The moral element of war’s theater—in Kyle’s book, and again as Cooper portrays Kyle in the film—is populated in his mind by good guys and bad guys, by superheroes and villains, by, essentially, cowboys and Indians. (At the Washington, D.C. premiere of the film this week, Bradley Cooper described the film not just as a character study, but also as a classic Western.) Just as foxholes have no atheists, battlefields are not places that tend to afford moral ambiguity. But if the job you are so good at exists on a separate moral plane from the rest of your life, what happens when that job ends? What happens when the soldier, groomed to kill, returns to the world of bumper stickers and barbecues? The film explores the psychological consequences of the military industrial complex, not just for soldiers, but for the network of people they affect. As Kyle’s wife, Taya—played by a wonderful Sienna Miller—tells him, revealingly, when he returns after his final tour: “I need to you to be human again.”

Those matters of humanity are not things we tend to talk about when we pin polyester ribbons to our lapels. But they are things American Sniper, through its messy hagiography, is asking us—daring us—to pay attention to. Through Eastwood’s confident, if occasionally strident, direction, we see the other side of support for the troops: how a man, cocky and charming and strong, gets groomed into a “killing machine.” How his fervent idealism, the admirable stuff that led him to enlist in the first place, gives way, shot after shot, to an almost animalistic revenge. As the war wears on, Kyle and his fellow SEALs begin sporting Punisher logos on their uniforms. Kyle becomes obsessed with killing his Iraqi-insurgent equivalent. A friend is injured on the battlefield. Kyle, visiting him in the hospital, promises: “You’re my brother, and they’re gonna fucking pay for what they did to you.”