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Pointing Eastwood: Clint Eastwood’s Moral Compass…

Clint Eastwood is a fascinating director. It’s hard to imagine, watching those early Spaghetti Westerns, that the badass cowboy would emerge as one of the great American directors. To be honest, while he wasn’t the first major actor to work behind the camera, I think that Eastwood really paved the way for established actors being taken seriously as directors. I’ve always been somewhat fascinated by Eastwood’s work, even when it isn’t necessarily completely satisfying as a viewing experience. I’ve still found something interesting and compelling in most of his films, even if they aren’t brilliant in and of themselves. I think that Eastwood manages a thematic consistency that’s very rare these days, and it’s possible to see a lot of the director’s moral philosophy in his work.

Images and motifs manifest themselves repeatedly in his work, especially within the past decade or so. The director is consciously returning to these core ideas, and they recur in his work to the point where it’s hard not to notice them. It’s more than a collection of story-telling techniques, or relying on the same actors and production staff (with Morgan Freeman working repeatedly with Eastwood). It’s returning to the same points, the same ideas, again and again and again, in service of some larger point. And I think that Eastwood’s point is a fascinatingly moral contemplation of legacy and the divide between generations.

When Eastwood himself steps in front of the camera, as he does in Million Dollar Baby or Gran Torino, it’s generally as a man struggling with faith. Brían F. O’Byrne played Father Horvak in the former film, while Christopher Carley played Father Janovich in the latter. It’s interesting that both films see his character trapped in a vaguely antagonistic relationship with a priest, while trying to make sense of his own lack of faith. Of course, Eastwood’s character is always somewhat glib (“is it sort of like Snap Crackle and Pop, all rolled into one big box?” he asks of the Holy Trinity in Million Dollar Baby), and he never seems to accept the religious beliefs themselves. Instead, his character relies on the priest for moral guidance – which is somewhat fascinating because they are both noticeably younger than Eastwood. (Carley more than O’Byrne.)

Eastwood’s films are populated with older characters, most of whom feel morally compromised or otherwise scarred. Of Eastwood’s character in Million Dollar Baby, Father Horvak remarks, “Frankie, I’ve seen you at Mass almost every day for 23 years. The only person comes to church that much is the kind who can’t forgive himself for something.” Walter from Gran Torino is still recovering from the Korean War, almost a generation earlier. J. Edgar is the biography of the morally-compromised moral crusader who hoped to keep America safe while engendering a culture of blackmail and corruption.

Even in Invictus, Eastwood’s Mandela film, Nelson Mandela himself is revealed as a character who cannot hold his own family together. When one of his guards asks about his family, Mandela loses the energy for his morning run. He suggests that he considers the entire South African nation is his family, as if to distract from his own failings as a father and a husband. “My family is very large. 42 million.” While Eastwood’s biography doesn’t linger on Mandela’s difficulties with his own family, showing a discipline that a lot of biographies lack, they are there in the background.

While Eastwood’s filmography tends to focus on older characters – or characters in an older time – it’s worth considering how the director handles younger characters in his work. As noted above, characters younger than Eastwood are qualified to act as priests in his films, innocent and virginal. Mystic River focuses around the death of a nineteen-year-old girl, one planning to escape her family ties and venture out into the world. She was hoping to leave with her boyfriend for the hedonistic Las Vegas, and perhaps shed the cloak of innocence. The movie deals with the fall-out from her murder, as the local police and even her gangster father were unable to protect her from the evil in the world.

The dead child is a recurring image in Eastwood’s work. Changeling is perhaps the most obvious example, but it’s not the only one. J. Edgar, for example, spends a great deal of time focusing on the Lindbergh baby case. Older characters cast in the role of children or surrogate children are often victimised or often suffer. There’s the death of Jimmy’s daughter in Mystic River. Million Dollar Baby deals with the responsibility that Eastwood’s character feels for a young woman wounded in the boxing ring. Gran Torino’s climax is built around the suffering of the two Hmong teenagers he takes under his wing.

I’m not the only person to notice this connecting theme. While I’m reluctant to quote Armond White, the caustic critic, has shrewdly commented on Eastwood’s “penchant for child murder.” White, it seems, can’t see past the disturbing images to connect them to a central recurring theme within Eastwood’s impressive filmography, one that has been subtly present in his work for decades, but has really come to the fore in the past ten years or so. Eastwood’s films are fixated on the relationship between the old and the young, and the moral obligations that arise from that.

It’s hard not to believe that Eastwood feels somewhat disappointed in the world that his generation have left behind, even if he can’t completely condemn them. His older lead characters often find themselves put in uncomfortable positions in order to “do right” by the younger people they feel responsible towards. In Million Dollar Baby, Eastwood’s Frank Dunn must condemn his own immortal soul in order to give his surrogate daughter peace she so sorely deserves. Hoover establishes himself investigating the Lindbergh Baby, consolidating his power by appealing to the need to protect an entire generation’s youth. In Mystic River, Jimmy deals with his failures as a father while trying to bring his daughter’s killer to justice, while he and his friends share some sense of guilt for failing to protect another child.

In Gran Torino, Walter sacrifices his own life so that the Hmong kid from across the street will spared any blood on his hands. Even in the earlier Blood Work, Eastwood plays a retired FBI profiler who lives off a heart transplant from a younger woman, and tries to give her some measure of peace by catching her killer. While some of Eastwood’s characters succeed – and, when they do, it’s often at great cost – some fail entirely. In his bid to keep America safe from “radicals”, J. Edgar enables figures like Richard Nixon to emerge. Jimmy ends up beating an innocent man (and another victim of a another horrible crime) to death.

There’s a strong sense of moral responsibility, and an admission as well. Eastwood seems to suggest that his generation owes something substantial to those that follow it. His body of work doesn’t seem to suggest that they’ve accomplished too much. With the exception of Nelson Mandela himself, none of Eastwood’s recent protagonists are able to protect their own without making huge personal sacrifices in the process. And it seems that their attempts are as likely to be as brutally misguided (in the case of Jimmy or Hoover) as they are ineffective (the cops in Changeling or Mystic River). It’s a fairly grim portrait of a generation gap, but it’s fascinating to see it play out so well across most of Eastwood’s recent films.

However, there are notes of hope to be found, amid the somewhat grim prognosis. Mandela succeeds, of course, but Million Dollar Baby ends with a much smaller, much more personal victory for Frank. On the run for fulfilling the wishes of Maggie, he’s faces a somewhat grim and uncertain future. However, the movie closes with Morgan Freeman’s narration, revealing that he hasn’t been explaining what happened just for the sake of it. He has been relating the story to Frank’s real daughter, someone he hardly sees. His friend and gym buddy telling this story to his daughter affords Eastwood’s Frank some sort of very minor, yet important, redemption. “No matter where he is,” Freeman’s character states in the movie’s closing lines, “I thought you should know what kind of man your father really was.”  

There’s hope somewhere there, even amid all the death and failure. Frank failed as a father to his own daughter, but he got a chance to redeem himself in the end, to do right by another young woman who couldn’t rely on her own nuclear family. It’s grim, and it’s dark, but the story might allow Frank to somehow make amends with his own daughter, or to allow her to somehow understand him. While Eastwood’s older characters might not always do right by their younger counterparts, the director seems to see some measure of nobility in the attempt, and hopes that this might make some measure of peace between the two.

It’s rare to see a major American director manage this sort of thematic consistency across so many films, but Eastwood’s movies play into a grand tapestry of a shared morality and perspective on the world. Indeed, I’d argue that it’s almost more difficult to discuss and to analyse the films in question individually, because they all feel like sections of the same cloth. It’s fascinating, because all of this seemed to click into place for me while watching J. Edgar, and almost immediately made more sense of a movie that admittedly has fairly fundamental problems.

I think a mammoth Eastwood rewatch might be on the cards.

2 Responses

  1. Interesting article Darren, I like your angle on a director who I’ve always admired for his thematic integrity, although I don’t necessarily agree with some of the points you made about them. I think Million Dollar Baby is a great example of a film that is about doing the right thing when the right thing is hardest to do, unfortunately for Eastwood, he chooses an issue that is itself fraught with moral difficulties and all sorts of other negative moral implications and connotations.

    Intentionally or not, the film essentially argues in favour of Euthanasia, thereby opening a whole other can of worms, right at the end, which eclipses the father/daughter reconciliation theme somewhat. The film does highlight the desire we all feel, though we sometimes try to suppress it, to make up for mistakes we’ve made in the past, to somehow redeem ourselves. It is this point that I felt had the most potential for a nudge toward personal responsibility but in the end becomes rather moot.

    What struck me about the last couple of Eastwood films I’ve seen, aside from the moral awareness you mention, was this awareness of how other people perceive us. We all tend to have a perception of ourselves that is determined, often beyond our control, by other people’s behaviour towards us or reaction to us and the way we think they see us.

    I haven’t seen J. Edgar yet but the hearsay isn’t filling me with confidence. I think basically Eastwood’s films are good but their biggest weakness is that they’re, for the most part, so nearly GREAT films, but generally, just aren’t.

    Thanks for this thoughtful piece Darren.

    • That’s a good point, and thanks for the compliment. It’ s been a while since he’s produced a truly, unqualified great film, hasn’t it, though?

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