ANTHONY MICHAEL RIVETTI/WARNER BROS. PICTURES
People have been writing Clint Eastwood’s obituary for about as long as the man’s been making movies. This is not without his encouragement. Every new picture is a valediction, as every ending ushers our martyred hero off into the shadows to his eternal good night. Last year’s release of Gran Torino, said to be Clint’s final film as a performer, only heightens the impulse to tie a bow around his career. Nostalgic reverence is not much to ask from an audience, but Eastwood seeks it again and again, with a child’s petulant sense of entitlement. Though he was born in San Francisco, he missed the summer of love, LSD, the sexual revolution and all the spoils of American bohemia because he was too busy combating evil and moral relativism in the name of justice. Sacrifice demands recognition. In contemporary American cinema, Clint Eastwood is our perennial Last Man Standing. But what is he standing on, or for, and why is he so eager to hide it?
Always the father, never the son, Eastwood is a male Athena emerged fully formed from the Nixon-era hive mind, ready and willing to blast a hole through any son of a bitch who asks too many questions. A lightning rod for cheap moralizing, a starkly ambivalent embodiment of American masculinity, a callous vigilante and a sentimental old fogy, Clint Eastwood has become indivisible from his many myths. Fearing exposure as an actor, he wrested control over his image by becoming a methodical, disciplined director. In his guise as a traditional stoic with no use for politics, he actively assaults the pieties of social progress, perversely testing the limits of audience support, and those caught in his paternal sway reward him for his tough love. Unforgiven? No. Always forgiven.
Eastwood’s persona begs scrutiny because his accomplishments befit the title of a true American Original. A gentle stylist informed by classic Hollywood tropes, obsessed with the interplay between darkness and light, as well as a plain-spoken existentialist who remains fearless in the face of Big Questions, Eastwood makes films that still draw teenagers to drive-ins and elicit weeping at the Museum of Modern Art. As a director, he conceives of his disparate films as a body of work to be reckoned with in toto, but he’s also a full-time curator of the pesky, ever resurfacing “Clint Eastwood, cowboy hero” mythology. These two enterprises are at odds with each other, and they present a challenge he has never quite overcome. In his desire to be both the uncomplicated hero and the morally conflicted poet of masculine despair, Eastwood has sacrificed some of his work’s potential power. What remains, behind all the bluster, is the man’s need. Like any icon, the 78-year-old Clint Eastwood just wants to be adored, but his conception of manhood won’t allow him to admit it.
This story begins in 1971, when the center could not hold, except at the movies. That December, Dirty Harry premiered at a benefit for the San Francisco Police Activities League, a hospitable setting for a film that opens with a scrolling tribute to Bay Area cops killed in the line of duty. The pre-credit sequence showcases an unhip reverence for law and order, a gesture made doubly provocative by the fact that only a single nameless cop is killed in the film. It was just a taste of the provocation to come. Directed by hard-nosed B movie auteur Don Siegel and featuring Eastwood, Box Office magazine’s “star of the year,” Dirty Harry is an endlessly inflammatory, almost anarchic movie, one that undermines the viewer’s trust in all institutions, all heroes, all villains.