Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino

Despite having one of the longest and most distinguished careers of anyone in Hollywood (especially if you consider both his acting and directing gigs), Clint Eastwood has lately been discussed for two things that have nothing to do with movies. One is his widely mocked speech at the 2012 Republican National Convention, where he lectured an empty chair he pretended was filled by President Obama (something he himself later described as “silly”). The other is an Esquire interview he gave earlier this year, which was primarily memorable for his deriding the “pussy generation” for its obsessions with political correctness.

When the interview came out, a lot of the criticism directed toward Eastwood fell along the lines of, “This old white guy can’t conceive of experiences that aren’t his own; he’s living in the past and can’t deal with the ways the world has changed.” That view was understandable given his “just fucking get over” racism comments. But at the same time, what a weird charge to have to levy against a guy who, the last time he directed himself in a film, played a man whose character arc involved moving past his racism. The time he directed himself before that, he played a man who learned to move past his sexism.

To view an artist’s work through the prism of their politics—or, at least, what one assumes their politics to be—isn’t necessarily unreasonable. Some directors practically demand it. But Eastwood is the ultimate example of where this kind of reading can fall short. He may have endorsed both John McCain and Mitt Romney and even indicated he would support Donald Trump, but his filmography, especially recently, stands in near-total opposition to the general platform of the Republican Party. Million Dollar Baby is pro-choice about euthanasia, J. Edgar is compassionate to gay issues and critical of overreaching government surveillance, and True Crime gets into the racial and socio-economic biases of both the media and the criminal justice system, while finding time to depict women experiencing street harassment. (The A.V. Club’s review referred to the film’s “cranky, reluctant embrace of an essential liberal point of view, furthering the discussion of Eastwood’s peculiar politics.”) Changeling deals with a corrupt police force more concerned with protecting its reputation than its citizens, and while the 2008 film obviously isn’t a direct response to current controversies over police brutality, similar issues are explored here, by Dirty Harry himself no less.

That list doesn’t even include his less explicitly political titles, the ones assuming a point of view that isn’t exactly associated with the GOP, like Bird, Letters From Iwo Jima (a sympathetic view of America’s enemies), Breezy (a sympathetic hippie), or his many films set in low-income milieus. And that doesn’t get at his career-long ambivalence toward vigilante justice and violence, both in general and as a tool-of-last-resort for settling conflicts.

Of course, politics are complicated; both parties will claim to embody the same positive traits; and there are multiple ways to read a piece of art. Conservative audiences embraced American Sniper, seeing it as their political ally in changing the Iraq War’s cinematic narrative to the heroics of the soldiers and away from the controversies depicted in Green Zone, In The Valley Of Elah, and Stop-Loss. But it can just as easily be read as anti-war, the story of a man (real-life SEAL Chris Kyle, played by Bradley Cooper), who kills dozens of people to no real effect in Iraq, including a child, and as a result develops a post-traumatic stress disorder that nearly destroys his family and contributes to his eventual murder at the hands of another troubled veteran. Viewed one way, Gran Torino is about a racist who kinda reforms and eventually sacrifices himself for the sake of the immigrant neighbors he’s grown to care for more than his own family. Viewed another, it’s a white savior narrative where nearly every male person of color is a stereotype or gang member. Eastwood’s Superbowl ad for Chrysler—“halftime in America”—was seen as both defiant and defeatist, pro-Obama and anti-, bipartisan and apolitical.

Gran Torino is particularly interesting in light of Eastwood’s Esquire comments (in the interview, he says the script’s political incorrectness is what first attracted him). In the film—which is fair to view as a career summation; it was to be his onscreen swan song until he was lured out of retirement as a favor for a producer making his debut—he plays Walt Kowalski, a gun-toting former blue collar worker who lives in a forgotten, impoverished Detroit suburb, where he stews about the neighborhood’s changing demographics and the kids on his lawn. In other words, he’s the quintessential Trump supporter several years before that was a thing.

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The film isn’t “politically incorrect” because it supports Kowalski’s point of view or depicts him as a simplistic hero. Quite the opposite; he’s clearly shown as an unlovable asshole, one whose racism and slurs are condemned by multiple characters. The film’s edginess comes from how it sees this racist’s racism as just one facet of a complicated personality—we also see his love for his deceased wife, his justifiable anger toward a family who wants to be rid of him, and his guilt over violence committed during his military service—and in its depiction of modern-day prejudice, something Hollywood explores with shameful infrequency. It’s incendiary material to be sure, and features tricky scenes like the one below, which arguably validate Kowalski’s tribalist instincts. (That’s his son Scott Eastwood as the dopey white guy who flops with his attempts at integration.)

Still, the takeaway from the film is ultimately optimistic, depicting a stubborn and bigoted generation yielding toward a more inclusive future. For that to be the note that Eastwood the actor wanted to go out on… well, it’s meaningful. (Worth noting: Pedro Almodóvar, a director who is about as far away as one can be from Eastwood in terms of style, theme, and politics, also just came out against “the dictatorship of the politically correct.”)

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Sniper also bears further discussion, as it’s by far the Eastwood title that’s most viewed through a political lens: Vulture called it “a Republican platform movie,” while Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi thundered that “the mere act of trying to make a typically Hollywoodian one-note fairy tale set in the middle of the insane moral morass that is/was the Iraq occupation is both dumber and more arrogant than anything George Bush or even Dick Cheney ever tried.” Perhaps this is cynicism, but I’m not sure the film would have been viewed this way with another director at the helm, or without Eastwood’s RNC speech putting his political beliefs into public view; notably, neither piece above engages with the theme of PTSD, arguably the film’s real subject. (Other reviews were more nuanced: The Daily Beast described it as a “political rorschach test” while The New Yorker called it “both a devastating war movie and a devastating antiwar movie.”)

Eastwood was criticized for simplifying Kyle’s story in a way that led to pro-war and racist readings; the film was charged with viewing the kill shots as rah-rah moments, with depicting the targets as faceless, and with creating a heliograph of someone who didn’t deserve it by omitting troubling aspects of his life and personality.

These points aren’t necessarily wrong, but they obscure what Eastwood wanted to explore, which wouldn’t have been possible with a more complicated take on the war or the man. First, it’s hard to view the kills as triumphant when the main thrust of the film is how the job breaks Kyle mentally. The story opens with an unspeakable moral choice—whether to kill a mother and child who are running toward a troop of soldiers with a grenade—and while one can respect the difficulty of Kyle’s decision to shoot, this is about as far as you can get from simplistic John Wayne heroics, much closer to Born On The Fourth Of July than the pro-war The Green Berets. Filmmaking lends the war scenes excitement—compared with a battle sequence, preparing a sniper shot will naturally lend itself to prolonged suspense, and thus a bigger catharsis with the pulling of the trigger—but there’s no sense of any enjoyment in the carnage on Eastwood’s part. The film’s tensest moment isn’t the climatic shot against an enemy sniper (an invented character who is admittedly a narrative misstep, symbolizing a victory that isn’t possible), but when Kyle watches a child debate using a rocket launcher against a platoon. When the boy runs away instead, Kyle essentially has a nervous breakdown of relief for not having to shoot him.

The “faceless enemy” criticism isn’t unique to Sniper; it’s been made of other war movies as well. While there’s some merit to the idea in general, it can also be understood as the result of telling one soldier’s story. It’s a byproduct of point of view and running time, something that’s hard to alleviate unless the director’s aim from the start is to dedicate an equal time to both sides of a conflict. The director who’s done that most explicitly? Clint Eastwood, with Flags Of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima. (The only other recent, prominent Hollywood example that sort of fits is We Were Soldiers, made by two people—director Randall Wallace and star Mel Gibson—also associated with conservatism.) It’s true that Sniper had a dearth of complex Iraqi characters, but this seems more due to the film’s myopic focus on Kyle than a specific editorial position. It’s understandable why people would find this aspect of the film offensive and stereotypical, especially given the racist anti-Muslim tweets that came out in support of the film, but Eastwood’s thoughtfulness in Letters makes me inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt.

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I think what Eastwood was trying to say with the film can be best understood through the decision to limit Kyle’s complexities—omissions that ranged from the political (vocal anti-Arab racism that went far beyond the film version using the term “savages”; he also claimed to have shot looters during Hurricane Katrina) to the personal (where Cooper plays Kyle as uncomfortable with his living-legend status, the real one was boastful, and would tout himself on various right-wing media outlets). Ignoring those aspects turns the character into an icon more than a man, and Eastwood has always been interested in deconstructing symbols of masculinity like cops, cowboys, and soldiers. Viewed through this lens, the film’s moral simplicity (the proverbial good guy with a gun against bad guys with guns) becomes even more tragic: This is the most successful soldier in history, killing only unambiguous threats, and still he’s basically destroyed by what he’s asked to do. What exactly is pro-war about that? (The film doesn’t get into WMDs or anything, but audiences will undoubtedly know that context, which adds another layer of irony: the quintessential soldier excelling in a pointless war.)

Eastwood has always had respect for people who do hard jobs with stoicism. It’s true of Kyle, it’s true of Unforgiven’s Bill Munny, and it will undoubtedly be true of Chesley Sullenberger, who navigated a crashing plane into the Hudson River and is the subject of Eastwood’s latest film, Sully. Honestly, that’s what confuses me the most about the Esquire interview. I can imagine Eastwood making a film about Hillary Clinton, whose “keep your head down and do the work” attitude would seem to appeal to him (his sounds-like-sexism dismissal of her, calling hers “a tough voice to listen to for four years,” was the most disappointing line of the interview for this fan). I can’t imagine an Eastwood film centered around Trump, whose sensationalist bluster surpasses J. Edgar Hoover’s without any offsetting complexity. But again: Politics are complex, art is complex, and people are complicated. Eastwood is not only a person but a great artist. Trying to force him into a narrow box ignores what makes him so valuable.