Taya Kyle still remembers the little things about her late husband, like the way he would downplay his virtues when the couple was out in public.
“I would say something to the people we were with, like how intelligent he was, and he would just wave his hand and say, ‘No, stop.’ Even if it was this amazingly nice thing. Chris just wanted it not to be about him,” Taya said. Her voice caught. “I’m hurt I don’t get to have more time with him.”
The public is beginning to understand that sentiment. As documented in “American Sniper,” the new Clint Eastwood film starring Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller, Taya Kyle’s life partner was a compelling figure--one of the most accurate sharpshooters in U.S. military history, but a distinction he carried with humility.
The movie has proved popular in limited release. Over its Christmas weekend opening, “American Sniper” earned the third-highest per-screen average ever for a live-action film, drawing fans with its portrait of a complicated heroism.
Jason Hall’s script (based on Chris Kyle’s memoir) depicts the marksman racked up as many as 150 kills during the Iraq war, giving cover to Marines fighting an urban war. During four tours, Kyle earned the sobriquet “The Legend” for his ability to make near-impossible shots under trying circumstances.
While Chris Kyle was engaged in bloody battles overseas, Taya was waging her own struggle at home, the ever-present prospect of a dreaded phone call co-existing with the loneliness of raising two children on her own. Her husband’s brief trips back to their Texas home only underscored those feelings. Far from the attentive mate she knew before he shipped off, Chris was often anxious and withdrawn. At one point Taya contemplated leaving him.
Chris survived the war and, in 2009, returned to the U.S. He slowly readjusted to civilian life, and he and Taya began the process of reconciliation. But all that shattered in February 2013 when, in a moment not shown in the film, Chris and a friend named Chad Littlefield were killed at a Texas shooting range. Eddie Ray Routh, a veteran whom Kyle and Littlefield were trying to help readjust to postwar life, has been charged with one count of capital murder and two counts of murder; he remains jailed on a $3-million bond awaiting trial.
“The way it went down was so wrong, and yet on some level Chris died as he lived: serving,” Taya Kyle said.
Describing the few years she and her husband spent together after he returned from combat, she added, “Every single person suffers; every marriage has some major battles. Life pulls you in different directions. But if you try and you’re lucky, you can find your way back to each other.”
Taya Kyle had come to New York for a series of media appearances. Her two children traveled with her, spending much of the days with a baby-sitter as their mother honored her commitments, then reuniting with her at dinnertime.
Fact-based films are common in modern Hollywood, but with all the on-screen dramatics, it can be easy to forget that behind the characters are real people concerned about how their lives will be represented.
This week Mark Schultz — the subject of “Foxcatcher,” another film in which a character is killed — took to social media to rail against director Bennett Miller and disavow the movie. “I hate it. I hate it. I hate it,” he wrote, before apologizing Thursday for the tone, but not the substance, of his remarks.
Those kinds of concerns are especially relevant in “American Sniper,” given both how recently the events occurred and how politicized war can be.
Taya, indeed, worried about the Hollywood dramatization — worries that were reinforced when she spotted screenwriter Hall at her husband’s memorial service.
“I had a lot of fear,” she said, noting that when the movie “Lone Survivor” was made about the Kyles’ friend Marcus Luttrell, Luttrell was still alive and could speak out about inaccuracies. “The fear I had with this is that it would be the lasting impression, because Chris wouldn’t be around to say it wasn’t like that--and people wouldn’t believe me.”
Those anxieties began to evaporate when she talked to Hall, who would spend hours on the phone in a bid to understand her late husband.
Her fears melted further as the casting process moved forward.
Taya Kyle had initially suggested that Sandra Bullock play her in the film. (Kyle said she related to the actress’ down-home quality.) After being told by filmmakers that that choice wouldn’t work, she was introduced to Miller. The British actress, who has a young daughter with fiance Tom Sturridge, had undergone her own relationship struggles, often in public, when the infidelity of ex Jude Law created a tabloid frenzy years ago.
“It was important to me that whatever actress it was had a child and had also been through heartbreak,” Kyle said. “Because that was essential to my journey: the ability to love children while simultaneously having your heart broken.”
Taya carries herself with a kind of brisk efficiency. At several moments during the interview, she checked her phone and sent a quick text, at one point also arranging a private car service for later. “Bad experience with the Uber driver last night,” she said. There is a formidable quality to her that would seem to belie her private pain.
“You can tell she’s just kept going and hasn’t stopped,” said Miller, who has developed a friendship with the woman she plays. “You realize how vulnerable she still is. Just beneath the surface, there’s something very raw.”
Midway through coffee at her hotel, Taya said she wanted to get some air and suggested a walk in the bracing cold at the edge of Central Park. As she walked, she offered a nuanced view of her late husband’s service. She said Chris was unhappy about leaving his family — this was not a “Hurt Locker” adrenaline junkie situation — and he returned repeatedly to Iraq only because the military compelled him to do so. During the stints home between tours, he would regularly have nightmares about soldiers he couldn’t save.
She said that when Cooper first signed on to play Chris, she hung back, wanting to avoid the stereotype of the needy widow, before slowly getting to know him.
Just about a year ago, Cooper and Eastwood came to Taya’s house in Midlothian, Texas, to meet her and Chris’ parents.
Eastwood asked if he could put his feet up on the coffee table; Cooper was soon playing with her children and the dog outside. The director promised they would do right by the story, which he said at a New York event last month was as much about Taya Kyle’s battles as her husband’s war experience. “A guy going off for four tours and leaving his family has to be tremendously difficult. I wanted to show that, and not just the shoot ‘em up.”
During the Texas visit, to help Cooper understand that dynamic, Taya handed over stacks of photos and emails that she and her husband had exchanged.
“It was this beautiful thing that really did start the movie out in a way that forecast it for the rest of us,” Cooper said, describing Taya as a “huge presence, terribly charismatic, hyper-intelligent, able to communicate very easily to anyone she comes across.”
He added, “We flew back much different.”
Taya Kyle has not had a quiet time the past two years. She lost a defamation lawsuit by Jesse Ventura over disparaging comments that Chris’ book said Ventura made about Navy SEALs. She has also been embroiled in legal battles with some owners of Craft International, the now-bankrupt law-enforcement training firm Chris founded.
“A couple of times I felt like I was cracking and I couldn’t go on, and God would put another person in my place to help me,” Taya said. “And I’d realize it’s not worth our time to worry. You do your best, and God will put the right people in your path.”
Most sensitive is the upcoming trial of Routh. She dismisses the reports that link PTSD to Routh’s alleged actions. (Routh’s lawyers have suggested they plan to plead insanity.)
“To try and even find an excuse is disgusting,” she said. “I know people with PTSD, and it’s very real and very hard. But it doesn’t change your core character.”
She paused. “I have a feeling the trial is going to be a beat-down. And yet there’s no place I’d rather be. Everywhere I can be supporting Chris and standing up for him. I will always be there.”
Back in the hotel lobby, the baby-sitter had brought Kyle’s children, each bearing some acquisitions from a day out in the city. Taya hugged them and put one of them on her lap as she continued talking, then sent them back to the baby-sitter so they wouldn’t hear difficult comments.
As much as she wanted the film to pay tribute to her husband, Taya said, she also saw “American Sniper” as a movie about family and the feelings she grappled with long before that bleak day two years ago.
“I felt a little like I was back with Chris watching the film,” she said. “But whether you see Sienna or you see me up on the screen, it doesn’t really matter. If people get the hardships, that’s enough. If there’s one other person who is married to a first-responder and sees the film and feels a little less alone, I’ll be happy.”