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.
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. Kyle claimed 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. Eastwood has chosen to omit Kyle's self-mythologizing altogether, which is itself a distortion of his character. The humble Kyle onscreen 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.