STEPHENVILLE, Texas (Reuters) - The timing, location and emotions came together at a Texas movie theater where 40 people watched the late showing of “American Sniper” just down the road from where a former Marine will stand trial for murdering the man whose story unfolded on the screen.
On Tuesday night, the crowd saw some of the final scenes in the life of Chris Kyle, the former Navy SEAL whose best-selling autobiography was turned into the film that has been nominated for six Academy Awards, including best picture.
The screening ended shortly before midnight, less than 12 hours before the trial of the man charged with killing Kyle opened on Wednesday a few miles away at a court in Stephenville, where the trial is set to saturate a town near where he was fatally shot.
“It is kind of surreal to think about it. It is all so close, in so many ways,” said Jenhifer Pratt, a 21-year-old student at Tarleton State University, who saw the movie with two of her friends.
Kyle, a ranch hand who turned soldier, was a familiar type of figure in Stephenville. Tarleton is a university known for its rodeo program, and Erath County is a place where hunting, guns and military service are the norm for the mostly rural county of sprawling ranches.
Kyle was fatally shot at a gun range in the county about two years ago. Eddie Ray Routh, a fellow veteran suffering from mental illness is charged with murdering Kyle, who had taken him to Rough Creek Lodge to help him cope with the mental scars from battle.
The staff at the lodge declined to speak on the matter. A gag order has prevented many people with first-hand knowledge of the incident from discussing the killing.
But at the Cinemark theater in Stephenville, one of many across the country showing the movie, opinions were plentiful and passionate.
“He gave everything he had and he was trying to help other men. The man had a heart as big as Texas,” said a retired rancher who had seen the movie several times and only gave his first name, Wes.
The rancher, like many in this heavily Republican part of the state, pointed a finger at the Obama administration for not doing enough to help veterans like Kyle and Routh in wars launched under the George W. Bush administration.
More than 800 people were called to be jurors, and most people in the theater knew someone summoned to appear at court to be screened for the panel.
Even though Kyle’s autobiography has been criticized for language seen as demeaning Iraqis and been on the losing end of a defamation suit brought by former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura, Kyle is widely revered in his home of Texas.
“We see guys like him all the time on campus,” student Pratt said.
At the Texas State Cemetery in Austin, where Kyle is buried along with other major figures in the state’s history, his grave has been the most visited after his body was brought to the site in a flag-waving procession that spanned about 200 miles (320 km) of Texas highway in 2013.
“He was well looked upon even before the movie came out,” said Terry Hardeman, a tourist who visited the grave on Tuesday.
Reporting by Jon Herskovitz Editing by W Simon