On May 31st, a great filmmaker turns 90. As a director, he has nearly 40 feature films to his credit, many of which address complex moral issues and characters with gravity, maturity, and a cinematic craft that is no less artful for refusing to call attention to itself. He is one of our finest living auteurs. He’s also one of our least heralded.
I’m talking about Clint Eastwood.
You’re either vigorously nodding your head yes or shaking it noooo right now, because few cultural figures have been as divisive in their lifetime. Say his name to anyone under 30 or true to their blue state, and you’ll likely hear a dismissive joke about Grandpa talking to that empty chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Mention him at a heartland barbecue and you might get pumped fists for Dirty Harry and the Man With No Name.
I’d argue he’s gravely misunderstood by both parties — his greatest fans and biggest detractors — and that those twinned opposing images as the bugbear of the left and the boo-ya hero of the right are shallow caricatures of a many-layered artist. That’s right, I said “artist,” even if Eastwood himself might shy from the word.
He may not be the oldest working filmmaker of all time — Portugal’s Manoel de Oliveira was still cranking them out at 105 — but along with Woody Allen, the longtime omega to Eastwood’s alpha and currently much more of a cultural pariah, Clint has been astonishingly prolific. He has directed 38 films in 47 years, from “Play Misty for Me” (1971) to “Richard Jewell” (2019), and when you factor in the movies in which he only acted, you’re close to one movie per year — for a half century. (According to the Internet Movie Database, Eastwood currently has no projects in the works, which has to be a first.)
More remarkable have been both the consistency and the variety of his run. Eastwood has his dogs and career slumps, and even his best work isn’t arguably without flaws, but the breadth of subjects, genres, and approaches can take your breath away. In preparation for this article, I took an informal online poll: What’s Clint Eastwood’s best movie? Nearly 700 people weighed in, with the brooding Oscar-winning western “Unforgiven” (1992) easily taking the crown. But the other choices and the write-ins covered the waterfront.
He has made comedies (“Honkytonk Man,” 1982) and political thrillers (“Absolute Power,” 1997). He has adapted best-selling novels (“Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” 1997) and Broadway jukebox musicals (“Jersey Boys,” 2014). He’s done bio-pics both national (“J. Edgar,” 2011) and international (“Invictus,” about Nelson Mandela, 2009). A jazz fanatic, Eastwood directed Forest Whitaker in a Charlie Parker bio-pic, the estimable if oddly muted “Bird” (1988). The same year, he executive produced the fine documentary “Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser.”
One of the Eastwood movies that placed highest in my informal poll was “The Bridges of Madison County” (1995), a project that looks preposterous on paper. Dirty Harry adapting the glutinous romantic best seller and starring opposite Meryl “Greatest Thespian Alive” Streep? Yet the result is richer and more resonant than the book, and the two leads complement each other in fascinating, intelligent ways. And, yeah, Clint Eastwood cries.
Other titles that turned up repeatedly in the straw poll testified to the director’s roots in westerns, a genre in which he has come to seem the last classicist. But that’s underselling the way “Unforgiven” questions and condemns the violence men do to each other before showing them compelled to return to it over and over again. Or how “High Plains Drifter” (1973) and “The Outlaw Josey Wales” (1976) – the latter perhaps Eastwood’s first great film – move away from the pop-art existentialism of the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns that made his name and infuse the genre with mystery and rough new meanings.
Another favorite was “Mystic River” (2003), an adaptation of the Dennis Lehane crime drama that may be the best movie made by an LA-based filmmaker about a Boston neighborhood — “East Buckingham” — that doesn’t actually exist. And there’s “Million Dollar Baby” (2004), a terrifically acted sports drama about a woman boxer (Hilary Swank, who won her second best actress Oscar) that pivots into a daring meditation on mercy killing.
Why does Eastwood continue to get no respect in some quarters? Well, his politics, obviously, but also because he has no interest in playing the part of the “great director.” He’s a throwback to the Studio Era, when filmmakers moved from one project to the next without making a fuss. Eastwood values professionalism almost as much as Howard Hawks, and he was schooled by Don Siegel, who directed the actor in “The Beguiled” and “Dirty Harry” (among others) and who mentored his larger ambitions. He comes from a tradition that gets the job done and doesn’t give interviews to talk about symbolism or themes.
Yet a Clint Eastwood movie does have themes. They’re just more fatalistic than pretty, and he bakes them in deep where you can’t see them instead of frosting them on top. Violence and trauma are part of life, as is the urge to rise above them; the tension between those two poles is not only rarely resolved but serves as a working definition of the human condition. Revenge feels good and solves nothing. Heroism is sudden, unasked for, and usually punished: so says the recent run of “Sully” (2016), “The 15:17 to Paris” (2018 and an intentionally “banal” drama misunderstood by many when it came out, myself included), and “Richard Jewell,” a nearly great movie with one crippling flaw in Olivia Wilde’s promiscuous journalist. (Eastwood’s attitude toward women is much more nuanced than he gets credit for — in film, if not in his private life, which has been unflatteringly messy at times — but when he offends, he goes the distance.)
Another longtime theme: There is no glory in war, no matter what the home-front blowhards say. When it comes to that genre, in fact, Eastwood is a unique figure: He makes conservative antiwar movies. That’s the only way to understand “American Sniper” (2014), which too many self-styled progressives refused to see on principle and so failed to appreciate how Bradley Cooper’s marksman has his soul destroyed by killing and how aptly an epic dust-storm — an incredibly filmed sequence — serves as a metaphor for America’s involvement in Iraq. (That the ending of “Sniper” collapses into patriotic treacle is a result of the real Chris Kyle getting killed midway through production, painting Eastwood into a corner of piety.)
In 2006, Eastwood made mirror-image movies of the World War II battle for Iwo Jima, one for each side of the conflict. The American film, “Flags of Our Fathers” is affecting and strong, while “Letters from Iwo Jima,” told from the Japanese point of view, is one of his very finest works and a functional paradox: an elegy for individual soldiers who fight for an ideology that denies them individuality.
One of the films that got the fewest votes in my poll yet, ironically, was many people’s second choice is actually my favorite Clint Eastwood movie. “A Perfect World” (1993) combines all the dark wisdom of the director’s worldview into the story of an escaped convict (Kevin Costner, excellent) on the run with a hostage, a little boy (T.J. Lowther) with whom he develops a bond as moving as it is complicated. Eastwood gives himself the role of the Texas Ranger leading the chase, but he’s hardly the hero and more an increasingly helpless onlooker to the way fate moves against us all. I watched it again recently, and it holds up remarkably well, putting the lie into the film’s title at the same time it hints at all the ways our imperfect world could be made different.
Maybe you should watch it, too, regardless of how you feel about Clint Eastwood. And wish him happy birthday while you’re at it.