It may be just a coincidence of timing, but scheduling tonight’s AFI Fest “Secret Sneak” of Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper on Veterans Day not only added a strong layer of emotion, but also comes off as a brilliant masterstroke in launching the film and an Oscar campaign. And the fact that Eastwood pulls off his finest and most impressive filmmaking achievement since his 2004 Best Picture Oscar winner Million Dollar Baby — he’s done it, at the age of 84, when most directors are long-retired or certainly not doing the best work of their career. And it’s not even the only film he’s directed this year: Jersey Boys came out in June. Remarkable. Eastwood appeared before the screening tonight to introduce it and send praise to his two stars. AFI President and CEO Bob Gazzale introduced Eastwood, the recipient of the AFI Life Acievement Award nearly 20 years ago suggesting that, given his prolific filmmaking, he should perhaps receive an unprecedented second Life Achievement Award.
American Sniper, the true story of Navy SEAL Chris Kyle — the most successful and lethal sniper in U.S. military history, who served four nightmarish tours of duty in Iraq where he attained legendary hero status — will be released by Warner Bros on Christmas Day before going wide in January timed to Oscar nominations. After today’s unveiling, the studio can probably feel pretty good it could receive a number of them including Best Picture, Director, Adapted Screenplay for Jason Hall, Film Editing and Tom Stern’s Cinematography.
And even in this impossibly crowded year in the Best Actor category, Bradley Cooper’s understated and immersive performance as Kyle may well deliver him his third consecutive Oscar nomination after Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle in the last two years. The fact that he’s also winning early raves in a Broadway run of The Elephant Man that is scheduled to play almost right through to the Oscar show itself certainly won’t hurt his chances of landing that nomination. Playing a great and modest American war hero, Cooper’s portrayal is heroic itself. In large trade ads that also prominently launched today, Warners is also suggesting Cooper’s fine co-star Sienna Miller, who plays Kyle’s wife, in the Best Supporting Actress category.
In a wide open year when there have been no obvious frontrunners for Best Picture , this one has firmly planted its flag in the race. Warners’ Sue Kroll originally told me at the June premiere of Eastwood’s Jersey Boys that Sniper was going to be on the 2015 schedule, with no plans for an awards run this year. Things quickly changed after the studio saw an early cut. It makes sense now. Eastwood has the unique ability to make first-class films quickly and economically. Why sit on it? The same strategy was used for Million Dollar Baby 10 years ago and it obviously paid off. At an earlier small screening that I attended Tuesday morning on the Warner Bros lot, longtime Eastwood associate and American Sniper producer Robert Lorenz (along with Eastwood, Cooper, Andrew Lazar and Peter Morgan) told me they were all really proud of this one. They should be. And as he told me at the Governors Awards Saturday night, Eastwood said he had just put the finishing touches on the movie late last week and he was ready to have it seen. I can see why now.
What makes the film so effective, in addition to riveting scenes of Kyle in action, is that it is a brilliant study of a warrior not only on the battlefield but at home, giving equal weight to the toll taken on his life as a husband and father along with the psychological scars of war even for such a skilled combat vet. And, in pure Eastwood fashion, it’s not at all flashy or manipulative.
Steven Spielberg was set to direct but dropped out along the way. Cooper, also a credited producer on the film, refused to give up even after Kyle was senselessly murdered early last year at a shooting range by a troubled Marine he was only trying to help. Hall, who became involved even before Kyle had written the book on which the screenplay is based, told me recently at Deadline’s The Contenders event that when he got word of his murder, he thought the film might not even go on. But Eastwood came aboard and the results are there for all to see. Kyle actually receives an associate producer credit even though he never lived to see the story of his extraordinary life brought to the screen. The movie very touchingly includes footage of his funeral and you could hear a pin drop during the closing credits. It’s rather somber, not the type of film like Tuesday’s earlier AFI unveiling that elicits standing ovations. It earns its stripes in a different way.
In some ways this movie will inevitably be compared to 2009’s brilliant Best Picture winner The Hurt Locker, but they are wildly different and Sniper has more of an emotional pull to it, much like the slow boil Eastwood achieved in Million Dollar Baby. This story, and its tragic, senseless aftermath, sticks with you. AFI was lucky to be able to slot in to the surprise sneak slot but if you were Paramount, which had a long-in-the-works debut plan for its Martin Luther King Jr. drama Selma just a couple of hours before in the exact same theatre, you might be excused for thinking your thunder may have been stolen. But the enthusiastic standing ovation and reception accorded Selma could not have gone better. Two highly awaited films, both with strong Oscar shots, in back-to-back premieres? Let the chips fall where they may, but in a race still looking for that frontrunner, time and space are running out to make an impression. So the exposure at this, the last major Fall festival of the season , can be invaluable. But for bleary-eyed critics and awards bloggers this kind of one-two punch can be hard to compute.
There are remaining question marks as we move into the stretch: Big Eyes (beginning to screen later this week), Into The Woods (scheduled to be unveiled for press on November 22 in a bi-coastal launch), and the still-in-postproduction Angelina Jolie directorial effort Unbroken and Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods And Kings (which Deadline has seen). But four-time Oscar winner Eastwood and American Sniper have just fired their shot — and I think they hit the bull’s-eye.