Over the weekend I had the opportunity to watch American Sniper, a film that has become somewhat of a phenomenon over the last few weeks. Having received six Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture and Best Actor, the Clint Eastwood directed film is sure to take home some hardware. Admittedly I was bit skeptical going in, it smelled of jingoism and American propaganda, even if it did look like a well crafted film.When leaving the theatre it wasn't the editing or sound mixing that impressed me, both of which are categories it was deservedly nominated for, instead what truly left an impression was the complexity of the questions it was trying to ask. The film is asking “what does it mean to be a ‘hero’ in this era of ambiguous modern warfare?”. It’s about finding your calling and the search for fulfillment in a unfulfilling life. All that being said, this isnt a movie review and I won't get into whether I thought the film explored these themes to their fullest or not. Instead I’m going to look at the film through a different lense. I'm going to explore the film’s ideas by comparing American Sniper with a video game that was released five years ago, Red Dead Redemption. A game that still holds up as one my favorite pieces of entertainment from any medium in the last decade.
Red Dead Redemption and American Sniper are more similar than one might think. At first glance, one can easily make the jump to Clint Eastwood with his western roots and the western setting of Red Dead. Or even though both stories are set in vastly different settings and time periods, both main characters were cowboys. This comparison is too easy to notice, it’s not compelling or noteworthy. Instead, what struck me was how much these two completely different properties had in common when it came to their themes, storytelling and character development.
American Sniper features Chris Kyle, a man who is searching for fulfillment but he is much more complex. He spends much of the film trying to find closure and is very much the product of his father. He feels an overwhelming need to protect those around him and views the military as a means to do something meaningful with his life.
In Red Dead Redemption you have John Marston, a former outlaw in the old west. He spent years doing something that didn't satisfy him but he made an effort to start a family. Like Chris Kyle, he shares an overwhelming need to protect his family. It’s when he's forced by the government to hunt down the former members of his gang that Marston understands he is trying to find closure, Though Marston didn't have a choice in the matter; for both men their journey takes a very similar path.
In both their cases, that closure takes the form of a dark and twisted reflection of themselves. It’s through defeating their doppelganger that they are able to achieve the fulfillment they think they need, even if in the end it is a hollow victory. Chris Kyle spends much of the film trying to find and kill the Syrian sniper known as Mustafa and for Marston it’s his old friend and fellow outlaw Bill Williamson. Unlike Marston who had a clear goal from the start, Kyle never intended for Mustafa to become the embodiment of his mission, to protect his fellow soldiers and family, but the enemy sniper took on that role. Working as a very effective story mechanic, both properties are able to put a face to both characters search for closure.
When both Marston and Kyle finally achieve their goal Red Dead and Sniper become even more similar. Both men spend their lives fighting to return to their families but when they finally return home they feel ‘out of place’. It’s a given that this trope is by no means exclusive to these two properties but it’s how they use it that makes it so important and was what made the comparison clear. In most stories like this, once the main character achieves their goal we are usually treated to a few short scenes showing us a happy ending. But Sniper and Red Dead do it differently, albeit in a brilliant way. In Red Dead after you've killed Williamson and seemingly paid your debt to the government you return home and spend the next few hours of the game tending to cattle and teaching your son how to hunt. As a gameplay mechanic it puts the player in very similar position as the character. You’ve spent the entire game shooting outlaws and now you're told to fetch milk? But it’s these few hours where as a player you become attached to your son and wife and you slowly adjust to the home life. We are treated to a very similar sequence in Sniper, which is understandably condensed for a film but arguably less effective because of it. We see Kyle adjust to everyday life through the help of his family and community involvement.
Unfortunately, for Marston and Kyle, the comparisons don't end there. Both men meet untimely deaths resulting directly from the lives they had finally left behind. For John, it’s an old cliché, he was never able escape his past and even though he spent so much of his time trying to reconcile his life of crime it ultimately cost him his life. For Kyle, it was a maladjusted veteran he was trying to help who ended his life, just as it was finally coming together.
I’m not sure if these stories are lessons in the consequences of living a life of death and violence or if it’s an exploration of the psychies of men struggling to do something meaningful with their lives, maybe it's something else entirely? But I do know that both American Sniper and Red Dead Redemption explore more complex themes than your average Western or war film.