A sniper tormented Clint Eastwood’s most iconic character, Dirty Harry’s cop Calahan. In American Sniper, the man legitimately holding the gun is the anguished one, whose unquestioning patriotism provides no protection against doubt, vulnerability and a sense of personal failure.

The war drama explores themes that echo through the actor-turned-director’s filmography – troubled specimens of American manhood, the burden of military glory, the true meaning of valour and honour on and off the battlefield, the personal price paid by individuals in the pursuit of national goals, and the fragility of the American dream. Jason Hall’s screenplay is drawn from US Navy SEAL Chris Kyle’s American Sniper: The Autobiography of the Most Lethal Sniper in US Military History. The movie has the advantage of hindsight: Kyle was a decorated hero who was credited with the highest number of killings (at least 150). Kyle dodged enemy bullets and mines, but the war caught up with him back home in ways that he could not have imagined.

Kyle’s fate is foretold by his first kills in Iraq, of a little boy and a woman. The victims are grenade-carrying Iraqis – nearly every citizen of the occupied country depicted in this movie is an insurgent of some kind. Eastwood’s interest isn’t in the unfortunate targets in the crosshairs of Kyle’s unerring eye, but in the man and the men looking through the sights. The movie celebrates solid, matter-of-fact American patriotism through a series of nerve-wracking battleground sequences, but also suggests that Iraqis are not the only cannon fodder in this war.

Hand on the trigger, no questions asked

American Sniper’s taut, suspenseful and economical opening sequences establish the tone for what follows. As Kyle (Bradley Cooper) peers at what will be the first of several targets, his childhood and early adult life flash in front of him. Motivated to join the military out of a deep-rooted love for his country, Kyle develops into the perfect militarised human. He asks no questions, sniffs out targets with deadly efficiency, and neglects his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and children.

American Sniper is shot through with the unfussy, wry voice evolved by the 85 year-old filmmaker over the decades. Eastwood’s study of American machismo has yielded such fascinating films as Play Misty For Me, Unforgiven and Mystic River. In American Sniper, silent chest-thumping pride at “our boys” who shoot first and ask questions later is balanced by sorrow for the damage they suffer, some of it physical and a great deal emotional. The movie is well performed and immersive enough to carry it through its 132 minutes, but it suffers from its unwillingness to confront the raw emotions that mark the memoir. Eastwood sidesteps the more uncomfortable aspects of Kyle’s personality, such as his unvarnished tendency to characterise his adversaries as “savages” and “bad guys” and his contempt for the military top brass and anti-war protestors. Kyle writes in his autobiography, “Everyone I was shot was evil. I had good cause on every shot. They all deserved to die.”

This emotion, which helps explain the conduct of the American military in Iraq as well as such scandals as Abu Ghraib, is absent from American Sniper. Telling episodes, such as Kyle’s public acts of misconduct, his health problems and his rage at the death of his buddies, are also downplayed. The truth of Kyle’s fate after his return to stifling domesticity proves too shocking and ultimately insurmountable.

The movie is marked by sadness rather than inquiry. It is too spare to be elegiac, but has just about enough ambiguity to fit in with Eastwood’s life-long study of the American male and his place in a world that demands more than he can give. American Sniper gives us war, unnecessary casualties, trauma and death, but in unexpected places.