When the Clint Eastwood vehicle “Dirty Harry” came out in 1971, the influential movie critic Pauline Kael blasted the film, which dared to support “victims’ rights” in the Miranda era, with the dread charge of fascism. By his very participation in the film, she lumped Eastwood in with its ideology. In addition, she disparaged his “wooden” acting ability.
Henceforth began her decades-long bashing of Eastwood no matter the ideology of his films. Even when Eastwood, either consciously or not, moved “left” in the sequel “Magnum Force” (1974), which had Harry defending the system he hated against vigilante cops, he still could not catch a break from Kael. For her, this attempt to distance Harry from the “silent majority” was mere liberal camouflage and beneath it was the same kind of fascism as the previous film.
Like Kael, Lester Friedman and David Desser, editors of a new academic examination of Eastwood’s films, Tough Ain’t Enough: New Perspectives on the Films of Clint Eastwood, see Eastwood as ideologically repulsive no matter the subject matter or thrust of his films. Along with Friedman, the other academics in this volume are incapable of separating Eastwood the private citizen, who has consistently backed Republicans from Ike Eisenhower to Mitt Romney, from Eastwood the director of ideologically complex films.
A case in point is “Unforgiven.” The town’s uncompromising dictum that guns cannot be brought in, enforced by the ruthless sheriff played by Gene Hackman, could be read in several different ways. Hackman’s brutalization of those that do, such as when he beats gunfighter Richard Harris to a pulp, could be interpreted as an argument against gun control. On the other hand, Hackman has a legitimate reason: to protect the town from gunfighters.
Eastwood also made movies that extolled the heroism exhibited in policies he did not agree with as a private citizen. “Heartbreak Ridge,” which with adjustments in dialogue (throughout the film Eastwood uttered homophobic remarks—“ladies,” anal rapists, and “p-ssies,” which could well have been made by John Wayne in his heyday—has as its thesis that the Grenada invasion of 1983 was a moment of redemption for the Marine Corps, finally balancing the score of “one tie” (Korea), and one “loss” (Vietnam).
However, Eastwood, also a Ronald Reagan supporter, had denounced the Grenada invasion as a “mickey mouse operation.” Nor did he support the Iraq War, but nevertheless portrayed Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle with all the patriotic zeal of one who advocated for a forced “regime change” in Iraq.
Regarding his Westerns, one of the included essays by Professor Stephen Prince damns with faint praise. He acknowledges that Eastwood’s Westerns moved the protagonist from the John Wayne uncomplicated good guy into a more cynical direction, but says the sole credit belongs to the actor’s direction from Sergio Leone. Thus, the Oscar-winning “Unforgiven” is merely a retread of Leone’s “Spaghetti Westerns.”
One of Hollywood’s greatest directors, Orson Welles, thought otherwise. After viewing “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976), Welles praised Eastwood as the best living director.
Nor do these essayists note Eastwood’s ideological uniqueness as a director. None but Eastwood would make a movie lauding the heroism of the Marines at Iwo Jima, with some qualification (“Flag of Our Fathers”) then make another, not unsympathetic film from the perspective of their Japanese foes (“Letters from Iwo Jima”). The “Blame America First” Oliver Stone would only have adopted the Japanese point of view.
The essayists also refuse to acknowledge what a unique figure Eastwood represents in the industry. Today it is commonplace for actors to make the successful leap from television to films, but in the early ’60s that was rare. James Garner did, so along with Steve McQueen, but neither became directors like Eastwood did.
Whatever his origins, and however one views Eastwood as the cynical Western gun fighter and the vigilante “Dirty Harry,” Eastwood has transcended his most iconic roles to create classics in almost every genre of film, He even dabbled in “chick-lit” with “The Bridges of Madison County.”
Eastwood is revered by liberal actors who have worked under him (Sean Penn, Matt Damon, and Meryl Streep, to name a few), but it is unsurprising and unilluminating that the academics in Tough Ain’t Enough are so blinkered by politics they cannot see Eastwood’s work as something more than the byproducts of a Republican celebrity.