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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: March 18, 2009 @ 10:43 am

    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.

    • Tony S. says:

      You know the expession – ‘ a conservative is a liberal who’s been mugged’

    • Deaglán says:

      Very good. We used to have occasional articles in The Irish Times by staff journalists who had been mugged and were now adopting a new, more conservative outlook. We called them “Death of a Liberal” pieces and used to ask one another, “When are you doing your Death of a Liberal piece?”

    • Steve K says:

      “When are you doing your Death of a Liberal piece?”

      Remember Nick Cohen’s What’s Left?. The story of a man who “had been mugged” at the wrong time: the lead up to the Iraq war, then wrote a book to justify an impossible position with incredible logic, i.e. not logic.

    • robespierre says:

      Deaglán, you are probably right if you look at his career as a whole. In fact the film that is most relevant to your argument is The Outlaw Josey Wales where the people he meets and forms a quixotic alliance with are less conservative Christians than the moral police of the super-sensitive seventies. He has frequently pointed to the fact that there are people in the world that we need to do things that other people can’t. These iconoclasts are striking in that they project an ugly image of man that many people want to look away from.

      One reading of his career is that he consistently exposes hypocrisy in all its forms in all his films. Gran Torino does this in a similar way to Hang ‘em High, A Fistful of Dollars, Absolute Power, Eiger Sanction, Unforgiven. Even Letters from Iwo Jima focused on the lunatic idiocy of Imperial Japan and its State Police.

      The reason why it appears uncomfortable viewing is that we all have committed some of the acts of hypocrisy that his characters despise. He is not taking on the world, the system or even a simple killer – he is taking us all on regardless of our image of ourselves as conservatives or liberals. In this respect Josey Wales probably remains his most political statement in the universal sense.

    • Brock Landers says:
    • Dan Sullivan says:

      There was still a solid element to the movie that would have men of an old persuasion coming out of the multiplex looking for punks to give a talking to, much as a good chop socky movie would have had the fourteen year old me doing flying kicks coming out of the old Oisín cinema in Killorglin.

      Yet there was a slightly worrying undercurrent of, inside every person who spouts terminology intended to hurt and demean is a nice old bloke trying to get out. But hey there are plenty of liberals and rightwingers out there who mistake a lack of manners as a clarion call for freedom!

      The movie was really a sort of male Dirty Granny, or Grumpy Old Man 2.0.

    • Tony S. says:

      So what would that make Clint?

    • Deaglán says:

      Brock Landers: I took your advice about rephrasing my “teaser” about the plot, which you felt was giving too much away. It meant I couldn’t run your comment either, though!

      Tony S:
      Could we say Clint Eastwood is “a conservative that no one would ever dare mug”?

    • Harry Leech says:

      Eastwood’s politics are interesting in Hollywood terms: He’s a California Republican, which in real terms means a Democrat who’d like lower taxes and is about as far removed from the ‘God & Guns’ Republicans that we’ve been exposed to for the last decade as you can get without changing party.

      As well as the onscreen political messages (if they are that) Eastwood was elected as Mayor of the small town of Carmel in Northern California, which is if memory serves correct about an hour from San Francisco, in the late 80′s and held the job for a couple of years. The town, while beautiful and picteuresque, has a real ‘Truman Show’ feel to it; It has to be seen to be believed. Even the multi-nationals like Shell have to conform to a 50′s/eclectic image if they want to open up shop there.Well worth the trip if you’re in the vicinity and Eastwood’s ‘Hogsbreath Inn’ is a nice spot for a beer and some food.

      Loved the movie, in a guilty “I shouldn’t be enjoying this sort of way”, almost like Harry Callahan never went away.

    • Bryan says:

      Deaglán, I don’t think the film was ‘superficially racist’.

      The only black characters in the film were a couple of hoodlums with nothing better to do than hang around a street corner, ready to rape the first girl who walked by.

      But more importantly, there were the impotent Asians who needed to be delivered from themselves by a white guy who wasn’t shy about referring to them in the most racist terms he could think of. Eastwood then tries to get the audience to accept the idea that it’s okay to call people the first thing that comes to mind since it’s what’s in your heart that really matters and ‘political correctness’ is overrated anyway.

      The highlight though, is when Eastwood’s character is turned into Jesus. In the same way that, according to Christian scripture, the Messiah left his own (heaven) to dwell with mere mortals and then died to save them, Eastwood gives up his life for his newfound friends.

      Personally, Gran Torino strikes me as being about as superficially racist as Birth of a Nation was a hundred years ago.

    • Brock Landers says:

      That’s fine Deaglán. If the film is saved for only one viewer then my sacrifice will not have been in vain.

    • Dan Sullivan says:

      Bryan, the interesting thing is that if someone commenting in the US were to directly compare the main character to Jesus then there would be outrage at the blasphemy but the character can go about the place spouting all kinds of stuff without quite so many batting an eye.

      Thing is that it is a well-made film and it could well be that Eastwood was deliberately making this character both charming and repulsive to show up the hypocrisy that exists in many of us when it comes to viewing people as merely members of groups whether racial, economic, or social groups. In that sense his character isn’t meant to be realistic or to ring true but merely serves to draw out the mentality in some folks that sure some of that old time ethnic based banter is just manly and A-OK!

      Also, it was odd that it seemed like he’d never even noticed the family next door until the beginning of the film. Also the city is almost certainly meant to be either Detroit or Cleveland or one of the small city close to them like Flint. The Lions are mentioned at one time who I presume are the Detroit Lions.

    • Deaglán says:

      Thanks for that very cogent and incisive comment, Bryan. Just about everything you say is correct but . . . are you missing the wood for the trees? If the film is really as bad as you say, it should be prohibited and all concerned ought to be prosecuted and sent to the clink (Clink Eastwood!)
      His message, which some will and some of course won’t accept, is that persons of old immigrant stock can prove helpful to new immigrants if their humanity, compassion and neighbourliness overcome their reactionary and racist tendencies. Nearly everyone in the movie comes from an immigrant background: the barber is Italian, the builder is Irish . . )
      Your point about Christlike sacrifice is very acute and thank you for drawing it to my attention. I am not very devout but the Christian story is as valid in its own way as Muslim or Hindu beliefs and Eastwood is reflecting his own background there.
      There is also a point being made about “Americanism” which gets a bad press these days but has some admirable features such as the willingness to absorb people of non-WASP origins. We Irish have benefited greatly in this regard. And now there is an African-American President which is great to see. And he’s one of us Irish too! In the UK for example a Catholic still cannot accede to the throne, nor anyone even married to a Catholic.
      There is another issue too, in the movie, about war-guilt and remorse for deeds carried out in war but it is only hinted at.
      I would be uncomfortable with some aspects of the film (the scene with the African-American youths comes to mind, although it has a plot function in terms of sowing a false trail as regards the dénouement) and with Eastwood’s past history – the Dirty Harry phase in particular – but I suggest that this is a serious and thoughful piece of moviemaking from someone who was once solidly associated with the hard right but is now striving in his own way for an alternative as the shades come down on his long career. Reverting to the Christian message: The Lord rejoices more over one lost sheep that returns to the fold, etc. Thanks again for a most stimulating comment.

      Brock Landers: I didn’t really give that much away in my original post: all good plots are unpredictable. Go see the movie and tell me what you think!

    • dave nally says:

      I think Clint Eastwood tried to counterbalance the right-wing message of Dirty Harry in the sequel (was it Magnum Force?) in which the bad guys are group of vigilantes who take it upon themselves to “clean up” the streets and end up getting found out – and lectured – by Harry. So the idea that he’s trying to assuage his Dirty Harry guilt with Gran Torino is a bit out of date, I think


    • Bryan says:

      I don’t know guys. I think Eastwood has made some brilliant films. Million Dollar Baby comes to mind. While I get the intended idea behind this one, its a huge flop for me. They went way too far with the racial slurs. And in trying to show up folly of bigotry, they still lived up to racist stereotypes.

      Lets leave out the ‘name calling’. The only ‘normal’ characters in the film were white. All of the minorities were either potential rapists, gang-bangers, incredibly weak/pathetic/emasculated bar two – a teenage girl who doesn’t mind being called all sorts of horrible names, and a police officer at the end of the film. The film reinforces the idea of crime as a minority activity. It also reinforces the idea of non-white neighbourhoods as war zones.

      And there is the redemption and Jesus symbolism. If any of you have watched the US animated series, the Boondocks, you’ll understand this point: the mentorship of the young boy and then dying for the community was like Uncle Ruckus telling a story of how white Jesus befriended and then died for the darkies.

      Last point. Had the Asian characters not been Asian, had they been black, how do you think the film would have been received. Had every second word been n***a and other racist terms used on blacks, I bet it would have ended Eastwood’s career.

    • Deaglán says:

      Yes, I would probably find it difficult to cope with a film that showed a retired English veteran of WWII living next door to an extended family of Irish immigrants on some Birmingham back-street, if the war-hero was constantly muttering about “Micks” and “Paddys” and “Bogtrotters” etc., etc.
      Likewise, one imagines an elderly male chauvinist pig living next door to a feminist commune!
      The Asian community in Gran Torino are from an ethnic group which, I believe, took the US side in the Vietnam War so from an Eastwoodian perspective they are fundamentally “aw-right”.
      But can films only treat of ethnic minorities if they portray a representative group? Thus, my imaginary English-Irish movie would have to have Irish lawyers and doctors, business people who made in big under the Celtic Tiger, members of world-famous rock bands, etc., to give a fairer and more balanced portrayal. But I’m sure there are ghettoes where all the Irish are poor and no doubt there are elderly ex-servicemen fuming away next door over their cans of Bulmer’s.
      What’s interesting about Gran Torino is that it tries to break down the barriers between two hostile entities. Eastwood is selling Americanism as the way to overcome ethnic division. It’s an interesting take from someone on the non-politically correct end of the spectrum.
      I don’t have a problem with his Christianity: I don’t usually think of Jesus as an All-American White Male type though. I suppose the ultimate judgment of any work of art, which is what we are dealing with here, is whether we would be better off if it were never made. I wouldn’t say that in this case.
      I wouldn’t equate this film in quality terms with Playboy of the Western World , which caused grave offence to the Irish ethnic minority and provoked riots when it was first staged, but the issues are similar. Ultimately Synge (who died 100 years ago next week) triumphed because of his play’s artistic merit. I suspect this film will survive for the same reason.

    • John says:

      Deaglán, I posted this in outsidein a couple of days ago but as long as we have Irish people worrying themselves about racism I’ll copy and paste.
      in the past few years is that many people in Europe who prided themselves (mistakenly) in their superiority to Americans actually crossed the line into racism while using Bush as their excuse. No self respecting pop star or acting type let an interview go by without letting it be known how gravely they viewed the stupidity of Americans. Letters pages , opinion columns were littered with proxy anti-American racism. It was open season. Now with an African American in charge the “liberal-fascists” have to be more careful about how they word their racism. Much of this is received prejudice from an old Europe that is still not able to come to terms with colonial upstarts who will have no truck with royal families and who have a decent democracy in place (unlike Ireland). Witness Bono and his condescending “US has come of age” speech when Obama was elected. Look in our own back yard. What are the chances of a black president in Europe? Zero.
      So enough about Clint ,he’s a legend.

    • Bryan says:

      Deaglán, one of my friends a few years ago said that my biggest fault was not knowing when to drop things. She was right. In light of that, this will be my last post on this topic.

      You said: What’s interesting about Gran Torino is that it tries to break down the barriers between two hostile entities. Eastwood is selling Americanism as the way to overcome ethnic division. It’s an interesting take from someone on the non-politically correct end of the spectrum … Ultimately Synge (who died 100 years ago next week) triumphed because of his play’s artistic merit. I suspect this film will survive for the same reason.

      I’m not so sure about the first part. Part of the reason is that I’m not sure I know what the film implies is ‘Americanism’, but what I suspect it might be saying worries me. As for the second part, I’m sure the film will survive and will be remembered positively. But be that as it may, D. W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is still a ‘classic’. A copy is held at my film school (NUI Galway) and I’m sure every other film school with any standing. It made cinematographic history and it probably played the greatest role of any single film of creating the film grammar that’s used the world over today. And that film was hailed as a brilliant work at the time and NAACP protests at its ridiculously racist theme weren’t taken seriously.

      The longevity of a work of art, even its popular reception, are not necessarily good guides when it comes to the worth of the message it carries. Birth of a Nation.

      But maybe John is right. Clint is a legend.

    • Deaglán says:

      Oh dear, just when the debate was getting going. Thanks anyway for your contributions, Bryan and when you are in Dublin give me a shout and we’ll finish the discussion over a drink.

    • Reg says:

      >.Is Clint Eastwood atoning for past sins?

      No, he isn’t ‘atoning’ for anything. And editor, please spare us from yet another hack trying to recast Eastwood as a pussy- whipped liberal for the sake of a space-filling article.

      One thing that’s fascinating about Eastwood’s character in Gran Torino is that he doesn’t change at all. Far from the liberal appraisal of the main character Walt as a racist who learns the error of his ways it’s possible to see Walt’s final actions as entirely in keeping with the principles & values that have defined him since the moment he first appeared on screen.

      That’s one of the reasons middle-America has flocked to see this movie. Here is an unapologetic, non-condescending portrait of a working-class male whose blunt language goes hand in hand with a pride in his work, an instinctive empathy toward those who share his values & an implacable hostility toward those who don’t.

      >>If he was a bit younger he would probably run for president.

      Wrong again!

    • Deaglán says:

      So you would characterize Walt as an unreconstructed racist and that’s ok?

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