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Read the opening chapters of Chris Kyle’s memoir American Sniper and the unvarnished experience of a Navy SEAL might leave you speechless. He never acclimates to the “stench” of Iraq, considers enemies “savages” and wishes he had shot more than the 160 insurgents he’s credited with killing during four tours of duty–because he would have saved more American lives. Kyle thinks in black and white, and he is proud that his love of country and family is equaled by the hate he feels for the enemy. If it hadn’t been for his wife and two children, Kyle would have gone back for more action, because protecting SEALs, Marines and soldiers was fun–even, he writes, “the time of my life.”

Oohrah! Isn’t that the quintessential outlook of the American fighting man, delivered with a swagger worthy of one nicknamed “the Legend” for his unmatched lethality? If Hollywood had adapted Kyle’s book 60 years ago, it might have starred an unapologetic John Wayne, who would notch kills into his rifle stock, then return home to a ticker-tape parade and picture-perfect family.

But Bradley Cooper and the filmmakers behind American Sniper, out Dec. 25, channeled Kyle’s provocative stance into a larger truth. In the finest role of his career, Cooper plays Kyle as a man torn between duty, family and a seemingly unending war that is killing him not with bullets, RPGs or IEDs–though plenty do their best to find him–but with the grinding, dehumanizing stress of being death’s constant courier. His portrayal is all the more poignant given that Kyle didn’t survive to see himself on the big screen.

A Character Amid Carnage

In 2012, Cooper’s new production company joined with Warner Bros. to buy screenwriter Jason Dean Hall’s adaptation of Kyle’s memoir. Cooper called Kyle on the phone and the two men spoke briefly, but the actor didn’t recognize the tough-as-nails narrator who propelled the book onto the New York Times best-seller list for over 30 straight weeks. “He was complicated,” Cooper tells TIME. “He might have written that stuff in his book, but he also saw the gray areas. He had to fight to get things right with his family and his wife Taya, because he didn’t want to be like the 90% of SEALs who wind up divorced.” After spending time with Taya, Kyle’s parents and his friends, Cooper came to see the ex-sniper as a charismatic Texan with a preternatural calmness that inspired warmth in those around him.

Aside from Kyle’s terrifying accomplishments as a sniper, what sets his autobiography apart is that he turns a good chunk of it over to Taya, who describes how the war changed her husband and their family life irrevocably. So Cooper’s American Sniper depicts two fronts: one in Iraq, the other back home. Like 2008’s The Hurt Locker, it is a soldier’s movie–one that documents the personal toll of conflict without questioning whether the war itself was worth all the carnage.

“It’s really a character study more than a war movie,” says Cooper, who as a producer initially wanted Chris Pratt to play Kyle. “I really got to immerse myself in Chris and how he saw things, how he talked, how he thought. His family really opened up everything to me. There were hours and hours of interviews and videos they had of him. He had this really specific Texas accent, and it would change depending on who he was talking to.”

Cooper grew to love that voice, so much so that when Cooper slipped into Kyle’s twang on set, he kept it going for three straight months without breaking. “It wasn’t that I was in character for the whole time,” he explains. “It just made it easier to be in that register all the time. I found myself on the phone or just going about my life talking like Chris.”

Still, Kyle’s father Wayne had a niggling doubt about Cooper. “You do realize that my son was about twice your size,” he said. Cooper’s response: “I’m going to work on that.” And he did. It’s not just a grizzled beard that transforms the actor–it’s also his neck, which is monstrous after growing three collar sizes, thanks to a regimen of hourly meals and constant workouts that added 40-plus pounds of bulk to the actor’s frame.

His portrayal impressed the one person most likely see any cracks in the facade: Taya Kyle. “It’s surreal,” she says. “It’s not just Bradley playing Chris–it’s Chris, honest to God. He spoke like Chris, he worked out to Chris’ workout music, he got the way he walked, he got inside of his heart and soul.”

Such transformations are the stuff of Oscar legend, and if there will ever be a season in which the handsome dude from The Hangover franchise is going to be taken seriously, it’s this one. On Broadway, Cooper’s portrayal of John Merrick in a production of The Elephant Man–a role that requires complete physical immersion, without the aid of prosthetics, into a character afflicted by a disfiguring disease–is setting box-office records at the Booth Theatre. He’s been lauded by the Academy before: he earned Oscar nominations for Best Actor in Silver Linings Playbook, in which he played a bipolar man who finds a muse in Jennifer Lawrence, and Best Supporting Actor in American Hustle, in which he portrayed an aggressive, highly emotional cop. But those performances, both directed by David O. Russell, had strong comic elements, and American Sniper is deadly serious.

Russell was Cooper’s first choice to direct Sniper; he says they discussed the film while wrapping production on American Hustle. Then Steven Spielberg signed on, but he reportedly had a grander vision of the film and couldn’t come to terms with the studio. Finally, they found a director who knew a thing or two about both making and acting in war movies: Clint Eastwood. The venerable filmmaker has a number of straight-up combat films to his name, including Firefox, Heartbreak Ridge and Flags of Our Fathers. But he has consistently done his best work when grappling with big themes–murder, guilt, mercy, forgiveness–in movies like Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River. American Sniper neatly connects those two sides of Eastwood’s repertoire.

“I guess you could call it a war film, because it’s about the war,” Eastwood says. “But really it’s about relationships and the obstacles people have to overcome when they’re involved in the service.”

Cooper was thrilled to have Eastwood on set, especially when he needed to deliver lines like, “I would lay down my life for my country”–something Kyle was never shy of saying–and not have them register as clichés or propaganda. With Eastwood behind the camera, Sniper elegantly depicts Kyle’s shift from loving husband and unabashed patriot to a shadowy figure who hides from his wife and is startled by the sound of a lawn mower or the rambunctious play of a boy and his dog. Eastwood pays Cooper his highest compliment, saying, “I never once caught him acting in the picture, which I loved. He embodied the part.”

A Good Deed Is Punished

By the time eastwood arrived in the fall of 2013, a huge shift in the story had taken place. To overcome symptoms of PTSD after leaving the Navy in 2009, Kyle set out to help other veterans struggling to adapt to life at home. With his outsize reputation and knowledge of sharpshooting, he started a nonprofit that engaged vets in the finer points of riflery and gave them a chance to learn that even a decorated, celebrated tough guy like Kyle had trouble reconnecting with those he cared about after spending so much time on ultra-high alert in combat zones.

On Feb. 2, 2013, Kyle and a friend took a veteran named Eddie Ray Routh, 27, who had been having serious bouts of PTSD and mental illness, out for a day of target practice. Routh’s mother worked at the school Kyle’s children attended, and she asked if Kyle could spend some time with him. It seemed like a typical session until a shooting range employee discovered the bodies of Kyle and his friend; Routh had allegedly shot them both and made off with Kyle’s pickup truck. Police arrested him that night and say he confessed to the murders. Routh has pleaded not guilty to the charges.

“When I heard that Chris had been killed, it was one of those choking moments where your brain hears the information and your body is trying to catch up with what it all means,” Cooper says. Now the movie faced a new question: Should they show the horrific last moments of a man killed with the bullets of his own gun, by a fellow veteran he was trying to help?

“I gave it some strong thought,” Eastwood says. “I had an ending in mind that included the shooting range, but that’s not what the story is about. I didn’t want to come back and do a big martyrism scene.” Instead, there is simple text on a black screen after a final shot of Kyle getting into his pickup truck with Routh.

It’s still chilling, more so when we see real-life video of thousands of people waving flags and banners along the highway as Kyle’s hearse passes. It underscores the challenges we face in caring for the men and women who do battle on our behalf; thousands have returned not only with physical wounds but also psychic ones. Cooper wants viewers to empathize with what vets have experienced. In the film, he says, Kyle “is traversing the line from home life to being in country, and the viewer goes through that as well. So if people get a feel for the impact that has on a human, if anybody can have a little bit more of an understanding of what that does, then we’ve been successful.”

This appears in the December 01, 2014 issue of TIME.

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