I went to see the new Clint Eastwood film “Gran Torino” and it was fantastic. At the end, as I sat there and watched the credits roll, I wondered if this was Clint’s response to Spike Lee and the controversy last year over the lack of African-American characters in his last two films on WWII: “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima”. Was this Eastwood’s version of “Do the Right Thing”!?
Eastwood plays a hard-nosed, grumpy, disgruntled, bigot who has disdain for everyone and a edgy indifference to everything… except the growing multi-cultural society that is surrounding him. He hates it. He sees the world around him changing and to his regret and alarm, the changes have invaded his doorstep in the form of immigrant neighbours from Laos. Eastwood’s character, Walt Kowalksi, is a volatile racist. His racism has been conceived and nurtured by American society, both past and present. His racism has been nourished by war, both past and present. His racism is national and international in it’s scope. It is personal and impersonal in its reach.
Blended with his racist impulses are two other pillars of American society: violence and materialism. This blend is seen in the accepted use of violence to protect one’s property against “those others”. This blend is seen in the expected use of violence in the international arena to protect American self-interests against “those others”… even if it’s in their own lands. “Those others” don’t look, speak, dress, eat the same foods or even smell like those of the dominant culture in American and by extension, European and Israeli society. Therefore they are considered to be less than human, if not openly… certainly on a subconscious level. Hence the invasion of Iraq. Hence the slaughter in Gaza. Hence Guantanamo. Hence Abu Graib. Hence the murder of another “Oscar Grant”… and another “Adolph Grimes”… and the shooting of another “Robbie Tolan” to start the new year.
Walt Kowalski embodies all of these traits. They guide all his actions, reactions and impulses. He says things that make you cringe and shake your head… however here is the scary part… it also makes you laugh. He comes off as a “gruff” Archie Bunker type. I have met people like him. The type of guy you are told not to take what he says personally, because he doesn’t hate you specifically. “Oh Walt, don’t mind him, he hates everyone!” The type of guy who you are told really“likes” you because his racist taunts and jokes are openly directed at… and therefore “shared”… with you. However, and this is where Eastwood takes his character, it all comes at a price. The hate, violence and worship of material things, exacts a terrible price. It’s not just a physical cost. It exacts a terrible cost on one’s psyche… on one’s soul. It pollutes you… and all that you come in contact with. This is seen in the life of Kowalski and within American society in general… as seen through the lives of the other characters, both local and immigrant.
Violence has been an underlying theme in most of Eastwood’s films. In his “spaghetti westerns” and “Dirty Harry” eras, it was primarily about vengeance… a hero or anti-hero… cleansing society of the despicable and undesirables. “Unforgiven” explored the physical and psychological costs of using violence to exact revenge and cleanse a violent society. “Flag of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” looked at the personal cost of violence… and the glorification of violence in the national interests… on the individual’s psyche and soul. In “Gran Torino”, Eastwood now moves violence from a vehicle of revenge to a means of redemption… as a way to cleanse the soul. As Walt Kowalski lays in a Christ-like pose at the end of the film, I am reminded of Martin Luther King and Gandhi. The ultimate sacrifice for the greater good. The ultimate sacrifice to point to a better way.
“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” John 15:13