Oscars: Why 'American Sniper' Opens With an Unusually Suspenseful Moment

American Sniper Still 2 - H 2014
Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

American Sniper Still 2 - H 2014

This story first appeared in the Dec. 12 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

Clint Eastwood's American Sniper opens with a nerve-racking few minutes during which Chris Kyle — the Navy SEAL (played by Bradley Cooper) whose skills as a sniper made him a hero for saving countless lives in Iraq — is faced with a conflict. From his post, he observes a woman and children walking, notices the woman is concealing something and sees her hand a grenade to a young boy, presumably to use to attack nearby American troops. Does Kyle pull the trigger of his gun?

It's an unusually tense way to start the action. "To open a film like this — you are right on the edge of your seat from the beginning. The audience hasn't had a chance to settle in," says Joel Cox, who edited Sniper together with Gary Roach. That direct approach, though, was in the screenplay — written by Jason Hall, based on the book by Kyle, Scott McEwan and Jim DeFelice — and was embraced by Eastwood, known for being an efficient filmmaker and storyteller. Both editors also are the director's longtime collaborators: Cox first worked with him on 1976's The Outlaw Josey Wales and he's cut every Eastwood movie since, including 1992's Unforgiven, for which Cox won an Oscar. Roach, who started out as Cox's assistant, has been working with the pair for about 20 years.

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Says Cox, analyzing Sniper's opening sequence: "The tension really picks up when you see the woman hand the boy the grenade and then cut back to a close-up of Bradley watching."

Roach elaborates: "The scene starts out kind of slow, and as we progress, the shots get faster. Kyle's checking with his superior people, asking if they see what's going on. They say its up to him [whether to fire]. In the story of Chris Kyle, this is maybe going to be his first kill — and he is looking at a 10-year-old boy and his mother. And he is struggling, trying to balance his emotions with what he is trained to do." Roach adds, "Bradley truly became Chris Kyle. You can see it in that scene. He is so focused on what he is doing, the ritual and the breathing. He's struggling."

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In the end, does Kyle take the shot? Viewers will discover the answer when the Warner Bros. film opens in limited release Dec. 25.