Tonight’s inspirational Super Bowl ad featuring Clint Eastwood on behalf of Chrysler is another in a long line of befuddling artistic and socially conscious choices by the famed filmmaker. You see, Eastwood didn’t vote for the man who saved Detroit, he went with the other guy.
What’s even more fascinating is this noted conservative, registered republican since 1951, supporter of republican presidential candidates from Richard Nixon to John McCain has the filmmaking heart of a liberal. Since 1988— with few exceptions— his films have centered around three particular themes: racism, feminism, and the futility of violence. Now this may be hard to imagine from Mr. “go ahead, make my day,” but consider the evidence.
Starting in 1988 with “Bird” his biopic of jazz legend Charlie Parker, Eastwood has consistently tackled social issues in nearly all his directorial efforts. “Bird” was a sympathetic look at the troubled life of the saxophonist Charlie Parker. Eastwood delved into his musical genius, his drug abuse, and his rocky long-term relationship with a white woman. The film was neither judgemental nor sentimental in looking at Parker’s career but it made perfectly clear the effects of racism on the troubled jazz man.
Eastwood has gone on to make three other films looking at the racial divide in this country. In a matter of fact way, “Unforgiven” (through the character played by Morgan Freeman) exposed the casual racism of the old west, but “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Gran Torino” delved more deeply into the subject. On the surface “Flags” would appear to be a very conservative pro-war film. However, take note of the character Ira Hayes as played by Adam Beach and his struggles as a native american trying to assimilate in an unforgiving post-war America. Eastwood makes it clear that although Hayes was a war hero, the USA was no place for a man of color to get ahead in. Now “Gran Torino” makes an even stronger comment than “Flags” by centering his story around the racist character of Walt Kowalski played by Eastwood himself. The character not only learns to accept the asian family that moves in next door to his Detroit home, but befriends them and is, in fact, willing to die for them. For good measure, Eastwood followed up “Torino” with Invictus, a film about Nelson Mandela’s efforts to bring together South Africa, post apartheid.
When it comes to the subject of feminism, Eastwood is probably not the first person whose name comes to mind. But take into consideration these three films, “Bridges of Madison County,” “Million Dollar Baby,” and “Changeling.” With “Bridges” Eastwood took an awful book and turned it into a sterling tale of the sexual awakening of a middle-aged Italian immigrant woman (Meryl Streep). Through her affair with the National Geographic photographer played by Eastwood we see the stifling effects of the 1960s on a traditional woman living in the midwest. Eastwood makes it clear through societal reasons and family circumstances that this is a woman who has not been allowed to live as she would wish. Nine years later Eastwood approached feminism from a more modern perspective with “Million Dollar Baby.” While “Million Dollar Baby” may seem more like a sports movie on the surface than a feminist outcry, Eastwood’s approach reflects the difficulty of a woman trying to enter the traditionally male dominated sport of boxing. Eastwood’s character, gym owner and trainer Frankie Dunn states early on that “I don’t train girls” but finds himself giving in to her (Hilary Swank) persistence and pluck.
More liberal still is “Baby’s” argument that a person not only has the right to live as they choose but also to die as they choose. Jack Kevorkian would have been proud. However, the strongest pro-feminist statement by Eastwood yet is Eastwood’s “Changeling” starring Angelina Jolie. The brilliant “Changeling” documents the true story of the 1928 abduction of a single mother’s (Jolie) son. There are many incredible twists and turns in “Changeling,” so much so that my jaw probably dropped five times while watching the picture. From the insistence of the Los Angeles police department that a boy found after the abduction is Jolie’s son (when he clearly is not) to a sub-plot involving a serial killer, “Changeling” is a doozy of a film. But its main focus is on that of a single mother trying desperately to find her son in the harsh pre-feminist atmosphere of 1920s America. At one point Jolie’s character is institutionalized for not accepting that the shorter, circumcised (her son was not) boy returned to her by the LAPD is not her son. For this she is treated like a hysteric and only freed to continue her search for her son thanks to a crusading minister (John Malkovich). In “Changeling,” Eastwood strikes a real blow against female oppression and for the feminist wave to come.
Still, I would say the most fascinating of the three main themes of the last 20 years of Eastwood’s career is that of the futility of violence. Now it may seem strange to think that “Dirty Harry” would make films that are statements against violence, but here again Eastwood subverts expectations. First with his all-time classic western “Unforgiven,” Eastwood made it clear that little good comes from violence. In a particularly telling scene, Eastwood’s vigilante Will Munny says to a member of his gang and first time killer (played by Jaimz Woolvett) that “It’s a hell of a thing to kill a man, you take away everything he has and everything he was gonna have.” The young, shaken wannabe gun slinger then says to Munny “I just don’t know if he (His first victim) deserved it.” Munny’s classic response? “deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”
Eastwood followed “Unforgiven” with his most underrated film, “A Perfect World” starring Eastwood and Kevin Costner. In “World” Costner plays a murderer who escapes from prison and then kidnaps a child (Eastwood is the local sheriff trying to catch them). What’s particularly interesting in “World” is the effort that Eastwood the director makes to understand the criminal played by Costner. He isn’t simply a bad man but more of a person from a terrible family background who never had a chance. Later, in Eastwood’s oscar winner “Mystic River,” Eastwood again returns to the wrong-headed, foolhardy theme of vigilante violence. In “Mystic,” the character played by Sean Penn takes the law into his own hands after the murder of his daughter. He ends up committing the same offense against a wrongly accused childhood friend. Like “A Perfect World,” (and “Gran Torino” as well) “Mystic” argues that people are a product of their environment and if they don’t break the cycle of violence they are doomed to fall victim to it.
Clint’s most recent film, “J. Edgar,” takes a sensitive and compassionate view of the titular, long-term, head of the FBI who was quite possibly gay (the movie insinuates more than it commits). On top of that, Eastwood has recently come out as at least a quasi-supporter of gay marriage.
As Eastwood put in a way that only he can:
“These people who are making a big deal about gay marriage?” Eastwood tells GQ Magazine. “I don’t give a fuck about who wants to get married to anybody else! Why not?! We’re making a big deal out of things we shouldn’t be making a deal out of … Just give everybody the chance to have the life they want.”
Now I am willing to bet that Eastwood, the former republican mayor of Carmel, California (1986-1988) wouldn’t like being called a liberal on any level. I’m sure he would argue that over 50 years as a registered republican would qualify him as a card-carrying conservative. And politically that may be true. But when looking at his work on film over the last twenty years–as well as his pro-Motor City commercial–it’s difficult to reach the same conclusion. So Clint Eastwood the artistic, social liberal is certainly a label he would not feel that he deserves. But then “deserve’s got nothin’ to do with it.”