Much to my surprise, not long after Chris Kyle -- the Navy SEAL portrayed by Bradley Cooper -- reached the Middle East, the audience learned about a trained enemy sniper named "Mustafa" (played by Sammy Sheik) described as a skilled marksman who was once an Olympic shooter for Syria.
Eyebrows raised. Something did not seem right.
Then later in the film, as Kyle's team seemed to close in on the supposed Olympian at his clandestine residence, the Syrian athlete-turned-militant sharpshooter was portrayed as quickly loading rifles or packing other gear before barely escaping the U.S. forces in a Houdini-like departure.
During his urgent flight from home, the camera pauses briefly on a framed photograph with three flag-draped athletes on a victory stand presented like an Olympic medal podium and, you guessed it, the magical Mister Mustafa-lese posed on the top tier as though at attention for his national anthem.
Hmmmmm. Very odd.
Though my CV includes "lifetime member of the International Society of Olympic Historians (ISOH)" this status includes very little knowledge of Olympic shooting records.
But I was pretty sure the total number of Olympic shooting medalists from Syria was a "ZERO" bigger than the bull's eye on a Games target.
Emerging from the theatre, I checked the International Olympic Committee records and though there are three all-time Olympic medalists from Syria, none are Olympic shooters.
Fellow ISOH member Brian Carberry later did some quick research and found that there are a handful of Olympic shooting entrants from Syrian Arab Republic. But since this National Olympic Committee joined the Olympic Family in 1948, only one seemed age- and skill-appropriate for the film's early 2000s timing.
Carberry explained an athlete named Mohamed Mahfoud competed at the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games as a rifle shooter. However, Mahfoud placed 53rd out of 53 athletes in the target shooting events, hardly the result painted by the filmmakers.
His online bio states he was in his 40s -- and Syria's oldest Sydney entrant in any sport -- during the post-9/11 decade portrayed in the book and movie. So it seemed a stretch this guy joined Iraqi or other forces post-Games.
American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in U.S. Military History" from cover to cover.
The result: Not a single reference to any one specific target taken out by Chris Kyle. Notes on the editing process, provided by the author, indicate the Pentagon or Navy's review of the text likely prevented such specifics from making the final version.
Determined to find out "who was Mustafa" I started searching the usual places including IMDB, the film's official site (in search of an online press kit) and reviews of the film. Nothing.
Then a Time magazine report detailing fact versus fiction in the big screen "American Sniper" yielded some details that suggest that although a "Mustafa" might have existed or even survived Kyle's attempts to take him out, this person's would-be Olympic creds were not likely verified in the script writer's efforts to bring this character to screen. The Time story does mention some of the writer's feedback on this, but without mention of the Games.
For now, my take is that the five-ringed mention was only for dramatic effect. How better to quickly establish a character's shooting prowess than to elevate her or him to Olympian status?
That said, it does seem to this writer that the "medal stand photo" on view in that enemy combatant's home was a bit much. But hey, the trick worked and it got at least one viewer's attention.
Still curious, I do intend to attempt contact with the Oscar-nominated screenwriter Jason Hall to ask specifically the extent to which the "Mustafa" character received O-ring research. I'm also sending an email to the Syrian NOC to inquire their point of view on this topic and the extent to which they were consulted.
Whether this outreach will generate responses or more clarification remains to be seen.
But it is certain that "American Sniper" will continue to turn heads and sell tickets; as of this post,
opening weekend in nationwide release brought in $90 million (!!!).
And the film is well made and Cooper does a fine job showcasing the range of emotions, concentration and stress experienced by Kyle. I enjoyed it more on screen than the book, though I do suggest folks read the updated text versions for the additional details provided by the author's widow and Hall.
Publicity stills via Fandango and ReelBrief.
January 29, 2015 UPDATE: After publishing this post, I did sent an email with questions to the Syrian Olympic Committee, which responded with a letter signed by the president of the organization. The complete correspondence, and letter -- in which the president condemned the film while confirming the "Olympic shooter from Syria" is fictional -- may be read on a follow-up post found here: http://bit.ly/1uVNlB7