With all the productions made by Hollywood's leftist actors and filmmakers, it's often easy to overlook Conservatives in the industry. With the widespread release of "Gran Torino," Clint Eastwood's first acted film in four years, the public will receive a bold reminder of a filmmaker who has managed to both act and direct in films with conservative themes for 40 years.
"Gran Torino," also directed by Eastwood, features the iconic actor as Walt Kowalski, a retired autoworker and Korean War veteran recently widowed. The traditional Kowalski is perpetually scowling at the world in which he finds himself. He's disgusted by the new generation's lack of respect – one of his grandchildren shows up at a funeral in a Detroit Lions jersey, another with bare midriff.
Returning home is no better. The mildly racist Walt is horrified to see his neighborhood filled with Asian immigrants, the younger generation of which have resorted to gang life. Walt gradually sheds his prejudices, though, as a series of events bring him into contact with his neighbors. In teenage Thao, he finds a boy who respects his elders and is concerned about his family's honor. Walt begins to mentor Thao, teaching him in the ways of masculinity and setting him up with a construction job. Thao's opportunity to make something of himself, though, is threatened by gang members who seek to draw him into their lifestyle and react violently when he resists. The Korean War veteran realizes that his neighborhood has become a war zone. Walt, now invested in the boy's future, realizes that Thao's opportunity to participate in the American Dream is threatened and reacts to defend him.
"Gran Torino" is noted as a return to the aggressive masculine persona that Eastwood first developed in the late '60s and early '70s. After first drawing attention for his role in the TV show Rawhide, Eastwood established himself in film by starring in Italian director Sergio Leone's "Fistful of Dollars" in 1964. Eastwood's Man With No Name was a new kind of Western protagonist, a bounty hunter who was motivated by self-interest. Eastwood would reprise the character in 1965's "For a Few Dollars More" and 1966's "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly." This refocusing of the Western would lay the groundwork for the libertarian Westerns he would direct himself later in his career.
The urban setting of "Gran Torino" perhaps reminds viewers more of Eastwood's other iconic role as Detective Harry Callahan in director Don Siegel's "Dirty Harry" and its sequels. The film featured Callahan on the trail of Scorpio, a sadistic serial killer. When one of the murderer's victims was supposedly trapped with a limited oxygen supply, Callahan ignored legal bureaucracy and regulations, breaking into the killer's home without a search warrant and engaging in some "enhanced interrogation techniques" to try and push the madman into revealing the girl's location. It seems clear how a contemporary film might apply this attitude to a terrorist with knowledge of an impending attack. For portraying such a character the film was famously attacked by prominent film critic Pauline Kael as "fascist."
Longing for control of his artistic vision, Eastwood founded The Malpaso Company, later renamed Malpaso Productions, and began his directing career with 1971's "Play Misty for Me." In 1976, Eastwood would star in and direct "The Outlaw Josey Wales," a revisionist Western that showed a different facet of his libertarian vision. The hero of the film is a man who just wants to be left alone after the Civil War. The villains are a Union brigade that has abused its powers – representative of excessive government – that pursue Wales, wanting him to surrender to them.
We see a similar vision of man against government power in one of Eastwood's most celebrated films, the 1991 Best Picture Oscar Winner "Unforgiven." In that film, Eastwood puts a more human face on his "Fistful of Dollars" persona. He plays an aging gunslinger pursuing one final job, to kill two men who mutilated a prostitute and escaped with minimal punishment. Again, it's Eastwood conflicting with a corrupt government, this time in the form of the sheriff of Big Whiskey, Little Bill Daggett (Gene Hackman.) Second Amendment advocates will likely get a kick out of the fact that the sheriff enforces draconian gun control laws – all visitors to the town are required to surrender their firearms. Thus the tyrannical government is allowed to dominate – until Eastwood shows up.
It was Eastwood's more recent Best Picture winner, 2004's "Million Dollar Baby," that drew the attention of a faction of the conservative movement. The film's third act included content which infuriated social conservatives who interpreted the film as a defense of euthanasia. In an interview with Philip French of The Guardian, Eastwood responded to the criticism: "I heard people criticize me who hadn't even seen 'Million Dollar Baby.' I've heard people say he's done this thing about euthanasia, and they'd get all upset. I'd go - wait a second, have you seen the picture? Are you interested in the people? Are you interested in the plight of a man who has never had a relationship with the daughter he wanted to have a relationship with?"
In an interview with New York Times columnist Frank Rich, Eastwood laid out the film's conservative vision. Eastwood pointed out that the film features a character "willing to pull herself up by the bootstraps, to work hard and persevere no matter what." He further pointed out, "And the villains in the movie include people who are participating in welfare fraud." The film juxtaposes the working class boxer Maggie (Hilary Swank), who fights to improve her situation as opposed to her poor family members who remain at the bottom because of their participation in a culture of laziness and immorality.
In these interviews, Eastwood makes clear his philosophy of limited government. In a more recent interview with Fox News's Neil Cavuto he explains the origin of his political ideology: "Well, it's — you know, I started out in — my first voting was for Dwight Eisenhower in 1952. And the — so, I became a Republican then. And I always liked their kind of philosophy of less government, and watching the spending, and not spending more." Eastwood is noted for actually having political experience; he served as mayor of California's Carmel-by-the-Sea in the '80s.
Eastwood hesitates to embrace the conservative label, though. In the interview with French he said, "I'm not really conservative. I'm conservative on certain things. I believe in less government. I believe in fiscal responsibility and all those things that maybe Republicans used to believe in but don't anymore."
Within Eastwood's films, though, we see the transition from libertarianism to libertarian-conservatism. One can start out with a vision of freedom – that we must have a society in which individuals have the opportunity to pursue their own destinies and "everyone leaves everyone else alone," as Eastwood likes to sum up his views. Yet one becomes conservative when he comes to the realization that that freedom must be defended from those who threaten it; it must be conserved. We see this first manifest in "Dirty Harry" when the Eastwood character goes to extreme measures to confront a sociopath who threatens a city's freedom.
It's ultimately in "Gran Torino," though, that this idea gets its clearest expression. We want a society in which the next generation has the same opportunities of individual liberty to pursue their dreams. In order for the next generation to enjoy that freedom, we must confront sociopaths and nihilists – whether they be international Islamofascists or just local criminal gangs – who would threaten that fundamental American Vision.