"American Sniper" had a tough act to follow Tuesday night at AFI Fest.
Clint Eastwood's latest film was announced this week as the festival's secret screening just as "Selma" director Ava DuVernay decided to preview her entire Martin Luther King Jr. picture that same evening. Initially, only 30 minutes of the civil rights drama had been slated to play, but festival-goers were treated to the whole movie instead -- and they loved it.
So "American Sniper" wasn't exactly in the best position -- particularly because the audience at the Egyptian Theater was filled with a ton of people who had already spent 2½ hours in the same venue.
But "American Sniper" had one ace up its sleeve: its iconic American director. And the reaction to his new film was strongly positive as well.
Making sure to note that it was Veterans Day, 84-year-old Eastwood made a few brief remarks before premiering his movie.
"The film tonight is about a veteran -- a very unique person who became the most dangerous sniper in the history of the American military," he explained, adding that he thought his stars were "terrific" in the movie but would let the crowd judge for themselves.
"American Sniper" is based on a New York Times bestseller of the same name by Chris Kyle, a Navy SEAL who served four tours of duty in Iraq during which he had 160 kills. Played by Bradley Cooper, he's a devout Christian with a thick Texas accent and pride in his country -- but his long stretches overseas eventually start to take a toll on his personal life. His devoted wife (Sienna Miller) notices him beginning to withdraw emotionally and starts to question his love for her and their two children.
The film will no doubt draw comparisons to "The Hurt Locker," the 2010 best picture Oscar winner starring Jeremy Renner as a maverick Army sergeant fighting in the Iraq War. But "American Sniper" -- which Warner Bros. is launching in a limited number of theaters on Christmas -- feels more commercial than "The Hurt Locker." There's a strong emphasis on the relationship between Kyle and his wife, and Miller is nearly unrecognizable in the role with her hair dyed as a brunette. (The actress, who also has a small part in "Foxcatcher," seems to be having a bit of a comeback this fall.)
As for Cooper, the story clearly meant a lot to the actor, who signed on as one of its producers. He bulked up for the role -- remember those paparazzi shots of him in tight khaki shorts on-set earlier this year? -- and gives a determined, understated performance.
Following Tuesday night's screening many on Twitter were calling "American Sniper" Eastwood's best picture since 2004's "Million Dollar Baby." From the initial reception it seems likely that the film will receive stronger critical notices -- and do better at the box office -- than "Jersey Boys," his summer musical dud. In fact, after a string of misses that include "Hereafter," "J. Edgar" and "Trouble with the Curve," this could be the movie that puts him back on the map as a director.