I know it’s just a commercial. I know it’s heavy handed. I know it’s in the service of a not-quite democratic message. But I got chills on Sunday night when Clint Eastwood told America that it’s halftime, and our second half’s about to begin. Clint is the only American who could use a football metaphor on a national television commercial to take an eagle-eye view of half-a-millennium’s history and make it sound like precisely the right mix of scholarly consideration and bar room philosophizing. After it was done, I realized that Clint just got away with telling America the one thing they don’t want to hear during the Super Bowl - that the country we know will not be around forever, it might even die. To point this metaphor in a different direction, it would seem that Clint is telling us that America is a spoiled, soft, middle aged man, in the grips of a narcissistic mid-life crisis, who needs to harden up to the responsibilities of seeing his children pass adolescence without a heroin addiction or a pregnancy scare - regardless of what it takes. After the ad was done, I felt an uncontrollable urge to invade Syria.
America declines everywhere else, but the cult of Clint thrives more than ever. He’s not just the standard by which every American male viewed himself for half a century, he’s transformed himself in old age into that extremely unmasculine thing, a great artist. Supposedly greater actors and directors have done their great things and long since burned out. But has any figure in American movies created as many great films over the last twenty years as Clint?
Time and again, we learn that we condescend to Clint at our own peril, yet everybody does it. Sure enough, come Monday morning, there was Karl Rove on CBS, accusing Clint of shilling for President Obama. Let’s pause for a second to think of how far discourse in this country has veered from reality that Clint @#$%^&* Eastwood can be denounced as a liberal stooge.
In his personal life, he’s probably every bit the right-wing reactionary his on-screen persona makes him seem. He was once heard to complain that he’d never win an Oscar because he’s not Jewish. And how many racist, sexist, and homophobic epithets can he include in his movies before we start thinking he means them? But it’s Clint’s immunity to the Hollywood echo-chamber which toughened him up. In a town where left-wing sentiment is as cheap as a date with an aspiring actress, there are hundreds of stars who hold precisely the opposite views from Clint. Most of them are heralded as great talents, but they’ve long since disappointed and disappeared. Clint’s old-fashioned views of politics, of moviemaking (cheaply and quickly), of acting itself (don’t), made his career so different from every standard for how great movies were made that he practically became his own studio - proving that great movies can still be made in the old-fashioned way of a town that long since abandoned the model which made them successful. He is more than royalty, he is a national symbol - the final relic of Golden Age Hollywood.
It’s amazing to go back to those early movies and realize how stupid they are. Clint’s most famous action movies, appearing as they during the heyday of ‘New Hollywood,’ seemed to many like an extended middle finger in the face of liberal platitudes. When Dirty Harry first appeared, Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert both accused the film of advocating a ‘fascist’ point of view. But whether or not that’s true, it would be far easier to feel threatened by the movie’s advocacy of vigilantism if it didn’t suck. However authoritarian Dirty Harry’s message, it is an incredibly silly movie - full of cartoonish characters, primitive action sequences, and stupid catchphrases. Perhaps it is The Passion of the Christ for its day - gathering enormous controversy because people can’t get past the political point of view to see that the movie itself is awful.
But was there ever a case of an artist who evolved further Clint did over the next twenty years? When one compares the violence of Dirty Harry to Unforgiven, you see the difference between a movie which thinks violence is really cool, and a movie in which violence and horror are synonymous. For all its pretenses to right-wing disgust, Dirty Harry doesn’t seem to have a moral point of view past thinking that violence is fun to watch - whether meted out by a serial killer or the vigilante who takes it upon himself to stop him. But in Unforgiven, the act of murder is given its full due. Like The Godfather, Unforgiven is a movie told from the point of view of the murderers. We root for them because we see what shaped them, and we see the weight which murder holds upon their souls. Yes, Clint seems to be saying, violence is necessary, but the fact that it’s necessary is the great tragedy of our existence. It's a very conservative sentiment, but that doesn't make it any less true.
You don’t have to agree with everything Clint is to see the greatness of his work. In his old age, this Nixon-era antique became a Great American Artist and the last best proof that Hollywood might again be what it once was. The message of his movies is generally not one we liberals like to hear. But as always, we ignore what Clint has to say at our peril. If Clint says that America is exactly halfway through its history, it just might be true. If anyone can tell America exactly what it is, it's Clint.