Clint Eastwood returns to solid form (we now know what he was preoccupied with whilst churning out that lacklustre Jersey Boys adaptation) with this tale of the real life exploits of Chris Kyle, a United States Navy SEAL who was awarded the dubious title of most lethal sniper in U.S. military history. The pet project of producer/star Bradley Cooper, American Sniper fell into the lap of Eastwood after both David O. Russell and Steven Spielberg flirted with the project. It seems a perfect fit for the veteran filmmaker, who uses his customary economical storytelling and unshowy direction to great effect, largely keeping the jingoism in check and crafting an absorbing and heartfelt tale of the sometimes sobering price of patriotism.

The story of an ordinary individual thrust into extraordinary circumstances always makes for an inherently dramatic narrative, but Eastwood nor writer Jason Hall are interested in chiselling some kind of glorious and infallible hero out of Kyle. Following him from his younger years as a wannabe rodeo star, through to his unforgiving SEAL training, the courtship and marriage to wife Taya (Sienna Miller), and his eventual tours of duty, he’s simply a virtuous American who wants to serve his country. In a wonderfully understated performance Cooper effortlessly slips into the central figure, and never before has he felt more like a character actor expertly lurking under a movie star façade (helped immeasurably by his hefty weight gain for the role).

The duality of Kyle’s life is thoughtfully conveyed as the story cuts back to home soil between tours. A credible account emerges of a traumatised soldier struggling to reconcile his family life and work without things tipping unto histrionics or melodrama. Here Cooper is matched in the acting stakes by Miller, who is somewhat of a revelation, slipping, chameleon-like, into the guise of a loving but increasingly exasperated Southern housewife, whose bond with her husband is slowly ebbing away with every return visit and inevitable farewell. Miller’s committed performance really breathes life into what could have easily been more marginalised character, and she really helps sell a somewhat contrived moment when Taya’s personal call to her husband overseas is interrupted by a surprise ambush and firefight.

Ultimately more of an action-inflected character study rather than a weighty commentary on the Iraqi conflict, Eastwood creates some incredibly vivid, sweat-inducing situations which capture the uncertainties and confusion of conflict. Scenes of Kyle having to do the impossibly inhuman task of swiftly assessing whether civilians pose a threat are gripping and masterfully orchestrated. Although we are rarely offered an insight into the enemy, there’s a nice mirroring of Kyle’s rather unhealthy celebrity amongst his colleagues in the form of a rival Iraqi sniper, whose sense of flair and theatrics hints at an infamy and admiration within his own ranks. It’s a fascinating detail in a film full of telling little moments, reflective of Eastwood’s penchant for striving towards a deeper emotional truth and understanding in the older, ruminative stages of his life and career.