By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — The opening scene grabs us by the throat before we’ve even settled in.

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The title character of American Sniper, flat on his stomach on a rooftop in Iraq, trains his high-powered rifle sight on the street below, where an Iraqi woman and her young son have emerged through a doorway.  When the woman pulls out what appears to be a pipe bomb, he has to make a split-second, life-or-death decision.

Should he squeeze the trigger?  These are, after all, a woman and a child.

(3 stars out of 4 !)

(3 stars out of 4 !)

But they may be, after all, combatants who threaten the lives of his fellow soldiers.  There will be consequences of one kind or another whichever path he chooses.

American Sniper, directed by Clint Eastwood, is a grim, gritty, and gripping combat drama about warfare during which such moments and decisions and confrontations become, if not routine, then at least less than extraordinary.

Bradley Cooper stars as real-life Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who did four tours of duty in Iraq and became the most accomplished and decorated marksman in US history with 160 confirmed kills of suspected insurgents.

Known by his admiring comrades-in-arms as “Legend,” his chief mission involved searching for “The Butcher,” an Iraqi sniper.

A bulked-up Cooper, hefting 40 extra pounds (and his Oscar nominations for his work in Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle in his back pocket), gives another assured performance as Kyle, showing us the gradual changes this man of few words undergoes, clearly haunted by his wrenching military experience and experiencing what certainly seems like some version of post-traumatic stress syndrome.

Sienna Miller contributes a career-best supporting turn as Taya, Kyle’s wife, whom Kyle leaves behind almost immediately after they are married when he ships out.  And in the eyes of the eventual mother of his two children, he keeps her at a distance from that point on.

Miller makes Taya’s frustration and fear and hurt palpable and touching.

Kyle gets so used to being the sniper over there that, before long, he feels away from home when he is home with his family.  And that’s because his definitions of home and family have radically changed.

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“I need you to be human again,” his wife says to him at one point.

This provocative portrait of an Iraq War legend is up to director Eastwood’s already high standards.

Not that his directorial range has been in doubt (Mystic River, Unforgiven, The Bridges of Madison County, Flags of Our Fathers), but his 2014 double dip of Jersey Boys and American Sniper is a further demonstration of the prolific octogenarian auteur’s moviemaking versatility and prowess.

This absorbing, intense war flick puts us in mind of The Hurt Locker as Eastwood continues his career-long investigation of violence and its ramifications.  And if his film isn’t quite in the class of that 2010 Oscar winner for best picture, it’s at the very least a meritorious companion piece.

Jason Dean Hall’s screenplay, which is based on the autobiography co-written by Kyle, avoids politics pretty much completely in what is an experiential exploration of the war.

True, we exit this arresting exploration wishing that it had offered a bit more in the way of insight into Kyle’s psychology and motivation -– his inner life — before, during, and after his tours of duty.  And perhaps to a degree the obligatory thriller elements compromise the film’s attempt to focus on the consequences of the violence.

But this is nonetheless a riveting and provocative profile.

So we’ll aim at 3 stars out of 4 for a bracing military character study in which sharpshooter Bradley Cooper gives it his best shot under the guidance of sharp shooter Clint Eastwood.

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