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Movie a Day Blog faults itself for not taking Bradley Cooper seriously enough as an actor. He started in television and for years he acted like a TV performer: lots of surface dazzle, but not much substance. This is the guy, after all, who starred in THE A TEAM (2010) and did all three HANGOVER movies.

Then something happened. Maybe it came when he first started working with David O. Russell in SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK (2012) or A PLACE IN THE PINES (2012), but it was quite apparent by the release of AMERICAN HUSTLE (2013, Movie a Day 1/2/14) that this TV hunk had become a serious actor who could hold the screen with Christian Bale or Amy Adams with no hesitation.

Cooper did some of the best vocal work of the summer in GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY (2014) as Rocket the hybrid raccoon, and now he plays the title character in Clint Eastwood’s best recent film, AMERICAN SNIPER (2014, Theatrical).

This is not the Cooper we recognize, although he played fast and loose with his 70s sleazoid appearance in AMERICAN HUSTLE. This is a bulked-up and intensely serious Cooper, a different creature than we have ever seen him play, and a character he fully inhabits.

Cooper is playing Chris Kyle, a real Marine sniper who holds the unpleasant record of the most kills ever recorded by an American marksman in war. His character evokes the one Gary Cooper played in the last great movie about an Army sniper, SERGEANT YORK (1941), although that was set in World War I and was designed to raise American morale during the Second World War.

Eastwood may have a similar motivation in mind, because watching Cooper at work, wrestling with moral dilemmas almost every time he squeezes the trigger on his high-powered rifle, is a surprisingly patriotic endeavor. We root instinctively for him, not just because he’s watching over American soldiers and shooting very bad people who have only evil intentions against their invaders, but because we trust his judgment.

We believe that Cooper makes the right decisions when he decides to shoot, and his judgment and ours concern fair play and the ability to play God with a bullet. The other major sniper movie I can recall, ENEMY AT THE GATE (2001), had no such moral qualms at play, because that was the Russians against the Nazis and the Russian were fighting for their homeland.

Eastwood made the most fascinating duo of war movies in film history: he did the Pacific front in World War II from¬† the perspective of both sides. FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS (2006) and LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA (2006) aren’t great war movies, although the latter is particularly impressive from being told completely in Japanese, with English subtitles, which meant Clint was directing in a language he could not speak.

AMERICAN SNIPER succeeds much better in communicating the anonymity of modern war. In addition to drones and called-in airstrikes, enemy fire often comes from an undisclosed location, and bullets seem fired at random more often than not. But Cooper has to have every one of his victims directly in his sights, whether it’s a rival sniper or a woman and her son who seem to be carrying a rocket-propelled grenade to a group of Islamic fighters.

The real Chris Kyle was killed by a troubled veteran on a shooting range in February 2013, but Eastwood does not make his hero feel like a doomed man. He does better than most veterans when he returns home to his wife Elise Robertson and family, but there are reasons he keeps going back to Iraq and then Afghanistan for another tour of duty.

Cooper, who added 40 pounds to his frame to become a lethal hulk, can’t ever let his guard down, and we realize the toll this kind of duty takes on any serviceman, even one who is highly motivated, expert at his job, and feels a tremendous sense of duty to his fellow soldiers. Kyle is the kind of son and husband families would rightly wish for, and his loss, which is known to much of the audience because of the film’s publicity, is especially maddening by the end.

Eastwood, who at 84 is remarkably spry behind the camera, has shed some of the sentimentalizing he did in JERSEY BOYS (2013) and GRAN TORINO (2008) and has returned to the form of a great American moviemaker. It’s no surprise that a cold and inherently brutal war film such as this was directed by the Man with No Name, a cool character and never one to over-romanticize his plight.

AMERICAN SNIPER is grim viewing, not only for the body count, but for the toll Cooper registers his actions taking on him. He knows what this job is doing to him, and to the fabric of his life, but because he’s so good at it, he can’t stop.

You could say the same of Eastwood: most directors would have retired to their mansions on the California coast by now, but Eastwood continues to go to work and occasionally make another brilliant film. I can’t wait for the next one.

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