To many who are uninitiated with the filmography of Clint Eastwood, or just those who have the most superficial understanding of his now iconic status in American cinema, Eastwood is seen as a stalwart for the idolization of the individual; the strong man who shoots first and asks questions later; a lionized caricature of the kind of tough guy whom modern society has rendered extinct. But closer examination of the full body of Eastwood’s work reveals an individual who is much more complicated than these limiting descriptions allow for.
If there’s one role that Eastwood is known for more than any other, that role is Harry Callahan, Inspector for the San Francisco Police Department. Callahan first appeared in 1971’s ‘Dirty Harry’, an action thriller that fully encapsulated the neo-conservative fear of the rising left throughout the cultural revolution of the 1960s. Although the film hasn’t aged well, there’s no denying it’s one of the best action films of the ’70s, regardless of its absurd politics. However, the film also hampered the way Eastwood would be seen in the public lens for decades to come. Let’s not forget that that same year, 1971, Eastwood made his directorial debut with ‘Play Misty for Me’, an underrated psychological horror-thriller about a disc jockey being stalked by an obsessive fan. This film flipped the typical gender roles of other similar films on its head, portraying Eastwood as a vulnerable man in danger on account of a woman. Yet of these two films, it’s the far more conventional ‘Dirty Harry’ that remains the one the public is most familiar with.
Besides spawning four mostly vapid sequels, ‘Dirty Harry’ would be the blueprint for several other films that Eastwood would be involved with over the course of the next three-four decades. From 1978’s horrendously misguided ‘Every Which Way But Loose’ which had him playing Harry Callahan under the name Philo Beddoe and his partner-in-crime being an orangutan (Yes, this film does exist), to 1986’s pro-Reagan fever dream ‘Heartbreak Ridge’; from 1990’s godawful ‘The Rookie’, to 1997’s woefully uninspired ‘Absolute Power’. Yes, more so than any other film he’s been involved with, ‘Dirty Harry’ has arguably most shaped his public perception and the course of a long extent of his career.
But what about all of the other films in his long career that showcase a much different kind of individual? What about 1990’s ‘White Hunter Black Heart’, a film about a man’s dangerous obsession with hunting that takes a firm stance against animal cruelty? What about 1992’s ‘Unforgiven’, the film that won him his first Oscar, that deconstructs the long-believed Hollywood myth that violence on the Western frontier was something to be romanticized? What about 2008’s ‘Gran Torino’, where he plays Harry Callahan yet again under the name Walt Kowalski, which documents the shifting social paradigms from the 20th-21st centuries and one out-of-touch man’s final sacrifice to protect the Hmong neighbors he grows to love? Hell, even an overlooked gem like 1999’s ‘True Crime’, in which Eastwood rushes with an urgency to save the life of an innocent man from being executed? That kind of liberal signaling isn’t something generally associated with Eastwood, but it does become apparent at several instances in his career.
There has always been a disconnect between Clint Eastwood, the macho movie star that the public loves, and Clint Eastwood, the insightful citizen of our complicated society who documents from behind the camera. Is Eastwood one of the great auteurs of American cinema? After all, wasn’t making a film about animal cruelty in 1990 kind of behind the curve? And as good as ‘Unforgiven’ is, wasn’t its message done earlier (and possibly better) by Sam Peckinpah in 1969’s ‘The Wild Bunch’? Doesn’t Eastwood’s workmanlike approach to film-making come at the expense of style? The answer to the first two questions is quite possibly yes, though the answer to question three, if my opinion is of any authority, is a resounding no. But there’s no denying that the prospects of his overall cultural legacy are unbalanced; that his better angels are often offset by his far lesser inclinations.
Even over the course of the last decade, as he began to settle into the twilight of his long career, this imbalance showcases itself. It’s difficult to reconcile two films as disparate as 2014’s ‘American Sniper’ and 2018’s ‘The Mule’. No matter how many times he says that ‘American Sniper’ isn’t a pro-war film, as a left-winger, I simply can’t believe him. It’s a pro-war film, whether Eastwood was conscious of it during the making of it or not. It’s also a film that desperately makes a lunge, looking for a depth in the content that likely was never there to begin with. What we’re left with is a America-good-brown-people-bad propaganda film that undercuts any better intentions Eastwood may have had. 2018’s ‘The Mule’ shows Eastwood in much better form. Here we have a film about an old man whose better years are behind him coming to a public confession. Earl Stone, Eastwood’s character, was a shitty father, a shitty husband, and a shitty person in his life. Staring down the barrel of mortality, he takes up one final task to desperately make things right with the people he’s wronged throughout his life. And doesn’t it seem that Eastwood is often at his best when his art is apologizing for mistakes he made in his previous art, and mistakes in his own life? A complicated legacy, indeed.
This persistent juxtaposition is what makes Eastwood such a complicated, idiosyncratic figure in American cinema. In many different ways, he’s both one of the most overrated filmmakers of his era, and one of the most underrated filmmakers of his era. He receives too much credit for the mundanities in his filmography, and not enough credit for the films where he’s thought outside the box. This is the most evident in the fact that 2003’s ‘Mystic River’, his undisputed best film, is never the first film that comes to people’s mind when they think of him, despite being nominated for several Academy Awards.
So, is Clint Eastwood one of the great auteurs of American cinema? Maybe. Maybe not. There may be a few too many duds lurking in his filmography for him to rise to that level. Regardless, he remains somewhere on a list of my personal favorite filmmakers, even though he often frustrates me by letting his worst qualities get the better of his superior intentions, and even though I detest as many of his films as I adore. And thus is the complicated legacy of Clint Eastwood.