For a long time, I’ve been uncomfortable with the notion of Clint Eastwood as an icon of individualism or American heroism, though I respect him as an artist and I like much of his work. His latest controversy, an ad during the Super Bowl in which he sanctions the government’s takeover of Chrysler, is the impetus for me to say something about Mr. Eastwood.
As far as his onscreen image is concerned, I never saw him as a proper projection of a strong, intelligent heroic type. I enjoyed most of his early movies, including the Dirty Harry pictures and even one of his first forays into his own filmmaking, The Gauntlet. Even then I sensed that there was something missing from his characterizations and plots. He always seemed too repressed, tortured and miserable to be a bold American avenger for justice. Like the actor whom I consider Clint Eastwood’s onscreen heir, Harrison Ford, there’s a superficially jaunty quality consistent with one who pursues his values, and I know this is to some extent a matter of personal taste, but there’s something dark, sinister and deeply disturbed about his characters. Their view of life is fundamentally negative, not positive, at least in the overall sum of their actions (same with Harrison Ford, whom I can barely tolerate), and he generally plays the cynic and skeptic. Not the idealist. In other words, Clint Eastwood as a type is very 20th century, a follower reacting to the facts of reality – with sneers and biting remarks – not a creator acting to shape and bring himself into alignment with the facts of reality.
An example of this is his popular assassination-themed movie, In the Line of Fire (1993), in which Mr. Eastwood plays an ineffectual Secret Service agent dogged by his failure to protect the President when JFK was assassinated. As in many of his movies, including the excellent Heartbreak Ridge (1986), his character is nearly defective as a functional human being, unable to connect with people and interact in society, let alone fall in love, commit and cash in on the rewards of a lasting romantic relationship. His presidential bodyguard is always one step behind the assassin (John Malkovich) until the end and even then he never does put the puzzle pieces together. All this time, pursued in potential romance by an agent played by Rene Russo, he is befuddled, dazed and confused. He is perpetually “in the line of fire” and clueless and, invested in his agent as a protagonist, so are we.
Whether intentionally or not, and again I enjoy many of his films and think his record as an artist is mixed with touches of greatness, I think that cluelessness is part of Mr. Eastwood’s point. Besides his iconic Dirty Harry character – once invoked by the similarly overromanticized Ronald Reagan – being truly anti-heroic, Clint Eastwood’s movies tell us that nobody’s perfect (A Perfect World, 1993), life is unknowable (Hereafter, 2010) and ethics are situational (Unforgiven, 1992). His Flags of Our Fathers (followed by a film from the enemy’s perspective, Letters from Iwo Jima, both in 2006) laid this grayness over a world war, depicting America’s defense against a barbaric assault as an argument for moral relativism on a grand scale.
As a director and as an actor, Clint Eastwood is often better on a bad day than Hollywood’s mediocre legions are at their best, and examples include the incisive Gran Torino (2008) and what I regard as 2009’s best picture, Invictus, named for the poem by William Ernest Henley. Invictus, starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela, is brilliant as a movie, though it interestingly ignores or takes liberties with Mandela’s malicious rise to power. So, the theme of his work is that ignorance is bliss, which is the opposite of the truth. Ultimately, the formerly sneering cowboy with the blank, squinty stare who essentially communicated during the Super Bowl that he approves of the government’s seizure of a failed American car business, effectively nationalizing the automotive industry and taking us toward total government control of the economy, is prototypical of, to use his word, the “average” American. In this sense, Clint Eastwood embodies the man who refuses to think. It is not halftime for America, as he claims in his ad for Chrysler. It is well past the two-minute warning with the clock counting down. Someone of Mr. Eastwood’s caliber should know better, which sadly makes him like most Americans. Not exactly an individualist, let alone a leader for the rebellion, and in a certain sense, an anti-hero.