As the movie year rushes to redeem itself, it's a kick to see director Clint Eastwood back on his game. Jersey Boys tripped him up bad in 2014, but Eastwood, 84, is fired up and flaring with provocation in American Sniper. By delineating the tumultuous, tragically short life of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the most lethal sniper in U.S. military history (160 confirmed kills over four tours in Iraq), Eastwood lobs one into the war zone where conscience does battle with killer instinct. This is Hurt Locker territory. But Eastwood, working from a script that Jason Hall adapted from Kyle's 2012 memoir, fuses the explosive and the sorrowful as only he can. That's why his film takes a piece out of you.
That and Cooper, who gives everything and then some in an astonishing, all-out performance. Cooper put on 40 pounds of muscle to play Kyle, a flag-waving, good ol' Texas boy who sees evil in the world and aims to do something about it. For Eastwood, ever since Unforgiven, no way is that easy. The film opens on a rooftop in Fallujah, where Kyle must make the call to take down an Iraqi woman and her young son, who may or may not be hiding a grenade. Eastwood lays on the tension, especially when Kyle is tasked with blowing away the Butcher (Mido Hamada), an Al Qaeda terrorist with a specialty in power tools as weapons. Your nerves will be fried. There is no letup.
Well, except between tours, when Kyle returns home to his wife, Taya (Sienna Miller), and their two kids. These scenes have a perfunctory feel, meant to show the emotional fortress Kyle has built around himself. No need. All the pain is visible in Cooper's eyes, in a posture ever on danger alert. Cooper and Eastwood salute Kyle's patriotism best by not denying its toll. Their targets are clearly in sight, and their aim is true.