Two men. Both killed hundreds. Both had biographies and movies made about their lives. One was given numerous awards and medals while one was condemned to consecutive life sentences. Chris Kyle and Richard Kuklinski, known as “The Legend” and “The Iceman” respectively, were two of the most violent men in American history, yet their legacies stand at polar opposites. Many consider Chris Kyle, a former Navy Seal, an American hero while they consider Richard Kuklinski, a contract killer, an absolute psychopath. But what truly makes a hero? Both ended the lives of hundreds of other human beings. Both had families they were trying to provide for. The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “hero” as “a person who is admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities.” What then qualifies as brave?
Either of them could be considered brave if you follow the dictionary definition as “feeling or showing no fear.” Kyle showed bravery through his actions in Iraq, and Kuklinski showed no fear in his career as a contract killer. In the HBO documentary “The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Contract Killer,” Kuklinski sits down with a psychiatrist who tells him that he exhibits signs of an inborn fearlessness that allowed him to keep his wits while in excruciating circumstances. Kuklinski, according to the dictionary and the psychiatrist, has a genetic predisposition to being a hero. So if the dictionary cannot separate these two men on brave actions, yet Kyle is the man considered a hero, how can we separate them?
Joseph Campbell, in his 1949 book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, identifies a common story or “monomyth” that all hero tales follow. So if Kyle is to be considered a hero in the classical sense, the monomyth and Chris Kyle’s life as presented in the 2015 movie American Sniper should fit together. The general monomyth starts with the hero’s background being introduced. We see the hero in his normal life and begin to establish connections with him. From there, the hero is called to action by some event or person. They set out on their adventure and seek out training from a more knowledgeable person, who teaches them skills and imparts wisdom that they will need along the journey. Next, the hero leaves for an unfamiliar world where their skills are tested. In this new world the hero comes up against several obstacles, culminating in their final test. Here they normally fail at first, then come back stronger than ever and conquer the obstacle. They must then return home, attempting to reestablish normalcy in their normal lives. Finally, the journey is ended with the hero back in their normal habitat, slightly better off than before.
Check out this illustrated example:
So how does Kyle fit this myth? Well, American Sniper begins by introducing us to Kyle through flashbacks to his childhood, where his father imparts a strong moral compass. Kyle is then called to action as he witnesses an attack on a US embassy, prompting him to join the Navy SEALs. He seeks out training at the Navy recruiter office. From there he learns necessary skills in BUD/S, the SEAL special training program. Once he has gathered all of these skills, he goes off to war in Iraq, where he faces his first challenge: whether or not to kill a woman and her child. This tests Kyle’s judgment, which in the end turn out to be correct. Kyle faces several other smaller challenges along the way as he and his crew comb through the city for insurgents. Kyle’s final challenge is to find and kill the terrorist sniper Mustafa, who has been killing American troops. At first, Kyle and his team fail, and Mustafa kills one of Kyle’s comrades. In the end Kyle prevails over Mustafa by making an incredible shot in the midst of chaos. Kyle then returns home, determined to be there for his family, but is unable to establish normalcy in his life because of PTSD. Eventually, Kyle overcomes this and finally has a normal life with his wife and child.
American Sniper matches the hero monomyth perfectly, portraying Kyle in a way that convinces audiences that he is a hero. However, problems arise when you consider the additions Eastwood (the director) and Hall (the screenwriter) inserted to match the hero monomyth. For example, Kyle’s call to action in the movie, the US embassy bombings, were not Kyle’s motivation for enlisting, he previously had the desire to enlist, and an opportunity came up for him. Furthermore, there was no final obstacle for Kyle to conquer, so the filmmakers introduced Mustafa into the plotline. There was an enemy sniper in real life, but Kyle never confronted him and he played little importance in Kyle’s book, only having a sentence dedicated to him. It seems then that the Kyle from the film can be called a hero based on the hero monomyth, but Kyle himself cannot. The movie is intentionally untruthful to satisfy the audience’s expectations of a classic hero journey. While the hero monomyth is great for identifying heroes in many stories, real world heroes cannot be defined this way.
Many in the world point to Kyle’s service in the military as an automatic qualifier for the status of hero, but there are also those who believe military service should not guarantee heroship. This issue is brought in up the Netflix comedy series BoJack Horseman when the title character, BoJack, inadvertently steals a box of muffins from a Navy Seal who has just returned from duty. When debating the “seemingly mandated celebration of our military”, BoJack states, “Maybe some of troops are heroes, but not automatically. I’m sure a lot of the troops are jerks!” What he is getting at is that troops deserve gratitude, but not the automatic mantle of hero.
But if you’re not a seal trying to get a box of muffins back from a thieving horse, why does being called a hero even matter? Let’s go back to the dictionary definition of a “hero.” A person is considered a hero if they are “admired for great or brave acts or fine qualities.” Once again, while Kuklinski fits the “brave” category, he is not considered a hero, so it comes down to the “admired” section of the definition. So if admiration is the primary qualifier for being a hero, then the very act of admiring someone for an action you define as great or brave makes that person a hero; you hold the deciding vote in your hands. However, if you were like Kyle, you would only care about protecting your country and if you were like Kuklinski, you would only care about providing for your family the only way you know how. So then, the only person who truly cares is the one judging in the first place. Heroes become reflections of our own desires for ourselves. We look up to those who have accomplished something we deem great, and hold them up as the golden standard by which we should live. The pedestal we place them upon lends credence to the righteousness of the actions that put them there in the first place. We must ensure that those placed upon this pedestal are placed there because they truly did something admirable, not because they were portrayed sympathetically in a movie. You will find those who call Kyle a hero for his service, and you will find those who call him a monster for his actions. In the end, you should choose your own heroes. Your admiration should be based on actions you know to be true. A hero in one story may be the villain in another. All the stories, facts, and myths should come together to paint a clear picture of the person’s true nature. Remember, heroes are the people we model our life after, so choose well.
American Sniper. Dir. Clint Eastwood. Prod. Robert Lorenz, Andrew Lazar, Bradley Cooper, and Peter Morgan. By Jason Hall. Perf. Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2015. Film.
“American Sniper True Story vs. Movie – Real Chris Kyle, Taya Kyle. “HistoryvsHollywood.com. CTF Media, 2015. Web. 22 Feb. 2015.
“BoJack Hates the Troops.” Arnett, Will.Bojack Horseman. Netflix. 22 Aug. 2014. Television.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1972. Print.
The Iceman Tapes: Conversations with a Killer. Dir. Author Ginsberg. Richard Kuklinski The Iceman HBO Interview. Home Box Office, 7 Oct. 2012. Web. 3 Mar. 2015.