The Politics of Clint Eastwood
Deaglán de Bréadún
Is Clint Eastwood atoning for past sins? That’s the feeling I got after seeing his latest blockbuster, Gran Torino. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should do so. There’s a lot of Dirty Harry in the main character, an ageing Korea War veteran who lives in a badly-decaying neighbourhood in a midwestern US city: maybe Chicago, I’m not quite sure.
But whereas Dirty Harry blew his opponents away with the greatest of relish (“Go ahead, punk, make my day”), this character is more considered and reflective. Superficially racist (words like “gooks” and “swamp-rats” are his staple vocabulary) he also has a humane side and the story centres around the conflict between these two aspects of his personality.
I won’t give away the ending obviously, because it would spoil the movie for you. But one comes away with a definite feeling that Eastwood wants to modify his hard-right, tough-guy legacy.
Let us not forget that the Dirty Harry movies (directed by Don Siegel, whereas Gran Torino is directed by Eastwood himself) flew in the face of the liberal/radical consensus in Hollywood and the media at the time
The eminent film critic for the New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote that Dirty Harry was “a remarkably single-minded attack on liberal values, with each prejudicial detail in place”and another critic, Roger Ebert wrote: “The movie’s moral position is fascist. No doubt about it.”
I have to admit that, although I would be as liberal as the next man or woman, I found the Dirty Harry series, as Pauline Kael also wrote, “trim, brutal and exciting”. There is something in all of us that wants to see the evils of the world blown away by a man with a star and a six-gun. John Wayne, Eastwood’s movie predecessor, made a career out of it.
We all know what it’s like to live in or travel through a neighbourhood, in Ireland or in other countries, where “punks” leer at you and make you feel seriously threatened. The fact that they are usually having a laugh at your expense makes it worse in a way.
Eastwood is the Avenging Angel. There is an early scene in Gran Torino where he tackles a group of African-American youths who are seriously harassing a young girl on the street. It’s classic Harry Callahan (an Irish surname by the way) material and would have the audience wetting itself with excitement at a Republican Party convention.
But by the end of the movie we see the main character – and Eastwood himself – in a somewhat different light. In his film career he has gone from being a hero of the Right to a darling of the liberals. If he was a bit younger he would probably run for president.