To say that truth is stranger than fiction is really to say it’s more complex.
Life, real life, is always more layered and difficult than anything we will read in a book or see on a screen.
The story of the Navy Seal Chris Kyle should remind us of this. And Texans should pay special attention to it. Kyle was one of our own, a man cut in the mold of our state’s legendary heroes. And his real story is something we should try to understand as he becomes a part of our history.
The story of Kyle on film, portrayed through Clint Eastwood’s lens in “American Sniper,” and the real man Kyle was are far from a perfect match. No matter how expertly the actor Bradley Cooper might portray him, the Kyle of the film is a facsimile, a shadow version of a real man.
Kyle’s story, both fictional and true, is really a story of war. And nowhere are questions of life and death so complex as they are in war. In the fog and fear of battle, decisions are instant and even unconscious. Men at war are not the same as men at peace.
The film version of Kyle presents us with a moral man who struggles to simplify this complexity. In Cooper’s eyes, we see the fictional Kyle grapple with the enormity of what he’s done as a warrior – even as his words assure us of his confidence in the justness of his deeds.
It’s hard to know whether Kyle, the real man, shared this deep-seated sense of ambiguity about what he did. Kyle embraced his place in history as the deadliest American sniper in history, with 160 kills to his credit. He claimed many more.
He also was known to garland his legend with stories that were unverifiable. His story about killing two would-be carjackers on Highway 67 never panned out under scrutiny. Another story about trucking to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and cutting down 30 or so bad guys is even more outlandish. Then there was the story about him punching former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura for slurring SEALs, something Ventura denied happened.
The film avoids addressing these incidents as it softens Kyle’s edges – his demonization of his enemy, his pitting of faith against faith.
The real Kyle was anything but a simple man. He understood very clearly the cost of war and the price that battle tolls on those who fight. But Kyle in real life seemed to struggle far less with war’s moral ambiguity than the film would suggest.
Kyle described himself as two different people – one at war and one at home. He could “turn it on and turn it off.” He had no regrets.
We can go and see the story of Chris Kyle on film. We can read his book. We can watch interviews of him on the internet. We can study facts about his claims. We can try to piece together what’s real and what isn’t.
We can never know Chris Kyle.