Eastwood’s Exceptional Men

The release of Hereafter marked the thirty-fourth time a Clint Eastwood directed film hit the big screen. It seems nearly impossible that at eighty years old Eastwood is somehow becoming more prolific in churning out films. Since 2000, Eastwood has directed ten films, with another, Hoover, set to be released in 2012. During that time, he has won Oscars for best film and best director (Million Dollar Baby), been nominated for best actor, best director, and best film on other occasions, and provided a platform for the likes of Sean Penn, Tim Robbins, Angelina Jolie, Matt Damon, and Morgan Freeman to receive various awards and accolades.

However, despite such proficiency and critical acclaim, Eastwood’s name still does not register as a director with the public as often as it probably should; he is still seen first and foremost as the iconic cigarillo smoking hero in Sergio Leone’s Italian Westerns or as the .45 caliber handgun toting Harry Callahan. I do not know of another actor in the second half of the twentieth century who had more visibility, appeal, and longevity than Eastwood. So maybe our collective inability to include him in discussions of great and prolific directors is more of a compliment to his lasting legacy in front of the camera rather than an insult to his forty year career behind it.

Yet what has struck me about his most recent directorial work is how he seemingly attempts to negotiate and re-work elements and themes embedded in those early iconic characters. Both “Blondie” and Callahan are characters who need no one and violently strain against any imposition put upon them by wider communal dictates. As a bounty hunter, Blondie works alone and always rides off on his own, leaving associates and communities behind him as he searches for new frontiers on the American West where he can live freely. Callahan, a much meaner and more caustic character, hates the San Francisco Police Department, bureaucracy, authority, and anyone who might impinge upon his desire to play by his own rules. Callahan believes that it is his individual right to write the rules by which he will live.

Similarly, both characters rarely feel the need to act out of desire to heal or bring together the broken communities in which they find themselves located. (Although, I must admit, the Eastwood character in the Leone films seems much more kind than Dirty Harry.) They desire to make money, prove themselves, defeat other men who would attempt to assert dominance, and, in the end, be left to themselves and their own devices. They are creatures of Randian Social Darwinism who thrive and survive because of their will and talent. Each one is better than the others around them, and each one hates being told that they must play by the rules set and enforced by those who are inferior.

As Eastwood began to direct, many of his male leads, often played by Eastwood himself, continued to carry many of the same traits as Blondie and Callahan. (And many of his early films were Westerns and cop films.)  Over the last decade, though, Eastwood’s films have, I assert, tried to recalibrate the tension between individual exceptionalism and the need for communal bonding and reconciliation. Blondie and Callahan could do many things well, such as shoot people, exterminate serial killers and villainous gangs, and deliver great one-liners, but they could not bring together families or communities who had suffered trauma and heartbreak. His two most recent films prior to Hereafter, which I have yet to see, Gran Torino (2008), and Invictus (2009), both have, at the heart of their narratives, exceptional men who have suffered in varied ways from the society and culture around them.

In Gran Torino, Eastwood directs himself as Walt Kowalski, the Korean War veteran and ex-auto factory worker who watches his once idyllic American neighborhood in suburban Michigan fall into decay. The culture around him is either foreign or has succumb to the sloth and consumerism of late twentieth century capitalism. He hangs on as a widower in his old home, a stranger in his own land, as Hmung immigrants transform the neighborhood. His family is now emblematic of the spoilt, uninspired American. His son has abandoned the old neighborhood for suburban housing and non-manual labor. Walt’s grandchildren cannot relate to him and dread answering the phone if he calls. The man who provided military service to his country and years of physical labor to an industry, now dying, that was once the pillar of American industrialism is abandoned by his family and nation and left to drink beer alone on his stoop.

Nelson Mandela, played with subtle beauty by Morgan Freeman, who is wonderful in every role, also suffers. And anyone with any knowledge of South African apartheid should not need an explanation of the suffering he endured during his imprisonment on Robben Island. Yet Eastwood’s Invictus invites us to see other sufferings of Mandela. Morgan clearly portrays Mandela’s pain in being separated from his wife and having strained relations with his children. Morgan’s Mandela is also isolated from the white Afrikaners who still seem him as a terrorist, and he becomes an even lonelier figure after he begins to campaign for the South African rugby team, the Springboks, an act which angers and baffles many of his black supporters.

To different degrees and purposes, Eastwood depicts each of these men as exceptional. Kowalski represents the last of the American exceptionalism that made the United States the superpower of the twentieth century; Mandela possesses the singular insight into how to bring about reconciliation in South Africa. In the end of each film, each character’s exceptionalism provides the impetus for communal restoration and healing. Kowalski willing sacrifices himself, absorbing the bullets of the gangsters, all the while knowing that his death will lead to the gang’s imprisonment and the community’s betterment. Mandela orchestrates the triumphant moment of the South African Ruby team’s world cup victory that allows for an unfettered celebration free of racial animous.

While each one departs from the earlier prototype of the Eastwood protagonists, both Kowalski and Mandela remain similar to those figures through their loneliness, isolation, and suffering. The twenty-first century heroes of Eastwood films might be able to restore broken families and communities, but, just like Eastwood’s twentieth century heroes, they remain separated from those families and communities. They have brought peace to those around them, but not to themselves.

What I want to look for in Herafter, which has been met by mixed reviews, is whether the healing that Eastwood now sees as necessary for the communities within his films is possible or available for his protagonist, Matt Damon’s George Lonegan.  Lonegan’s ability to connect with the “hereafter” clearly establishes him as a man of exceptional means, yet, as Eastwood’s previous films illustrate, such exceptional means do not lead necessarily lead to a happy ending for the hero.


About Todd Hunter Starkweather

Todd Starkweather is an Assistant Professor of English at South University-Richmond. He has a PhD in English Literature from the University of Illinois-Chicago; his interests include film, Victorian studies, sport, and post-colonialism.
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One Response to Eastwood’s Exceptional Men

  1. Pingback: Clint Eastwood, Hollywood, and Conservatives | James River Film Journal

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