Fact-checking 'American Sniper' as the Oscars near

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Bradley Cooper portrays Navy SEAL Chris Kyle in "American Sniper." (Warner Bros. Pictures)
Bradley Cooper portrays Navy SEAL Chris Kyle in "American Sniper." (Warner Bros. Pictures)

Fact-checking 'American Sniper' as the Oscars near

by: Dan Lamothe | .
The Washington Post | .
published: February 19, 2015

Editor's note: This piece may include some plot spoilers.

The 87th Academy Awards are coming this weekend, and the military blockbuster "American Sniper" has been nominated for six Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Bradley Cooper's role as Navy SEAL sharpshooter Chris Kyle.

Some veterans groups and Kyle's family and friends have mostly praised the movie for its portrayal of urban combat in Iraq, Kyle himself, and veteran struggles with post-traumatic stress. However, the movie strays from the truth on some aspects of Kyle's life and deployments, making it an interesting film to put through The Washington Post's "Truth Teller" series.

For the second year in a row, The Post is fact-checking some of the major pictures up for Oscars. The effort includes "Selma," "The Theory of Everything," and "The Imitation Game" as well as "American Sniper."

Among the factual issues with "American Sniper":

The emphasis on Syrian sniper Mustafa

The film depicts at great length the enemy sniper Mustafa, an apparent near-equal of Kyle's who once competed in the Olympics as a marksman. However, as The Post's World Views blog highlighted last month, it is unclear if that particular insurgent sniper ever existed. He is mentioned in just one paragraph in Kyle's memoir, in which Kyle says he never saw Mustafa.

The movie, on the other hand, shows Mustafa stalking Kyle and his Navy SEAL colleagues through multiple cities and deployments in Iraq over several years. Kyle eventually kills him with a shot of more than 2,100 yards — a major moment in the film and purportedly the SEAL's longest shot ever, as The Post noted in December. He did take a shot that long, but it hit an insurgent with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher, according to his book.

In reality, it's highly unlikely that one insurgent sniper would have appeared in that many different locations during the Iraq War. Jason Hall, the film's screenwriter, told The Post that including Mustafa in so much of the film acted as connective tissue and made Kyle's four deployments less "episodic." Kyle did not kill him.

Kyle's prominent use of the satellite phone

The film shows Kyle repeatedly on the phone with his wife, Taya, while on missions "outside the wire." Several times she listens to the sounds of combat from thousands of miles away, horrified.

In reality, Kyle wrote in his book that his wife experienced something like that just once. Hall, the screenwriter, said that he expanded the use of the satellite phone in the movie so that viewers could see them communicate while he was deployed. The couple also used email, but that is not shown in the movie.

The death of fellow SEAL Ryan Job

Kyle witnessed two of his SEAL teammates get seriously wounded in combat. One of them, Ryan Job, took a gunshot to the face in 2006, and died in 2009 while in surgery. His death occurred after he got married and had climbed Mount Ranier, according to his obituary.

However, the film shows Job dying earlier, while Kyle is in Iraq on his last deployment. The altered timeline provided motivation for Kyle to kill the Syrian sniper in the movie.

Kyle's last day

In the film, Kyle is killed by an unnamed veteran who is struggling with mental issues. The man picks Kyle up at his house, and then the film moves to real footage of Kyle's funeral at the the Dallas Cowboys stadium, a memorial service that drew thousands of people.

In reality, Kyle picked up the veteran — Eddie Ray Routh — at Routh's house. Routh shot and killed Kyle and his friend Chad Littlefield at a rifle range where the three men had gone to hang out. Routh stole Kyle's pickup truck and led police on a high-speed chase before he was captured. Routh's murder trial is now underway. His lawyers, who do not dispute that Routh killed Kyle and Littlefield, are arguing for a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity.