By Richard Corliss
January 22, 2015

This was going to be the year for low-budget indie films at the Oscars. Boyhood and Whiplash, two hits from the 2014 Sundance Film Festival, would battle for Best Picture against British twins The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, those clever entertainments Birdman and The Grand Budapest Hotel and, most aptly, the Martin Luther King Jr. biopic Selma. The Motion Picture Academy’s choices were elite and exclusive; they left out anyone of African descent from the 20 total nominations for best acting. As The Nightly Show’s Larry Wilmore said of the nominations, “They’re so white, a grand jury has decided not to indict them.”

Underlining its commitment to excellent films that few people have seen, the Academy refused to nominate the year’s most popular cartoon, The Lego Movie, for Best Animated Feature or the sleek smash mystery Gone Girl for Adapted Screenplay. To the regular moviegoers who pay Hollywood’s bills–and who enjoy seeing their favorites vie for the prizes on Oscar night, Feb. 22–the message was: Don’t bother watching. This one’s for connoisseurs only.

Then, like a sharpshooter from a rooftop, American Sniper blasted open the Oscar party. Directed by Clint Eastwood, the film stars Bradley Cooper as Navy SEAL Chris Kyle, who is credited with 160 kills in four tours of Iraq, making him the most prolific sniper in U.S. military history. A big, burly action film–more butch than Sundance–Sniper is also what the mass audience would call a real movie: not a history lesson or a clever cinematic game but a tribute to a warrior who did lots of shooting, fretting, loving and learning.

And unlike its competitors for Best Picture, Sniper, made for about $60 million, was an instant blockbuster. After a four-week run in just four theaters, where it amassed $3.5 million, the movie earned a sensational $89.5 million in its first three days of wide release and $107 million over the four-day Martin Luther King Jr. weekend. (In the process, it probably took a dent out of Selma, which earned a modest $13.8 million over those four days.) Fantasy franchises–some Marvel, DC and Transformers movies, the YA sagas Harry Potter, Twilight and The Hunger Games–have scored higher, as well as the occasional Shrek, Toy Story or Fast & Furious sequel and the remakes of presold properties like Alice in Wonderland and Godzilla. But for a stand-alone drama, this is the biggest opening in film history. It’s quite possible that by Oscar night, Sniper will have sold more tickets at domestic theaters than the other seven Best Picture nominees combined.

Box-office gold doesn’t always translate into Oscar glory. Just ask James Cameron, whose Avatar ($760 million domestic) lost for Best Picture in 2010 to The Hurt Locker ($17 million). But Cameron was fighting the Academy’s prejudice against science fiction, whereas Eastwood’s movie is, like The Hurt Locker, the story of an exceptional man who defends his comrades’ lives in Iraq. The soldier played by Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker defuses bombs; Kyle picks off terrorism suspects. Each man has the cool aplomb, analytical acumen and attention to detail of a great athlete or master sociopath–and maybe both.

Drawing huge audiences from both coastal cities and the heartland, Sniper can be seen as red meat for the red states. This stirred prominent movie-doc leftie Michael Moore to tweet his disapproval of Kyle’s job. “My uncle killed by sniper in WW2,” Moore wrote. “We were taught snipers were cowards. Will shoot u in the back. Snipers aren’t heroes. And invaders r worse. … But if you’re on the roof of your home defending it from invaders who’ve come 7K miles, you are not a sniper, u are brave, u are a neighbor.” Translation: Hail to the Iraqi insurgent snipers, boo to American Sniper.

Moore then disingenuously claimed he hadn’t been referring to the movie. But he had fired the first shot in a Twitter war that brought Sean Hannity and Sarah Palin to the film’s defense. If Sniper took a step toward the Oscars with its mammoth opening, it took two steps back in its adoption by Fox News.

A third view: Sniper, which screenwriter Jason Hall based on Kyle’s autobiography, is a nuanced tribute to evangelical militarism. It casts the story of a record-setting shooter as a parable of the trusty sheepdog (Kyle) protecting its flock (U.S. Marines in Iraq) from the wolves (Iraqi insurgents). Moore is right that the word sniper doesn’t often come with a halo. It evokes memories of Lee Harvey Oswald and Charles Whitman, both ex-Marines, and of King’s killer, James Earl Ray. But in war, a sniper can be his comrades’ savior. That’s Sniper’s view of Kyle: the guardian angel of U.S. soldiers in Fallujah and Ramadi and the exterminating angel of those who would kill them. (Unless he’s on the other side. Then he’s a terrorist.)

In a flashback scene, Kyle’s preacher father takes young Chris out shooting, observes the boy’s innate expertise with a rifle and says, “You got a gift. You’re gonna be a fine hunter some day.” The adult Kyle, an aimless Texas ranch hand, takes his sheepdog mission to heart when he joins the Navy SEALs and is sent to Iraq. Marines go house to house, searching for a top al-Qaeda operative, while Kyle perches on a rooftop looking for suspicious actors. Among these may be a boy concealing a pipe bomb and a woman ready to toss it. Blam! Blam! That makes Kyle the outsider gunslinger who stands up for civilization while standing apart from it: the Shane of Sadr City.

He is also within shooting distance of being a Clint Eastwood hero–a phrase that carries its own contradictions and ironies. In his Italian westerns for director Sergio Leone, Eastwood pursued his own dark code as he wiped out a ton of bad guys. In westerns like High Plains Drifter and The Outlaw Josey Wales, and in the Dirty Harry cop series, he scowled his way through hells so twisted that the only moral choice was among various shades of black. He piled up plenty of corpses, but even a hired gunman like Will Munny in Unforgiven (which won Eastwood his first Best Picture Oscar in 1993) realized that death had weight: “It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.”

The movie’s Chris Kyle has no qualms about killing the “savages” in his rifle sight. Sniping is a job he does brilliantly, for God and country, and he loves what he does so well. Feeling most alive in the grip of death, he is almost useless back in Texas with his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and their two kids. Why is he not in Iraq, saving the lives of more soldiers? He may be suffering the guilt of a sheepdog away from his flock, but he’s also at ease only in scenarios of peril with other men. The gunslinger needs to keep shooting. That’s why Kyle re-ups for three more Iraq tours. He’s homesick.

Kyle’s fatal artistry won him the nickname the Legend. The movie prints that legend, excising the more roguish aspects of Kyle’s autobiography, like a possibly invented bar fight with Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura (for which Ventura won a $1.8 million defamation suit). It portrays Kyle as a man who risked his life for his comrades and surrendered it in 2013, when he was killed on a shooting excursion with a troubled vet. Eastwood plants reservations about Kyle’s heroism only in Taya’s furrowed brow or numb stare. And Cooper, in a bold turn that is more complex than it looks, manages to convey what Kyle may not understand: that an angel of death can’t really be a saint.

At 84, Eastwood is utterly in command of his epic material. He films the action in Iraq in terse, tense panoramas with little cinematic editorializing, as if he were the old Greek or Hebrew God who is never surprised at man’s ability to kill his fellow men, or to find reasons to do so. Honing his craft to its essentials, he makes it seem as if the story is telling itself.

Warner Bros. executives originally planned to open the movie in December 2015 but pushed it up when they saw the rough cut last summer. It’s the same strategy they applied a decade ago, when they rushed Million Dollar Baby for a year-end release. That little drama went on to earn $100 million at domestic theaters and won four Oscars, including Best Picture.

This time, the smart money remains on Boyhood, the critics’ longtime favorite. But the singular popularity of the Eastwood film gives Academy voters some crucial questions to ponder: What’s the difference between a hero and a movie hero? And is American Sniper simply the celebration of a famous warrior or a director’s subtle commentary on the American way of love, war and death?

Contact us at editors@time.com.

This appears in the February 02, 2015 issue of TIME.

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