Is Clint Eastwood a Partisan or a Peacemaker?

Books by faith-and-film author Edward McNulty are used in congregations nationwide. He is working on a new book, Blessed Are the Filmmakers, about peacemaking themes in major movies. You can learn more about Ed’s work at the end of this story, including a link to his review of Trouble with the Curve.
Here is his latest thought-provoking column …

In the End, Is Clint Eastwood
a Partisan or a Peacemaker?


The debut of Trouble with the Curve this week poses a problem for Americans who are questioning Clint Eastwood’s Empty-Chair-Meets-Dirty-Harry performance at the Republican National Convention. Some film fans may even be contemplating a boycott of Eastwood’s movies.

Does that sound extreme? Consider the number of conservatives who, to this day, hate Jane Fonda for her anti-Vietnam War activism. You may think that “hate” is too strong a word, but I still meet Fonda haters as I travel. Despite my recommendations, they would never watch such superb films as On Golden Pond or Georgia Rule. They can’t separate Fonda’s politics from her films. Will progressive Americans respond the same way as Trouble with the Curve opens?

I write as a long-time pastor and peacemaker. Now retired from parish ministry, my life was shaped by my own early years, when I traveled to the South and served as a volunteer in the civil rights movement. To this day, I reject Eastwood’s early screen persona as the violent vigilante Dirty Harry. I was repelled by Eastwood’s performance that berated the President as if he were seated in an empty chair.

You may find yourself in my circle of experience and viewpoints—or you may regard yourself as part of a conservative circle, even a group that enjoyed the empty chair. You may be in no particular circle at all. But, we all are aware of Eastwood’s empty-chair performance. This weekend, all of us are seeing the advertisements for Eastwood’s new movie. Here’s the question we share this week: Is Clint Eastwood a partisan or a peacemaker?


I remain a fan of a number of the films Clint Eastwood has directed, including his most recent one, J. Edgar, a complex production that undercuts the idea that Eastwood’s political performance was the rambling of a befuddled 82-year-old man. A man very much in command of his considerable talents and faculties directed this 2011 film about FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.

What I have appreciated about most of Eastwood’s films since 1992’s Unforgiven is that, as a director and an actor, he has advanced beyond the values of Dirty Harry. Indeed, when Unforgiven came out, I wrote the following in my film-and-faith column, Visual Parables:

I have always had conflicting feelings about his body of work—from revulsion at his Dirty Harry violence-extolling series, to admiration for such films as Bird and Sudden Impact, with their more complex characterizations. Unforgiven actually plays against the conventions of the traditional Western. Eastwood seems to be reflecting upon the violence of the characters whom he has played over the years with such relish, and—if not repentant of their violent ways—he seems at least less comfortable with them. The otherwise dead-serious story is told with a nice touch of humor: William Munny (Eastwood’s character) can no longer shoot straight, and he can barely mount a horse any more, a debility that could prove fatal during a fast getaway.

Today, reflecting further on Unforgiven, I also would point to the insightful exchange between the would-be gunfighter, the Schofield Kid, and Eastwood’s retired killer, after the youth has killed a man for the first time:

THE KID: It don’t seem real—how he ain’t gonna never breathe again, ever—how he’s dead. And the other one too. All on account of pulling a trigger.
MUNNY: It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. Take away all he’s got and all he’s ever gonna have.
THE KID: Yeah, well, I guess they had it coming.
MUNNY: We all got it coming, kid.
I cannot imagine Eastwood’s earlier character Dirty Harry saying that!

In Million Dollar Baby (2004) Eastwood handles the controversial theme of euthanasia with tact and tenderness, something that few of his political peers would countenance. He plays gym owner Frankie Dunn, reluctantly coaching Hillary Swank’s Maggie Fitzgerald, who as the story progresses becomes a replacement for the daughter from whom he has been estranged. When Maggie seems about to score a victory in a crucial fight, her opponent viciously hits her from behind, knocking her head into a post. She is paralyzed from the neck down. In the hospital she suffers constant pain. She pleads for him to euthanize her. He refuses, but when her leg has to be amputated and she is in continual agony during her waking moments, he gives in. Now, try to sell that premise from the platform at the Republican convention!


He directed two World War II films incredibly in a single year, 2006—Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. In directing that pair of films, he showed the horrors of the battlefield and eschewed the false heroics of such older John Wayne films as Sands of Iwo Jima. It’s neither the U.S. flag nor some Hollywood summation of democracy that motivates the grunts scrambling to prevail on that rocky island; it is the welfare of their buddies and themselves that drives them through the agonizing terror of Iwo Jima. In the second film, focusing on the lives of the Japanese soldiers, Eastwood fulfills the difficult task of putting a human face on the enemy—an even more powerful accomplishment, in this case, because the Japanese army of the World War II era represents a notorious enemy trying to kill our soldiers. Far from cheering the Japanese deaths, as in older war films, we are left with a sense of loss and regret. And that second film is largely told through subtitles! Talk about a gutsy American director!

As a Presbyterian, I love Eastwood’s 2008 film Changeling because one of its main characters was a real-life crusading Los Angeles Presbyterian clergyman, the Rev. Gustav Briegleb who came to the aid of the mother of a kidnapped boy. The corrupt Los Angeles police were trying to send her to a mental institution because she would not accept the boy they had found and returned to her. As the movie unfolds, she insists that he is not her son. The captain in charge of the investigation does not want his department publicly embarrassed, hence his plot to put her away. It turns out that she is not alone! A number of women had incurred the police department’s displeasure in that era. Had it not been for the courageous clergyman, this grief-stricken mother would have languished in an institution until the end of her life. (If you’re intrigued by the real-life clergyman, you may want to read an earlier story I reported for the Presbyterian News Service about Briegleb.)

GRAN TORINO: Infused with Cardinal Virtues

Gran Torino, his next film, also released in 2008, is infused with cardinal virtues embraced by political progressives: tolerance and the exposure of prejudice. Eastwood directed the film and appears in the role of Walt Kowalski, a crusty Detroit auto plant retiree upset that a Hmong family has moved in next door. He rants about the deterioration of his once all-white neighborhood that he believes such immigrants have caused. Then, when a series of events bring him into contact with the Hmong family’s teenaged son, his prejudices slowly dissolve and he becomes a mentor of the boy and protector of the family. There is a huge price to be paid for that friendship when a vicious gang threatens the family. The film’s climax is one in which Kowalski makes the supreme sacrifice for the Hmong family’s welfare, an act that he could not have even imagined at the beginning of the film.

His 2009 film, Invictus, now is dear to the hearts of the millions of men and women around the world who opposed the apartheid regime in South Africa. Depicting the early challenges facing Nelson Mandela as he became the country’s first black leader, the movie tells the remarkable story of his using the national football team to overcome racism on both sides of the divide. I suspect that some American viewers who may have cheered Eastwood’s performance with the empty chair may not have understood that Eastwood’s real range of passions is better expressed in this epic rebuke of racism in South Africa and around the world.

That brings us to 2011’s J. Edgar, a biopic about the long-time director of the FBI, beginning with the Red Scare that followed World War I. The film shows Hoover’s paranoia and his hatred of anything and anyone to the left of Attila the Hun. We see vividly how this becomes embedded in his mind at an early age and we watch as he turns his considerable organizational and scientific insights into analyzing crime-scene evidence. Hollywood has shown Hoover as both villain and saint through the years, but this film steers a middle course. In his direction, Eastwood did not flinch from showing Hoover’s vindictiveness and jealous lust for power as well as his homosexuality and homophobia—nor did Eastwood ignore Hoover’s important contributions in promoting advanced crime-fighting procedures and building a modern FBI. In this film, Americans at both ends of the political spectrum could find elements to appreciate.

Despite his mean-spirited act with the chair at the Republican convention this year, I will always appreciate—and watch again and again—these movies I have saluted as well as many other Eastwood films I have not mentioned. It is possible to separate Clint Eastwood the partisan from Clint Eastwood, a genuine national treasure as a director and actor. Thus I went to see Clint Eastwood’s newest film, The Trouble With the Curve, in a hopeful frame of mind.

Read Edward McNulty’s movie review of The Trouble with the Curve.


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