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FLASH: Movies and Real Life Aren't the Same Thing

02/05/2015 03:24 pm ET | Updated Apr 07, 2015

The only 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 version of 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 him. 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 Movie Chris Kyle is in the movie, obviously, which runs two hours and 12 minutes. I've seen "American Sniper" three times, so I've spent about 6 and a half hours with him, and I think I know him pretty well.

As for the real Chris Kyle, I only know of him, drawing on what I've read in print and online news stories and features and TV reports. In other words, I know next to nothing.

I first heard the name Chris Kyle 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 soon learned that Kyle had been an extraordinarily effective Navy SEAL sniper, had served four combat tours in Iraq, had been wounded several times and had earned multiple medals and citations for valor and gallantry in action. After his last tour of duty, Kyle had returned to the U.S. and moved back to Texas with his wife and children. He had 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 verify that a couple of particularly far-fetched events he described had ever actually happened. The book has sold more than 1.5 million copies, which makes it a major publishing success. But it also means that most Americans have not read it, and that includes me.

The movie's Christmas Day release, its box office success and notable awards 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. I can't quite figure out why I should care what his personal views were, ugly or otherwise, any more than he would have cared about mine.

Except to those who truly knew him, the real Kyle was just one of two 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. He did his job very, very well, which became the basis for infinitely more publicity than a typical veteran attracts. Still, as far as his military service goes, he served honorably in the otherworldly context of warfare, which is to say, he was very much like the overwhelming majority of the other two million who served.

Kyle also apparently believed that American military action in Iraq was justified, but so what. How soon we forget that an awful lot of us were bamboozled, at least at first, by the WMD hysteria methodically whipped up by President George W. Bush and his alleged brain trust.

Besides, do we really need reminding that 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. Twas ever thus.

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

Admittedly, "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 fictionalized film, just as it has made for some brilliant documentaries. It's just not the theme Eastwood - who has publicly expressed his opposition to 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 unswerving loyalty to his fellow SEALS and his deep love for his wife and children. And we see plenty of vivid sequences of chaotic urban combat in Iraq. (Too many, actually. And Katheryn Bigelow's "The Hurt Locker" and Paul Greengrass' "Green Zone" did them better.)

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 started 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 should have caught it and changed it.

Eastwood also short-changes Kyle's PTSD, which threatens him and his family, and his treatment for it. The movie spends scant time on his symptoms (sullen silence, mostly, and one near-attack on the family dog) 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's seems well.

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

But 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 good care for active-duty military men and women and veterans who need help, a commitment that stretches back at least as far as 1636 when a court of Pilgrim settlers, who were fighting members of the Pequot tribe, declared:

If any man shalbee sent forth as a souldier and shall return maimed hee shalbee majntained competently by the Collonie during his life.

After last year's shameful scandals about VA officials who created fradulent log records to cover up the fact that veterans couldn't get timely health care appointments, this week's passage of H.R. 203, the federal Clay Hunt Suicide Prevention Act for American Veterans, is a promising sign.

Blocked in the last congress and thought dead, the measure came roaring back to life in the new congress and quickly passed the House and Senate unanimously. 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 need is even more acute than previously believed, according to a study soon to be published in the journal Annals of Epidemiology and cited recently in the Los Angeles Times. Based on records of 1.3 million veterans who were on active duty between 2001 and 2007, the study documented suicide rates 50 percent higher than among civilians of comparable demographics.

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.

A version of this column originally appeared in the St. Louis Jewish Light.