Who is the Real Chris Kyle?

For a lot of reasons I had put off seeing “American Sniper.” The thought of two hours watching a guy with a beard, rifle and telescopic sight on a rooftop gain honor and fame by bumping off a minimum of 160 men, women and children would neither entertain me nor make me love my country more. But when it became controversial and was nominated for an Oscar I knew I had to see it if I wanted to talk about it.

Watching it was not quite what I had expected, and I left the theater feeling that somehow I had seen the same picture for the third time. The characters were different, but for “Unbroken,” “Selma” and “Sniper,” the feel was the same. They shared idealistic heroes, long-suffering wives, two deaths by assassination, real or imitation heroism, two wars and processions, and a climactic gush of pride in being an America. It’s as if Hollywood has conspired to make us feel better about our issues of race, death and war. 

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I was struck by “Sniper’s” one-note unity in tone. Young patriotic gun-lover SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) marries Taya, a beautiful girl he meets in a service-men’s hang out, serves four tours in Iraq, interrupted by trips home to check in with his wife and new-born son and daughter. His wife pleads with him to leave the service but his sense of “duty” keeps him going, in spite of symptoms that stress in breaking him.Two scenes show us the film’s heart: the protagonist, Kyle and girl friend watch the World Trade Center burn,and the audience feels that Chris has to do something about this. At their outdoor Texas wedding word arrives that the U.S. had declared war on Iraq, and all wave their champagne glasses and cheer. The battle scenes reminded me of the one-note B Westerns I grew up on: bad men control a frontier town (Fallujah) and good men do their best to kill them. Everyone whom Kyle kills deserves to die, including the little boys and women because they are carrying bombs. The last battle, a determination to wipe out a nest of Iraqi fighters to revenge the death of a comrade ends in a swirl of smoke and dust in which the Americans must be rescued by their helicopters.

Defenders of the film, including Michelle Obama, praise it for calling our attention to the psychological sufferings of the troops. Back home Kyle is falling apart, he blows up at a dog wrestling a child at a lawn party. He visits a psychiatrist who introduces him to a therapy group of wounded veterans, and Bingo!, he’s cured. If this was director Clint Eastwood’s main purpose, he should have it more than a few minutes. Kyle is now smiling at home and teaching his young son to shoot a rifle. One afternoon he goes to see a fellow veteran he is “helping,” and a note on the screen tells us Kyle was killed. The epilogue is a funeral procession rivaling the march to Selma. Tears came to my eyes.

For me the omission of one fundamental truth undermines the integrity of the film’s patriotism. Iraq had nothing to do with the destruction of the World Trade Center. We were not fighting Osama Ben Laden in Baghdad or Fallujah.We were killing the citizens of a country we had invaded under false pretenses. All those dead Americans and Iraqis had no reason to die or suffer lost legs, arms or minds. 

The most damaging criticism of the film comes from seminary-trained 15-year foreign correspondent, author of War Is A Force That Gives Us Meaning, and bloggerChris Hedges, whom I know and who has helped me teach my classes. The film Chris Kyle is a sanitized version of the author of the memoir on which the film is based. Hedges opens his attack: “‘American Sniper’ lionizes the most despicable aspects of U. S. society—the gun culture, the blind adoration of the military, the belief that we have an innate right as a ‘Christian’ nation to exterminate the ‘lesser breeds’ of the earth, a grotesque hypermasculinity that banishes compassion and pity, a denial of inconvenient facts and historical truth, and a belittling of critical thinking and artistic expression.” As I said to myself coming out of the theater, Americans somehow “yearn for the supposed moral renewal” that movies like this are supposed to generate.

Hedges recalls an opening scene where Kyle’s father tells the children there are three kinds of people in the world, “sheep, wolves and sheep dogs.” Those with the blessed gift of aggression must confront the wolves. He does not want sheep in the family. The target audience of a film like this, says Hedges, “prefer drinking beer and watching football to reading a book.” The SEALs whom the movie glorifies are drained of individuality. In an early bar scene when Kyle meets Taya, a shirtless SEAL offers his bare back as a target into which his pals throw darts. In Fallujah his platoon members paint a white skull of the Punisher on their vehicles and weapons and encircle it with the motto: “Despite what your momma told you...violence does solve problems.” In the book, says Hedges, Kyle loves being a Christian, relishes killing and war, hates all Iraqis and is “intoxicated by violence.” 

Googling Kyle’s death I learned that he was shot by a deranged fellow vet at a rifle range. The culprit will be tried in September. Following up on that story led to a report that Kyle told a reporter, as well as friends, that in 2009 he killed two armed men at a gas station who were trying to steal his truck. Police did not follow up because he was a “war hero.” The cloud of sadness descends over all this. In the long run perhaps Clint Eastwood and his writers should have told the whole story or not told it at all.

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Paul Ferris
2 years 10 months ago
This article plus the following link : http://www.nytimes.com/2015/02/05/opinion/gail-collins-american-sniper-moral.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0, brings out the full truth of the American Sniper. I have hesitated to see this movie but after reading Schroth's and Collins' articles I see no reason to go. Gail Collins in her article says that Kyle jokingly aimed his gun at his wife and told her to drop her draws. This was supposed to be a sign that he was cured of PTSD. Oh yes I also have a personal reason for not seeing the movie: In 1980, a Vietnam war veteran turned a gun on his wife and himself killing them both and leaving a nine year old daughter. His wife was my beloved sister Patricia. Would that Patricia had been as fortunate as Kyle's wife and children. Kyle's family still have suffered a terrible loss and we need to pray for them.
LAWRENCE HANSEN
2 years 10 months ago
I won't see this film for the same reason I had no interest in "The Passion of the Christ." I have no need to afflict my eyes and my consciousness with more images of blood and gore to know the horror of it. I find this fascination with killing and brutality nothing more than sado-masochistic voyeurism, and I remain mystified by its connection in the popular mind with sexuality, as in, "There's too much sex and violence in the media." Oh, I get the argument about the degradation of human dignity when either are exploited, but we seem to be much more at ease with showing unspeakable cruelty than with images of two people expressing their love for each other in physical ways. Fr. Schroth quotes Chris Hedges as writing that "Kyle loves being a Christian, relishes killing and war, hates all Iraqis and is 'intoxicated by violence.' " As is, apparently, our nation. If people believe that Chris Kyle or this film have anything to do with cultivating a relationship with the Prince of Peace, it's no wonder that the churches are emptying out.
Jim Lein
2 years 10 months ago
I most likely will not see the film, though I was intrigued by the New Yorker review that called it a war film and an anti-war film. Sounds like it's a bit of a Rorschach Test.
Paul Ferris
2 years 10 months ago
Fr. Schroth mentions Chris Heges book, I wrote a review over a decade ago and offer it here.. It is not long but I think relevant to this discussion. 5 of 5 people found the following review helpful 4Whose War ? Whose Meaning ? ByAmazon Customer "friend of Tassc International"on May 23, 2003 Format: Paperback War is A Force That Gives Us Meaning by Chris Hedges is a gripping personal meditation by an author who has seen war up close in many parts of the world and who is not afraid to confront the myths of war that even journalists themselves foster in their work. I think this book is timely in the light of Gulf War II and the role of embedded journalists in that conflict. I think this book can be used as a polemic against those who support the idea that war and just war reasoning really provide an answer to the failure of diplomacy. Hedges' experiences have not lead him to become a pacifist but it does make us evaluate the question of the 'good to be gained' by war which our government, media, and the majority of Americans seemed to avoid before engaging in a preemptive strike on Iraq in 2003. Hedges takes us through the hell of war. Maybe if more people would take the journey with Hedges through his book they would be less inclined to support violent solutions to international problems or at least consider the arguments of millions of ordinary people around the world who question war's efficacy and see the evil of spending vast sums of money to prepare for future wars.
John Wachowicz
2 years 10 months ago
I don't think that this review is reviewing the film for what it is, but rather what Fr. Schroth wishes it was. The movie is called "American Sniper" because it is focused on a particular American sniper: Chris Kyle. It's a representation (or re-presentation) of Kyle's life, accurately describing that Kyle and his fellow enlistees had nothing to do with the decision to go to war. The movie takes for granted the fact that we went to war; while Fr. Schroth is free to disagree that the war was justified (a position I hold, as well), I don't see how presenting a fact of military life is somehow disingenuous to the film watcher. On that note, I think much of the "American Sniper" reviews conflate so greatly because Clint Eastwood doesn't make postmodern, 21st century films. For much of Hollywood and film reviewers today, it is inconceivable that Mr Eastwood, or the writers, or the actors, or anyone involved, would wish to make a war movie without a definitive stance on the war. This is not Eastwood's style; as his previous films indicate, he is primarily concerned with people (c.f. his character's own development in "Gran Torino"). As I said above, this is no longer Hollywood's style. Compare two movies set in the pre-Civil War South. Any movies with American slavery in the story today write a strong anti-slavery stance into the narrative (c.f. "12 Years a Slave," "Lincoln," "Django Unchained," etc.). Compare this to, for example, "Gone with the Wind," in which American slavery, and then the Civil War and Reconstruction, are the backgrounds to the relationships among the main characters. This is not my saying that American slavery was justified in any way, but rather to highlight these two very different approaches to historical film-making. That said, I believe Eastwood to be more of a "Gone with the Wind" storyteller than a contemporary one. He is completely unconcerned with the politics of the war, or the errors of the "powerful," or anything like that. This is the story of a person, and Eastwood is going to tell it as best he can. Hence, Mr Hedges' criticism of the film ultimately falls flat because it is the story of a human, rather than of humanity: we can observe the trajectory of Mr Kyle's life as Eastwood presents it, and from that we can draw conclusions on American culture, politics, war, &c. That said, I'm not sure I can point to a scene in which that culture is either glamorised or criticised. It is left to the viewer. As to the misrepresentation of Mr Kyle's life: correct. 100% correct that is not accurate, and he is portrayed far more favourably than his character would admit. I'm sure that Fr. Schroth is also terribly disappointed that "Selma" does not portray Martin Luther King Jr.'s plagarism or womanising. Filmmakers filter facts to create a narrative of a person. In short, I think that Fr. Schroth is rather just disappointed that the film was not univocally anti-war.
Paul Ferris
2 years 10 months ago
I disagree with this assessment. One cannot be human without being part of humanity and Clint Eastwood knows this. This is the reason why he shows the 9/11 connection as inspiration for Kyle to join the military and the celebration of the commencement of the Iraq war at his own wedding. Kyle did not kill 160 peopole on his own. Society does not judge him as serial killer or mass murderer. He kills under the cover of his country's military uniform and military cause. That is why he is called an American Sniper and not just a sniper. The idea that this is only the backdrop of Kyle's story a la Gone with the Wind is not convincing. The part often reveals the whole. I think it is interesting that Schroth who is a Jesuit priest showed considerable restraint by not bringing in any theological judgement in his article. He could have mentioned that any person who directly kills 160 people one by one may have deeper spiritual issues than any PTSD process could heal. To kill one person from a Christian theological perspective is to seriously harm one's relation to God and neighbor. According to one Asian religion to kill one person is to kill the whole world. God showed mercy to Cain upon killing Able but he also showed justice in his punishment. I believe Cain's sin was the first sin recorded after Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden. We all are subject to the vision of brother killing brother, sister, and even spouse everyday if we happen to have a TV in our home. No human being today can escape her or his humanity as much as we often wish we could, Clint Eastwood not withstanding.
Leonard DeLorenzo
2 years 10 months ago
Here is my take on the paradoxical relationship between distance and intimacy in this film, which may also say something about the mission of the 'sniper'. http://blogs.nd.edu/oblation/2015/02/05/and-the-nominees-are-american-sniper/

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