In Clint Eastwood's American Sniper, Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) — an astoundingly talented marksman credited with over 160 confirmed kills in Iraq — runs into a fellow veteran at a mechanic's shop between deployments. The soldier shows Kyle an artificial leg and thanks him for saving his life. Cooper, all thick with new muscles, smiles tight and false. He's just trying to get his oil changed, man.
The real-life Kyle was murdered two years ago by another fellow veteran, Eddie Routh, a scrawny 25-year-old Marine with PTSD. As Cooper plays him, Kyle wears his heroism like a heavy saddle — he's spurred to do more, fight more, kill more because he feels the weight of all the American soldiers he must save. Cooper and Eastwood's Kyle is a humble, literally straight-shooting patriot who squirms when people call him a legend. "That's a title you don't want," he grunts. If Kyle were alive, one wonders what he would have made of the film — especially when Eastwood shows him staring at a TV, rattled by flashbacks triggered by the very type of war movie he's starring in.
As in all biopics, American Sniper leaves audiences to parse the distinctions between Kyle the human and Kyle the character, with Eastwood, their conduit, blurring the difference. The real Chris Kyle complicated things further. He claimed that he killed two men who attempted to carjack him in Texas and got only a pat on the head from police impressed with his service record. (Country sheriffs deny the shooting ever happened.) He claimed that he had been hired by Blackwater to snipe armed looters at the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina (a fellow SEAL said that "defies the imagination"). And he even claimed that he had gotten into a bar fight with Jesse Ventura, who won a $1.8 million defamation lawsuit against Kyle's estate.
None of Kyle's three incredible claims made it into the final cut of the film. Eastwood has chosen to omit them, which is itself a distortion of his character. The humble Kyle on screen is Kyle with his flaws written out. We're not watching a biopic; we're watching a drama about an idealized soldier, a patriot beyond reproach, which bolsters Kyle's legend while gutting the man.
Eastwood and screenwriter Jason Hall fill in the gaps with a subplot that explains Kyle's four tours of duty in Iraq as his personal pursuit of vengeance against the Iraqi insurgents' best sniper, Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), said to be a former Olympic sharpshooter, and the Butcher of Fallujah (Mido Hamada) — neither of whom Kyle concerns himself with in his book. Kyle's actual enemies were less defined. As seen here, any Iraqi man between ten and sixty isn't middle-aged, but "military-aged" — i.e., a threat. Kyle seemed to think that of every Muslim, writing in his book, "I don't shoot people with Korans. I'd like to, but I don't." (Eastwood deletes that, too.)
Last year, Kyle's friend Marcus Luttrell was the lead character in the wildly lucrative Lone Survivor. This film is also likely to be a financial success. The popularity of these military-martyrdom movies proves that they speak to millions of Americans, many of whom served or loved people who did, and who watch in search of an answer to a question that's hard to ask: Was the sacrifice worth it? The answer these audiences want to — need to — hear is yes. And these fictional versions of Chris Kyle and Marcus Luttrell assure us that it was. That there are trickier follow-up questions our country must also ask doesn't diminish the angst over this one, especially for people who worried when a loved one went abroad and were bereft when they didn't come home — or when, like Kyle, they came home different.