Clint Eastwood doesn’t overthink his material. He grabs a screenplay he likes and starts shooting. Writer Peter Morgan said he was quite surprised that Eastwood started filming Hereafter without demanding rewrites, or even discussing the script much, and the resulting film has an obvious first-draft quality. It doesn’t really work.
The genius of Clint Eastwood is evident in the fact that nobody else could get away with this. Gran Torino is by most measures a pathetically undercooked melodrama, relying on stock characters, trite dialogue, and a lot of awkward performances by untrained amateurs and unseasoned pros. The backdrop of tradition-rich Hmong families struggling to adapt to the American midwest without losing both their culture and their souls is the kind of social conflict that could drive any generic indie picture, and Eastwood himself plays the kind of character whose arc can be described in a half-dozen words: crotchety coot gets heart of gold. Eastwood doesn’t even turn in an especially adept performance from a technical standpoint, although I guess he never really does. He hasn’t much range. Despite that, he’s one of the greatest stars in contemporary cinema — a laconic, iconic presence who’s come to represent both artisanal and populist impulses in American film, to simultaneously articulate conservative and liberal ideals, to split the difference between the gruff misanthrope and the sensitive man of letters. That’s how, even when he’s thrown a slow, wonky pitch like Gran Torino, he manages to pretty well knock the ball out into the bleachers just the same. The guy heading into the theater to clean up cups and popcorn bags nodded at me as I left and muttered, “Clint was robbed by the Academy, right?” That’s star power.
In his 70s, Clint Eastwood has found a vigorous second wind as a much-respected director of serious, popular fare. He may have hit a wall with Flags of Our Fathers, a sensitive, clear-headed but bloated and slightly preachy World War II picture aimed at an audience that probably feels Saving Private Ryan is the last word on the spectacular horrors of a necessary war. The elaborate battle sequences that depict the bloody U.S. siege on Iwo Jima are notable for their unaffected look at the young soldiers involved. (They feel more personal than similar scenes in the more expertly tooled Ryan.) But the real subject is propaganda, which the film explores by following three of the soldiers who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi — in one of the most famous of all wartime photographs — after they return home. The screenplay (co-written by Paul Haggis, who wrote and directed the Best Picture-winning Crash) zigzags forward and backward in time and imposes an old-folks-reminiscing framework that the story neither demands nor benefits from. Eastwood’s follow-up, scheduled for early 2007, is Letters From Iwo Jima, meant to tell the story from the Japanese point of view. That could be something to see.
Originally published in the White Plains Times, November 3, 2006
Clint Eastwood has been a force of nature in the movie business for longer than I can remember. By the time I was cognizant of something called the movies, Inspector Harry Callahan was already, some three films on, getting long in the tooth. The largely anonymous gunslinger he played in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns seemed like ancient history. And by the time he played either of those great roles, he had paid his journeyman dues, appearing to a greater or lesser extent in a string of undistinguished pictures with titles like Escapade in Japan, Ambush at Cimarron Pass and, of course, Francis in the Navy.