ANTHONY MICHAEL RIVETTI/WARNER BROS. PICTURESClint Eastwood as Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino

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.

The movie’s setup is outlandish. The titular San Francisco police inspector chases the sadistic and methodical Scorpio–a serial killer with shaggy hippie hair and an effeminate demeanor–around the city of leftist vice, eventually exploiting all manner of enhanced interrogation techniques in order to protect Scorpio’s targets, while his weak-willed superiors (aided, naturally, by a Berkeley law professor) prefer to acquiesce to the killer’s demands. No real-world police force would let a murderer run free on such minor technicalities. But in the decade following Miranda v. Arizona and Escobedo v. Illinois, Eastwood’s cop is revolted by a justice system that affords the criminal more rights than the victim. A virile, quietly menacing crusader for a justice that transcends the rule of law, “Dirty” Harry Callahan and his .44 Magnum bore the burden for all that polite liberal America truly felt but was afraid to say. The man who had made his name as the Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns became the mythical manifestation of Nixon’s Silent Majority.

A one-woman subsection of liberal America pushed back, and not at all politely. In the January 15, 1972, issue of The New Yorker, Pauline Kael wrote:

Dirty Harry is obviously just a genre movie, but this action genre has always had a fascist potential, and it has finally surfaced. If crime were caused by super-evil dragons, there would be no Miranda, no Escobedo; we could all be licensed to kill, like Dirty Harry. But since crime is caused by deprivation, misery, psychopathology, and social injustice, Dirty Harry is a deeply immoral movie.

In essence, Kael accused Siegel and Eastwood of training American anger on an Evil With No Name. Evil is treated as something imprecise, the product of unknowable origins. It’s a devilishly effective diatribe, even if Kael does manage to squeeze off a few cheap shots. “On the way out, a pink-cheeked little girl was saying ‘That was a good picture’ to her father,” Kael notes, with improbable verisimilitude. She also claims, “The movie was cheered and applauded by Puerto Ricans in the audience, and they jeered–as they were meant to–when the maniac whined and pleaded for his legal rights.” How she verified the ethnic makeup of the audience while watching the movie escapes me.

Richard Schickel, author of the deferential but illuminating 1996 authorized biography Clint Eastwood, claims that the actor had no intention of causing an uproar with Dirty Harry and that the Kael review and its fallout haunted Eastwood throughout his career. “One time in the midst of his recent acclaim he asked me if I’d happened to see an interview in which Pauline Kael said that one of her regrets about retirement was that she no longer had a forum in which to criticize Clint Eastwood. ‘Can you imagine that kind of bigotry?’ He sighed.” Nevertheless, in his examination of the Kael fallout, Schickel allows that the review may have provided short-term benefits for the actor:

She made people wonder: Did this guarded and enigmatic character have a devious political agenda, more threatening than, say, John Wayne’s, who had at least always been forthright about his reactionary views? Was he something more than an actor who specialized in playing dangerous characters? Was he, in himself, a dangerous character? Unwittingly, Kael made him into a subject for speculation in circles where scarcely a serious thought had been spared for him previously.

With just a few column inches, Kael had ushered the popcorn demigod into the political spotlight. Despite his protestations, he has remained there ever since, keeping close watch over his mystique. At the 1971 Oscars, though Eastwood’s breakthrough film had received no nominations, angry moviegoers raised placards that read Dirty Harry Is a Rotten Pig. According to J. Hoberman’s whirlwind history of 1960s cinema and politics, The Dream Life, which features a stylized snapshot of Harry Callahan on its front cover, sporting his outsize revolver and a Nixon/Agnew ’72 pin, George H.W. Bush would later credit Ronald Reagan for transforming America’s moviegoing predilections: citizens now wanted less Easy Rider and more Dirty Harry. As president, brandishing his veto power like a Smith & Wesson, Reagan would respond to a tax-happy Congress by hissing the very words Dirty Harry used to taunt perps: “Go ahead, make my day.” At the same time, Eastwood’s vigilante flick was reportedly the movie most often screened by Leonid Brezhnev and the Politburo.

Whatever his feelings about the role, Clint Eastwood does not bear responsibility for the cultural appropriation of Dirty Harry. He didn’t write or direct the film–though Sudden Impact (1983), the sequel he did direct, is even less morally conflicted than the original. After Sondra Locke begins killing off members of the gang that raped her and her sister, Dirty Harry ends up directly assisting this killer’s cause. Harry spits his “make my day” barb for the first time in this sequel, making clear that the killing could metamorphose into something enjoyable. Eastwood never disavowed the message of Siegel’s original but interpreted it as a simple plea for common sense. “The real romance of the film,” Eastwood once said, is that “the audience is sitting there going, ‘Yeah, if I was stuck down [in a pit] for five hours, I wouldn’t want some guy talking about the Miranda decision. I’d want somebody out there trying to get my ass out of there.’ That’s just kind of basic. I didn’t see anything political about that.”

Kael had it mostly right when she described Dirty Harry as a “hardhat The Fountainhead.” Howard Roark, the Ayn Rand novel’s hero as well as her ultimate idealist, is colored by his absolute refusal to compromise and his faith in the virtue of his selfishness. He takes what he wants–even rape is justified–in pursuit of a beautiful higher vision. High Plains Drifter (1973), the first western that Eastwood directed, is an absolute Randian vision. In the film, the citizens of a fallen town grant free agency to the nameless superman who arrives on a horse to save them from themselves. Common folks are portrayed as shallow, cowardly and unheroic–Eastwood’s character makes a mockery of their democracy by pinning the sheriff’s badge on a dwarf. To repay their savior, they relinquish to him their women, their food and their free will without question. It’s hell even before Eastwood forces them to literally paint the town red.

“Dirty” Harry Callahan is not quite a Roark figure. The man’s sadness, and his protective instinct, stems from the death of his wife, though we never learn anything about their life together. His vigilantism is not the pursuit of a higher vision but rather a pragmatic attempt to prevent the pain of the innocent. That said, this man is an island; he has no childhood, no lover, no friends. Dirty Harry is not alone in his isolation: in High Plains Drifter, Eastwood’s character is known as the Stranger. In Pale Rider, he is simply the Preacher. In Sergio Leone’s westerns, he has no name at all. Perhaps Dirty Harry is most pointedly a cautionary tale about rootless heroes who attempt to define evil on their own terms–Scorpio is the kind of absolutist villain only Harry Callahan could invent.

The common thread in Eastwood-directed films is the exposure of namelessness as a lie. Nearly every Eastwood character–and despite the fact that Eastwood the director has never written a single script, there are few other actors who so consistently cast themselves in the same role–attempts to operate as a lone wolf, motivated by self-interest, and his autonomy is always cut down by family ties, origins or returns of the repressed. He reminds viewers that every self-projected myth of manhood hides a stockpile of shortcomings and embarrassments. Nothing comes from nowhere. John Wayne’s real name, don’t forget, was Marion Morrison.

Some icons are martyrs to a cause. Eastwood is a martyr to himself. His intransigence (and manhood) is always under assault from liberal pieties–or from feminists, civil libertarians, good-government bureaucrats and people of color. He is not just a fatalist or a cynic; he is a declinist. Even as a young actor–and it’s important to note that he has never looked young in a movie–he set himself in opposition to cultural progress. The youth have nothing to offer and exist only to be trained. Though his characters eventually yield to the prevailing societal currents, it’s never without an air of self-congratulation. We are expected to celebrate Eastwood for his minimal gestures of conciliation. In The Fountainhead, Dominique asserts that Roark’s greatness should not be offered to a world unwilling to express its gratitude. Eastwood feels much the same way.

In Play Misty for Me (1971), Eastwood’s directorial debut, a playboy disc jockey attempts to rebuff the affections of an obsessed fan, played by Jessica Walter, who stalks him after a one-night stand. Here the lone wolf is confronted by the consequences of his actions, and the movie works as a thriller because it makes the hero look so vulnerable. Eastwood, who stars as the DJ, has a nightmarish confrontation with a caricature of unbridled female desire; he ends up knocking his stalker off a cliff to restore his masculine equilibrium. Critic Dave Kehr notes that Walter’s performance was “so creepy and sexually aggressive that she hardly worked again for years.” The perpetually unmarried Eastwood character has never understood how to integrate powerful females into his universe. Let’s not forget that the catalyst for the epic eruption of violence in Unforgiven is a whore’s laughter at the size of a cowboy’s penis.

In the late 1970s and early ’80s, Eastwood made a series of films with his new paramour Sondra Locke. A feisty, foul-mouthed firecracker in an undersized frame, Locke played Eastwood’s liberated-female comic foil in The Gauntlet, Bronco Billy and Every Which Way but Loose. Her presence signals Eastwood’s concession to the post-Fear of Flying era, but Locke is a feminist figure only in the most cartoonish sense. In The Gauntlet she plays a tough-talking hooker who wields her sexuality like a weapon. Eastwood plays a cop escorting her to a trial, and when bikers attack him on a boxcar, Locke unbuttons her blouse and invites them to rape her–under the correct assumption that Eastwood will attack them while their backs are turned. In another scene, to Eastwood’s apparent disgust, she intimidates a perverted cop by asking him if his wife knows that he masturbates. By the end, she makes clear that her chief feminine desire is to settle down with Eastwood in a home with a backyard and two kids.

In Bronco Billy, Locke plays a whore of another sort, marrying a feckless Manhattan male so that she can satisfy the conditions for inheriting her father’s wealth. Eastwood’s title character is the washed-up star of a rodeo roadshow, an evangelist for the Wild West who reluctantly accepts the woman into his band of misfits and ex-convicts, as long as she’s willing to play by his rules. You know Locke’s character has matured when Bronco Billy ruminates: “I didn’t like her too well myself, at the beginning, but she’s coming around to my way of thinking now.” Richard Schickel, who praises the film for its appreciation of core values, admits that Locke’s voice essentially “exists to be awed into silence by this gently cracked true believer.” The dimensions of Eastwood’s world are neatly captured in the final shot of the film, which finds the whole gang congregated happily beneath Bronco Billy’s big tent, stitched together with stars and stripes.

Though Gran Torino was shut out of this year’s Oscars, Eastwood’s latest moral reckoning has emerged as the biggest box office smash of his career–when the 2008 Academy Awards were handed out, it had outgrossed all five of the nominees for Best Picture. This is shocking because the early trailer for the film–featuring a grizzled Eastwood packing heat and intimidating an Asian gang by sneering “Get off my lawn!”–looked like an elaborate joke. (Indeed, a quick scan of Gran Torino‘s “memorable quotes” page on IMDb, which doubles as a formidable repository of racist folk humor, proves that this is Eastwood’s most broadly comic film as a director.) But in the benighted contemporary American movie landscape, it’s understandable why the film is being taken so seriously. In a rave review, the New York Times‘s Manohla Dargis argues that Eastwood’s films “show an urgent engagement with the tougher, messier, bigger questions of American life.” The movie addresses the growing Hmong minority in the Midwest with some sensitivity and offers a timely elegy for white male middle-class hegemony. Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a Polish-American Korean War vet and recently retired Ford assembly-line worker (as it happens, the movie opened the day the Senate rejected the since-ratified General Motors bailout). But more than any movie since Unforgiven, in which Eastwood, playing a retired gunslinger, wrestles with his Man With No Name legacy, Gran Torino is also a meditation on Clint Eastwood and his own obsolescence.

Walt Kowalski is a walking anachronism. Gran Torino opens at his wife’s funeral in a Detroit suburb. (If an Eastwood character begins a movie as a married man, his wife usually dies before the opening credits.) We meet Walt’s ungrateful children, one of whom sheepishly drives a Toyota, and his even more brutish grandchildren, who can’t wait for the old man to shuffle off so they can turn their heirlooms into dorm-room accessories. Their grandfather spends an inordinate amount of time muttering and growling, cultivating his lean, mean mystique, nursing cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon and polishing his 1972 Ford Gran Torino, a worshiped piece of Americana. The Gran Torino is his final bulwark against the increasingly vulgar, multicultural world looming outside his front door. When a posse of Hmong gangsters attempts to steal his vehicle, the septuagenarian soldier decides to mete out his own brand of justice, inadvertently shielding the law-abiding Hmong community from this reckless band of urban cowboys.

In the hour leading up to the climactic confrontation, the movie centers around this bigot’s relationship with the Hmong family next door. He wants these “zipperheads” off his property, but they keep returning to offer gifts to the accidental hero. The son, Thao, who attempted to steal the car as a gang initiation rite, offers himself as Walt’s indentured servant as an act of penance. Thao is fatherless, a necessary contrivance that puts Gran Torino‘s agenda into play, because Walt needs to teach this immigrant to become “man of the house.” While refusing to learn how to pronounce his name, Walt reluctantly teaches “Toad” how to wear a tool belt, pick up a woman and, in one particularly memorable scene, talk like a man.

Walt takes Thao into his local barbershop, where Walt makes a monthly visit to insult the barber’s ethnicity and manhood in playful but vulgar fashion. When Thao makes an honest attempt at playing the game, calling the guy an “old Italian son-of-a-bitch prick barber,” we laugh only because of his awkward diction. Why do audiences chuckle at a scene that implies immigrants should jump through hoops and help maintain certain white male rites of passage in order to be taken seriously as Americans? It’s offensive and condescending, but more important, it’s false. Gran Torino never entertains the idea that America is a country defined by its immigrants and not by John Wayne.

Because Gran Torino follows an archetypal Eastwood plot, Walt loosens up just enough to accept the persistent kindness of Thao’s older sister, Sue Lor. She’s a remarkably confident and compassionate young woman, with one foot in Hmong tradition and the other in her bright American future, able to see through this bigot’s bluster and never flinching when he brags, “I’m the White Devil.” Unfortunately, Gran Torino‘s plot eventually reduces Sue Lor to an archetype–a woman who exists to be violated and then protected. Sue Lor is raped by the local gang, which precipitates Walt’s apparently selfless decision to martyr himself.

In the film’s penultimate scene, after locking Thao in a basement, Walt approaches the gang hideout, essentially offering himself as a human sacrifice. It’s a scene that mirrors the climactic saloon sequence in The Outlaw Josey Wales, except this time Eastwood is on the receiving end of the mythic transaction. “You got a light?” he asks, of no one in particular, summoning the peculiar sang-froid and smooth rhetoric that attaches to Harry Callahan before a decisive spasm of violence. “Me–I’ve got a light.” He reaches into his pocket to retrieve his lighter. The gang members, thinking that Walt is packing heat and has come to exact revenge on Sue Lor’s behalf, kill him with a blistering volley of gunfire. As our star falls to the ground, eagerly awaiting spiritual absolution for the sins of Dirty Harry, his limbs lock into a Jesus Christ pose. Even when Eastwood is trying to escape an outsize mythology, he cannot escape another outsize mythology.

The gesture seems especially paltry when compared with the heartbreaking resolution of Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler, a recent film that bears Eastwoodian hallmarks without succumbing to self-pity. (Eastwood’s Changeling, released just months before Gran Torino, also exudes a comparable maturity, if only because Eastwood wisely displaces his own martyrdom onto Angelina Jolie.) Like Walt Kowalski, Randy the Ram (Mickey Rourke) uses violence in the ring to negotiate his loneliness outside the arena, and his past is littered with the bodies of the vanquished. But unlike Walt, Randy recognizes that redemption isn’t possible, either through his family or an honest day’s work. Randy’s estranged daughter does not welcome his lame overtures with the unlikely kindness of Walt’s Hmong neighbors, and his part-time gig behind a deli counter is alienating–the store even puts his real name, Robin, on the name tag. He knows his macho mythology is deflated, but it’s all he’s got. Walt thinks his fall is a purification. Randy knows that his own fall, a de facto suicide achieved through the execution of his trademark move, a diving elbow-drop called the Ram Jam, is a capitulation.

In the closing scene of Gran Torino, a lawyer reads from the dead man’s will, which Walt had written himself. It turns out that he had chosen to bequeath the titular totem of middle-class luxury to Thao, “on the condition that you don’t chop-top the roof like one of those beaners, don’t paint any idiotic flames on it like some white trash hillbilly and don’t put a big gay spoiler on the rear end like you see on all of the other zipperheads’ cars.” In other words, Walt gets to keep his racial epithets and be the hero, too. The closing credits roll over a shot of Thao cruising in his new vehicle of assimilation, with Eastwood’s raspy voice cooing gently on the soundtrack, reminding the next generation just who we have to thank for our liberty.

The traditional Eastwood hero–and Clint, for all his bluster, has never played a villain–spends an inordinate amount of time pushing other people away, only to grudgingly accept the perseverant embrace of the outside world, as long as the world is defined exclusively in terms of his suffering. If Eastwood is to be credited for artistic and emotional growth, his mythic doppelgängers must learn to accept a love that asserts itself without conditions. He has publicly reduced his political credo to “everyone leaves everyone else alone.” That philosophy is a reason to become a hermit. It’s a reason to vote for regressive taxation and Second Amendment rights. It’s not a reason to make movies.