How did Clint Eastwood ever become a cherished American icon? Or maybe the question is: How has he remained one for so long?
He can't act, and the movies he directs, which are his true canon -- or at least his true .44 Magnum -- are at best well-meaning attempts to get beneath the surface of whatever they purport to be about.
I think he's lasted this long because he always seems to be both inside and outside of his image and his work. He "doesn't take himself too seriously," as they say, and in America, that's a great compliment. Serious people are pretentious people, and we Americans are down-to-earth. Nobody has ever accused Clint Eastwood of being an intellectual. (N.B. He actually takes himself very seriously, but I'm talking about iconography here, not reality.)
His Olympian ascent began in the 1960s with a series of Westerns he did for the Italian director Sergio Leone. ("Pasta Westerns," as I call them, snob that I am.) He played a "man with no name," and usually with no dialogue. So far, so good. These movies were about Good triumphing over Evil. But Good was a bit of a vigilante, and that made him more "human."
Next came the "Dirty" Harry Callahan movies. Here he was a cop, and we laughed when he snarled, "Go ahead, make my day." But did we really think about what we were laughing at? This is a man who'll be happy if he gets to end a human life. If that's the formula for happiness, then I say we stoke up the electric chair and broadcast executions during the Family Hour, or maybe on Sunday, for the shut-ins who can't get to church. We need something to feel good about in these troubled times.
For most of his career, Eastwood has been an unapologetic nihilist, a half-baked metaphorist, and occasionally a dry parodist (of "himself"). I'm fine with that. It's just that the movies have never been half as good as people say they are. He seems to win praise for trying, like we know he's not deep enough to do better, so we give him an "A" for effort. Unfortunately, "effort" begins with an "E."
Perhaps the best thing I can say about Eastwood is that he's an agnostic. He may even be an atheist, but that would be too much to hope for. In his affecting Million Dollar Baby, he allowed his heroine to choose death, to the dismay of religious groups. And in his new movie, Gran Torino, the character he plays, a septuagenarian and newly widowed Korean War veteran named Walt, treats a young priest like crap. When Walt finally deigns to confess, the process is about as inspiring as selecting from a menu of touch-tone options when you call to get your cable disconnected.
Gran Torino takes place in working-class Detroit and opens at the funeral of Walt's wife, "the greatest woman in the world," or something like that. This sequence sets up everything that follows: He's emotionally distant from his selfish sons, his bratty grandchildren hate him and he hates his "gook" neighbors.
Truth is, he really hates everybody. He killed people in the war -- killed them face to face -- and he's never gotten over what a filthy stinking world we live in. He doesn't talk: He growls, and probably always has. And he owns a mint-condition '72 Gran Torino. He installed the drive shaft himself when he worked at Ford, his employer for 50 years.
Long story short, his neighbors are Hmong, and the family is big and close and throws lots of parties with lots of good Hmong food. Thao (Bee Vang), the shy teen-ager, is trying not to get drawn into a life of crime by his gang-banger cousin. He reluctantly agrees to steal Walt's car as his initiation, but Walt catches him at it, then shoos him away at gunpoint.
Of course, Walt's neighbors soon befriend him, thanks mostly to the effort of Thao's older sister, Sue (Ahney Her). She's the angel on his shoulder and our guide, in shorthand, to Hmong culture and customs. As Walt grows closer to his neighbors, bonding with Sue and Thao, tensions escalate with the cousin's gang. The climax involves -- you guessed it -- death.
Gran Torino rounds up the usual themes of a social-issue movie (breaking down barriers, understanding difference), but it does so in the most benign way possible. There's never a hint -- not the slightest hint -- that gangs form because racists like Walt marginalize minority cultures to the breaking point. "Hmong girls go to college, and the boys go to jail," Sue tells him, in one of the movie's many interesting, unexplored assertions.
Gran Torino gets laughs from the kind of epithets that Archie Bunker used to entertain us almost 40 years ago. Walt and his Irish barber engage in ethnic badinage -- it's "how guys talk to one another," he teaches Thao (cue audience laughter) -- and when Walt saves Sue from a trio of black thugs, he calls them "spooks" (more laughs). But don't worry: He never uses the n-word. Eastwood is smart enough to know that's not funny, and he's not brave enough to taint his character with it.
We're left with a well-intentioned, superficial character study of a man we shouldn't tolerate or find amusing, and an issue movie that knows a mainstream audience can tolerate only so much without having to think too hard. Eastwood keeps it simple, or possibly even simplistic. I'll give him the benefit of the doubt and say that I'm not sure which. The movie's pace is leisurely, like its star's elocution. "There's nothing that anyone can do that won't disappoint the old man," Walt's son says to his brother at their mother's funeral. This man exists, and in our real world, he's not funny. If only Eastwood had the talent, let alone the balls, to show us that. In English and Hmong, with subtitles.