Taya Kyle says she made her peace with the movie about her husband Chris Kyle, the legendary SEAL and subject of the upcoming film "American Sniper," a few months before she even saw the film.
It would be as good as it could be, she kept telling herself. Maybe authentic glimpses of the warrior-husband that she had grown to love would show up on the big screen. And that would be enough.
But she hadn't actually found that peace. Not really.
With "American Sniper," equal parts war movie and love story, set for release on Christmas Day, Military Times caught up with Taya Kyle to find out how she finally made that peace — and why it was so much more profound than she expected.
Chris Kyle is credited by the military with more confirmed kills over four tours in Iraq than any marksman in American history. After leaving the Navy, he wrote what took off as a best-selling account of his experiences, "American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History."
He wrote not just as a war fighter, but as a husband and the father of a growing family. The book was partly co-written by Taya, with many passages penned by her scattered throughout its 381 pages.
On Feb. 2, 2013, Chris and a friend were gunned down on a Texas shooting range. Awaiting trial for their murders is another veteran with post-traumatic stress whom Chris and his buddy were trying to help.
Shortly before his death, Taya remembers her husband having a brief conversation with actor and producer Bradley Cooper about turning his book into a feature-length movie.
Cooper was going to produce the movie and play Chris. He promised to do it right.
In time, she grew to believe him. But it took a while.
With her husband gone, it fell to Taya to work with the screenwriter to help fill in the small details and nuances of their lives together. "We spent hundreds of hours on the phone going over it all," she says.
She flew to London to meet with Cooper, along with director Clint Eastwood and actress Sienna Miller — tapped to play Taya on the big screen — as well as other members of the cast and crew.
Filming was split between Morocco and Southern California. And Taya marveled at how everything she saw — and everyone she met — impressed her.
"If there was ever going to be a movie that was even going to come close to getting it right, this was it," she remembers eventually telling herself.
"A lot of people thought writing the book was going to be cathartic for us, and it wasn't. It was so fresh, so much about the struggles we had just gotten through, and it was taking us back in the mix of it. But with this movie, and having just lost Chris, it was very different. I do believe it was very healing in some ways," she says.
"(Screenwriter) Jason Hall spent all this time with me, and I'm talking about my memories and my life and my love, and the love of Chris towards me and the kids. It was healing for me to be able to give that, and to be able to preserve some of those memories in a different way.
"Whenever you lose someone, you're always afraid, 'What if I forget something? What if I miss something?' This helps that. It's been a really beautiful thing."
All that, however, stood in stark contrast to other events in her life.
Bar fights and lawsuits
Before Chris's death, former Minnesota Gov. Jesse Ventura, also a former SEAL, filed a defamation lawsuit against Kyle after the sniper said he'd punched Ventura out in a 2006 bar fight for disparaging SEALs and the war in Iraq. He had written about the incident in his book, but only named Ventura specifically in interviews during his tour. Ventura insisted it never happened.
After Chris's death, most thought Ventura would drop the suit. Instead, a Minnesota jury ordered Taya to pay $1.8 million in damages.
"It was extraordinarily painful. It robbed me of a lot of time with my children, and grieving with them. If you've never been through something like this, you might think you just hire a lawyer and move on with your life," she says. "It's so not that. It's painful. It's maddening. It was very taxing emotionally. I just tried to get through it, but in the end, my jaw is still on the floor."
Bradley Cooper and Sienna Miller play Chris and Taya Kyle in "American Sniper."
Photo Credit: Keith Bernstein
Life and death on the big screen
About two months ago, it was finally time to see the movie. Among a small handful of people invited to the Warner Bros. lot in Hollywood, Taya watched it all unfold on the big screen.
"Initially I was so focused on Chris and making sure that it honored him, but I just lost myself. It was so Chris. It wasn't Bradley on the screen. It was Chris."
And it was her, too.
"I saw parts of myself in Sienna that I tend to think I hold close to the vest and most people don't see. But she brought that. She really got my vulnerability," she says. "It was very powerful."
And the tears came.
"The loving moments between the two of them either got me choked up or full-on tears flowing. And the beauty of it with Chris and the children, those moments definitely hit me right in the heart."
It's not perfect, though. One scene in particular did not ring true: Chris is on a flightline in Iraq and finds his younger brother Jeff, a Marine, as he's preparing to board an aircraft. His brother looks shell-shocked and beaten down.
"Maybe the actor over-acted it a little bit. I think the thing they were trying to convey is that Chris felt this protectiveness towards his brother even though his brother is a very capable, strong man. The scene is a little bit hard to swallow in that Jeff would not have come across that way like a trembling, fearful person," she says. "I've got to believe that scene was not an easy pill to swallow for Jeff."
But she thinks she understands.
"There's so much in a full lifetime, and you're trying to get it into a very short amount of time. You have to take some creative license," she says.
She thought she had found peace with her life, with the love of her life, and with all the joys and heartache that came with displaying it all for the world to see. But she hadn't, really — not until she found herself leaving the private Warner Bros. screening.
"I left feeling like a weight had been lifted. They really pulled it off. It's an authentic, genuine look at two people who love each other and what our veterans go through and what they carry ... how they take their home life to the battlefield and take the battlefield home."
In short, she says, Cooper kept his promise to get it right.
"And then some," she says. "And it's not just me — so many of Chris's friends who have seen the movie have said they didn't feel like they were even watching an actor. It's been that way without fail. Everyone who knows him and loves him has said that."