Why ‘American Sniper’ Is Still Taking Fire: Awards, Box Office and the Real Chris Kyle

“Whether it’s controversy or patriotism … it doesn’t matter because everyone walking out of the theaters is checking the ‘A+’ box in every category,” a studio executive tells TheWrap

A month into its release, Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” is breaking box office records and sparking a national debate over America’s role in Iraq and the legacy of a sniper whom some say is a liar and a killer.

The movie is poised to make $35 million this weekend, its third in release, and at $217 million has now overtaken “Saving Private Ryan” as the top-grossing war movie of all time.

But surprisingly to many, “American Sniper” has turned out to be a very polarizing film. Voices on the right celebrate Eastwood’s protagonist Chris Kyle as a hero, while others — including Jesse Ventura and Michael Moore — call him a hypocrite and an empty symbol. In a critical piece about the response from American moviegoers, The Guardian’s Lindy West wrote, “The real American Sniper was a hate-filled killer. Why are simplistic patriots treating him as a hero?” which has helped to set off weeks of raging debate on cable news.

“Every once in a while a movie comes out that, for some reason, becomes a cultural touchstone,” Middle Eastern history scholar and UCLA professor James Gelvin told TheWrap. “People latch on because it represents something far more than what it actually is. It represents a culture cleavage in this country: obviously the left looks at it as a representation of American brutality; the right looks at it as American heroism in light of constant provocations.”

Whatever the film represents to people, controversy has been very good for business.

“Whether it’s controversy or patriotism, Kyle being a hero or not, it doesn’t matter because everyone walking out of the theaters is checking the ‘A+’ box in every category,” said Dan Fellman, who has overseen the film’s rollout as Warner Bros. president of domestic distribution.

Fellman is an advocate, but the numbers back him up. “American Sniper” has grossed roughly $217 million in North America since its nationwide debut on Jan. 16, one day after earning six Oscar nominations.

At its current pace, “Sniper” also has a shot to top Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” as the highest-grossing R-rated movie ever. The 2004 film’s $371 million domestic haul was fueled by controversy as well.

“American Sniper’s” half-dozen nominations also added to growing murmurs among the film’s critics, though it’s a longshot to win any major awards on Feb 22, when the Academy hands out trophies.

“We’re only talking about this film because this year was hideous for quality of film,” one longtime Academy member said.

Despite its critics, the film obviously still has its supporters in the Academy, having been nominated in categories including Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Film Editing.

“The Academy won’t vote if they feel like they’ve seen it before, and look at ‘The Hurt Locker,’ a better film with a context and a subtext,” the voter continued. “It explored in depth the impact of PTSD. In ‘Sniper,’ it seems tacked on. It’s never explored. And Clint has done better movies in this area. ‘Letters From Iwo Jima’ was just better.”

While controversy rages over whether Kyle was a hero or not, whether the movie is actually any good or not, Eastwood has maintained that the central figure in his film isn’t the stone-cold killer he’s been made out to be, for better or worse.

“There’s that little moment where the psychiatrist asks, did you ever do anything you regret?” the director recalled from a scene in his film at a Producers Guild breakfast this month. “There’s a little spot where Bradley [Cooper] takes a little moment, and you can see in his eyes, he’s looking back into history, and he gets slightly defensive, and he says, ‘No, I can go to my maker knowing I did the right thing.’ But you know somewhere in there he had some doubts along the way, like a person would under that circumstance.”