Let’s not mistake movies for real life

Bradley Cooper stars as Chris Kyle in ‘American Sniper.’


The Chris Kyle I know doesn’t actually exist.

He’s an imaginary construct, a dramatic fabrication by screenwriter Jason Hall and director Clint Eastwood for their movie “America Sniper.” It is loosely based on “American Sniper,” a 2012 autobiography by the Chris Kyle, who was a real person.

The movie Chris Kyle is a fictionalized character brought to life by the coordinated efforts of a team of hundreds of craftspeople and artists, including actor Bradley Cooper, who plays Kyle. The character’s physical substance and emotional resonances are illusions, and the movie’s mission is to convince us that they’re genuine. 

All there is to know about the movie Chris Kyle is in the movie, which runs two hours and 12 minutes. I’ve seen “American Sniper” three times, so I’ve spent about 6½ hours with him and know him pretty well.


As for the real Chris Kyle, all I know about him is what I’ve read in some news stories and a few magazine features. In other words, I know next to nothing.

I first heard Chris Kyle’s name two years ago when he and a friend, Chad Littlefield, were shot and killed at a shooting range in Texas. A third man, Eddie Ray Routh, was arrested and charged with their murders. Routh’s trial is scheduled to begin this month in Erath County, southwest of Dallas-Fort Worth.

I learned that Kyle had been an extraordinarily effective Navy SEAL sniper, served four combat tours in Iraq, was wounded several times, and earned multiple medals and citations for valor and gallantry in action. 

After his final tour of duty, Kyle returned to the United States and moved back to Texas with his wife and children. He devoted considerable time to helping veterans who had been wounded physically, psychologically or both – one of whom now stands accused of his murder.

I also learned that some journalists questioned the credibility of Kyle’s autobiography because they couldn’t independently substantiate some particularly far-fetched events he described. The book has sold more than 1.5 million copies. That makes it a major publishing success, but it also means that most Americans have not read it. That includes me.

The movie’s box office success and notable award nominations have provoked some rehashed commentary about the real Kyle and the real Iraq war, much of which strikes me as self-indulgent and pointless.

Some reports, for example, have noted that Kyle expressed ugly sentiments about Iraqis in his book. That’s true, but I can’t quite figure out why I should care what his personal views were.

Kyle was just one of 2 million or so Americans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan in the post-9/11 era. He did demanding and dangerous work that required him to kill people to keep them from killing American troops, and he did it very, very well. Considering the otherworldly context of warfare, Kyle served honorably, which is to say he was very much like the overwhelming majority of Americans who served. 

Kyle also apparently believed that American military action in Iraq was justified, but so what?  Ordinary service members, whatever their varying jobs and opinions and upbringings, didn’t set the policy or call the shots about going to war in Iraq. The decisions to risk the lives of U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines and disrupt their families were made at the very pinnacle of the chain of command, not below. 

The movie, meanwhile, has taken some heat for, well, for not being a different film.

It’s true, for example, that “Sniper” doesn’t deal with the duplicity and incompetence that led to and undermined America’s misadventures in Iraq at a fearful human cost. That theme might make a great film. It’s just not the theme that Eastwood – who has publicly opposed going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq – chose to explore in this one.

As it happens, however, the movie he did make is eminently criticizable on its own terms. 

Yes, we see a supremely skilled sniper who kills many opposing fighters and, in doing so, saves the lives of many more U.S. troops. We see Kyle’s unswervingly loyalty to his fellow SEALS and his deep love for his wife and children. And we see plenty of vivid sequences (too many, actually) of chaotic urban combat in Iraq.

But “American Sniper” crumbles at the two crucial turning points of Kyle’s life. First, it asks us to accept that Kyle’s high-speed transformation from hard-partying rodeo cowboy into angry, avenging patriot starts with a string of insults flung at him by a floozy girlfriend he catches cheating on him. The idea is ludicrous on its face, a basic screenwriting failure to build a strong foundation for later actions. 

Eastwood also shortchanges Kyle’s Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which threatened his family and his treatment. The movie spends scant time on symptoms and gives him an apparently instantaneous recovery. Kyle’s concerned wife makes one phone call to a military psychiatrist who sees Kyle at his hospital office, takes him down the hall to a room full of wounded vets and, suddenly, Kyle is well.

These two pivotal defects alone undermine the human dimensions of the movie, which never felt genuine to me.

Instead of hammering or praising “American Sniper” for what it isn’t or arguing over how great the real Chris Kyle was or wasn’t, we might focus on something that actually matters: providing care for military men and women who need help, a commitment that traces back to an original Pilgrim court decree of 1636: “If any man shalbee (sic) sent forth as a soldier and shall return maimed he shalbee maintained competently by the Collonie during his life.”  

After last year’s shameful scandals about veterans who couldn’t get timely health care appointments, this week’s passage of H.R. 203, the Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act for American Veterans, is a promising sign. Among other provisions, the bill provides incentives for expanding clinical mental health staffing at VA facilities, funds early peer assistance for vets with mental health problems and requires annual outside reviews of the VA’s overall mental health programs and suicide prevention efforts. The bill, which died in the last Congress, came roaring back to pass both the House and Senate unanimously, and President Obama is expected to sign it.

The need is even more acute than previously believed. A recent Los Angeles Times article cited a study due to be published in this month’s Annals of Epidemiology. Based on records of 1.3 million veterans who were on active duty from 2001 to 2007, it documents suicide rates 50 percent higher than among civilians of comparable ages.

Whatever our opinions about specific conflicts, military men and women serve in the name of the American people – all of us. The least we can do is keep our promises to them. 


Eric Mink is a freelance writer and editor and teaches film studies at Webster University.  He is a former columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Daily News in New York.  Contact him at [email protected]