kept going and will keep going.[2]

This picture looks more kickass to me than anything from American Sniper.

What Selma does is that it does not take the story for granted. The events depicted here all have a reason to exist within the movie and in telling a message that resonates outside of the movie. For stories based on real life, the most successful ones are the ones that understand that the events in a person’s life are pieces that they can use in a story, not just moments to go through.

Honestly, what sticks out to me about Unbroken and American Sniper was that they went through such great lengths to talk about the extraordinary nature of their protagonists that I wonder if their characters are relatable at all or if the themes dealt with stick with the audience after the credits roll. Dealing with trauma, living with PTSD, coming back from a terrible situation… these are themes that would have pushed these films into something outside themselves. Instead these films choose to look inward and rest solely on their main characters.[3] Parts of American Sniper feel more like a revenge action film from the 80s rather than a drama about the toll of war.

In other words, Selma is a movie about Martin Luther King Jr., yes, but it is also about the people around him, the people influenced and influencing him, and the effect he has had on history. It is about the Civil Rights movement as it exists today just as much as it is about the Civil Rights movement as it existed back then.

Meanwhile American Sniper and Unbroken are two films about two war veterans, one who causes a lot of pain and suffering and one who receives a lot of pain and suffering. And they do not delve into much more. This is because they chose to focus their stories on when the most notable stories in these people’s lives, not the most resonant.


1. If someone has the specifics of this and can prove me wrong, I would love to hear it.
2. The song over the credits mentions Ferguson for a reason.
3. I would even argue that American Sniper uses PTSD to describe Kyle more than it feels the need to discuss living with PTSD. In other words, when PTSD is being used, it is being used to characterize Kyle’s sacrifices more than it is how people have to deal with PTSD, which is a shame because Kyle’s life has the perfect vehicle for this outward resonance in Kyle’s veterans group.

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