×

A few months ago, “American Sniper” wasn’t even on the radar for the 2014 Oscar race, but at Thursday’s AFI Fest premiere screening, the film bursts onto the scene as a strong contender in across-the-board categories.

The Warner Bros. release features all the hallmarks of Clint Eastwood’s best work: terrific performances, expert below-the-line contributions, and a thoughtful script that seems to be taking the audience in one direction, then proceeds to challenge expectations and expand on its ideas.

In this case, the script is by Jason Hall based on the memoirs of Chris Kyle, whom Eastwood described in his opening remarks as “the most dangerous sniper in the history of American military.” (Eastwood also noted that the film was debuting on Veteran’s Day.) It’s a celebration of the heroism of soldiers, while providing a devastating account of the toll it takes on them.

After Oscar noms for his last two films (“Silver Linings Playbook” and “American Hustle”), Bradley Cooper continues his hot streak, with a fully-fleshed-out character that’s far removed from anything he’s done, and Sienna Miller gets maximum results in the supporting role of his wife. Cooper is in a crowded category that already has six actors competing for the five slots, but his work is so good, he can displace one of them. Miller’s race is less jam-packed, and she provides a lot of heart to what is potentially a one-dimensional role.

The film also has adrenaline and energy that most other films should envy, thanks to Eastwood’s team, including editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach; cinematographer Tom Stern, casting director Geoffrey Miclat, the groups of sound workers, stuntmen and all other artisans, who will likely be remembered in guild and Oscar voting.

The  pic was originally targeted for 2015, but Eastwood worked so fast and to such good results that the move seemed like a good idea. I think they were right. The film superficially resembles “Hurt Locker,” but brings a very different sensibility to the material. I think the overlap between the two films will be more a talking point among critics than among awards voters. Most voters will concentrate on the soldier’s attitudes and their learning curve, which is harrowing and timely.

In introducing the film, AFI president-CEO Bob Gazzale referred to Eastwood as “an American icon.” He definitely is that, but he’s also an active filmmaker creating movies that are gritty, dazzling and substantial. At 84, he’s an icon who’s still capable of surprising us.

He’s been in Oscar’s winning circle twice before, with “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby.” This one is just as good as they are, so, who knows, he may be surprising us again.