I wonder if Chris Kyle was a Clint Eastwood fan. ‘American Sniper’’s marketing materials describe Kyle as “the most lethal sniper in U.S. history,” but before his military career, Kyle was a cowboy. He wore a hat and boots, and even carried a six-shooter. Eventually, he gave up the cowboy life and decided to serve his country. He was a gifted marksman and trained to be a Navy SEAL. But even as a soldier, Kyle never lost that cowboy swagger—or that sense that someone has to venture out into the frontier and protect the American way of life. That’s what Kyle learned from his father—who raised him to be a “sheepdog,” a watchful protector in a world of sheep and wolves—and from watching violent Westerns like the ones that made Eastwood a major Hollywood star.

When Eastwood makes violent movies these days, they’re different; more about sacrifice and the enormous price paid by men of war. In Eastwood’s underrated ‘Flags of Our Fathers,’ he followed the soldiers photographed in the famous picture of Old Glory at Iwo Jima back to the homefront. In ‘Flags’’ companion film, ‘Letters From Iwo Jima,’ he considered the courageous, doomed men who defended Iwo Jima from the Americans. And in ‘American Sniper,’ he tells Kyle’s story, which plays like a recruitment video while he’s serving overseas, and a domestic horror film when he returns home, battling post-traumatic stress disorder.

The film is told mostly chronologically with the exception of the opening, a nail-biting sequence about Kyle in the field, protecting a U.S convoy. Through the lens of his sniper rifle, Kyle (played with uncharacteristic grit by Bradley Cooper) spots a mother and a son. The woman hands the young boy a grenade and sends him running toward the Americans.  No one but Kyle can confirm what he’s seen; no one but him can stop the boy from killing several servicemen. If he’s right, he could save lives; if he’s wrong his own life as he knows it is over. Either way, he has to decide whether or not to kill a child. And Kyle is a father himself. What should he do? What would any of us do in that situation?

Eastwood lets that haunting question linger in the air, and in a sense that single act lingers over the entire film. Rather than resolve it immediately, ‘American Sniper’ flashes back to Kyle’s childhood, adolescence, and military training. Shortly after joining the Navy, he meets a sassy woman named Taya (Sienna Miller) in a bar. They hit it off immediately and soon are married; at their wedding, Kyle and his colleagues receive their orders to head overseas. Miller’s character is introduced as a strong, independent woman, but she almost immediately transforms into a stereotype from so many movies about great, tortured men: the scolding, miserable wife. When Kyle’s home, Taya’s unhappy. When he prepares to return to Iraq, she begs him to stay.

Eventually, Eastwood returns to the first scene and shows its inevitable result. By all accounts, Kyle performed heroically in Iraq, and ‘American Sniper’ reflects that—perhaps to a fault. He not only serves as a highly accurate marksman, he also gets so bored in his duties that he sometimes sneaks away from his post to personally lead men as they sweep through houses, searching for militants. Though Eastwood’s depiction of “the enemy” in ‘Flags of our Fathers’ and ‘Letters From Iwo Jima’ was nuanced and thoughtful, his portrayal of the Iraq War in ‘American Sniper’ is jingoistic to the point of cartoonishness. Kyle even has an “arch-nemesis” of sorts in the form of a sniper who works for Iraqi insurgents, and jumps around from rooftop to rooftop like some kind of parkour super-villain.

Some of Eastwood’s choices reflect his subject; according to this New Yorker profile of Kyle, he “was deeply religious and saw the Iraq War through that prism.” He “hated the damn savages” he fought, and tattooed a “red crusader’s cross” on his arm. One could argue that ‘American Sniper’’s one-sided depiction of the Iraq War is simply a faithful recreation of its subject’s perspective. Perhaps it is. But the way many of the war sequences devolve into absurdity is a particular problem for ‘American Sniper’ because the movie otherwise purports to show the high cost of war, not only in the lives lost but in the mental scars inflicted on the men who serve. A few sequences—like the brutal and suspenseful opening—reflect the true horror of war. But others lapse so far into ridiculousness that it becomes difficult to take the movie seriously.

In recent years, Eastwood’s garnered a reputation among some moviegoers for cranking out movies so quickly he doesn’t have time to polish and refine them. ‘American Sniper’ (which is Eastwood’s second movie of 2014 after ‘Jersey Boys’) will only strengthen that belief. It has some striking moments and an impressive and unexpectedly soulful performance from Bradley Cooper, but its message is muddled and its moral and emotional shadings never extend to anyone onscreen beyond its protagonist.

On the other hand, the most interesting thing about ‘American Sniper’ is the fact that it’s made by Eastwood, who was once the ultimate movie cowboy and now seems to be interrogating the notion of what it means to be a hero and a warrior. Movies like Eastwood’s classics of the ’60s and ’70s created an image of a man—stoic, merciless, utterly unflappable—that can be difficult to live up to. The real Chris Kyle killed more men than any other sniper in our nation’s history; when he returned home to his wife and family, he struggled to admit the toll the war had taken on his psyche. Cowboys aren’t supposed to do that sort of thing.

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