I'm not one to deviate from a director or actor under controversy if it's an older film that I've accessed from the library or through streaming services. I believe some of the most famously notorious problematic male actors and directors are unfortunately attached to some of cinema's best projects. That being said, either within the Criterion Collection or in the digital library that I own I try not to include movies from Polanski, Woody Allen or Marlon Brando. Those are just examples of course of the worst Hollywood offenders, but there's a caveat of racism, sexism and power play throughout years and years of even some of the most acclaimed Academy-caliber films. So what's harder for me to justify is to continue to see movies by directors who I know have problematic pasts or are continuing to succeed financially despite their untouched inappropriateness (on or off set).
What's on the lesser side of controversial is some directors who are vocally and politically troublesome; with the current access to Twitter and other forms of social media, it's nearly impossible not to know a single person of fame's hot take. So welcome to the plate, our classic cowboy Clint Eastwood, who hit the scene in the mid-50's and would continue to command audiences in films such as A Fistful of Dollars (1964, and feeling as fresh as when it came out), Dirty Harry (1971) and Unforgiven (1992). His constant character trope featured the bad-ass, 'right end of the gun', enforcer. As his career went on and he got older, his approach softened with age. He went on to star in and direct Million Dollar Baby (2004), an underdog film starring a phenomenal new boxer, played by Hilary Swank, as an older boxing gym owner warms up to her potential, far past his retired coaching career. This movie would win Best Picture at the Oscars, and is still considered one of his finest works.
His directing career would only flourish from then on as he took on movies like Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) and Gran Torino in (2008). His latter, Gran Torino, would approach a more racially themed story of Eastwood, playing an older Polish neighbor in a growing community of Hmong residents and a rising gang presence. While it has an interesting approach to the anti-gentrification of a historic neighborhood, with a particularly human approach to racial tensions from an older generation, it stirred up some controversy. In the critical response on Wikipedia:
"David Brauer of MinnPost said that some Hmong liked Gran Torino and that many believed that the film was offensive. Actor Bee Vang said "Hmong around the country were furious about its negative stereotypes and cultural distortions" and that they confronted him when he spoke at events."
From then on out he would continue to approach films with a somewhat political degree, focusing on a post 9/11 and anti-government edge to some "based on true story" films. One of these films, Sully, is a really amazing true story about the pilot Sullenberger who landed a crashing airplane on the Hudson river, saving everyone on board. The movie is a tender approach to the man who is hailed as a hero despite his humble feelings on the matter, and is a well received film due mostly to Tom Hanks' lead performance. However, Eastwood takes an interesting approach here to the response of Sullenberger's landing, in a scene that discusses his meeting with National Transportation Safety Board.
"The film generated controversy for its depiction of the National Transportation Safety Board as antagonistic. In a promotional video preceding the release, Eastwood claimed that the NTSB had "railroaded" Sullenberger by "trying to paint the picture that he had done the wrong thing." After its release, NTSB investigators objected to their portrayal..."
Why did Eastwood choose to portray this board as antagonists? Perhaps he felt the movie didn't have a truly fleshed out villain, or a conflict beyond the original crash. He might have felt like spicing up the narrative by changing the truth somewhat. All that being said he did not shy away from the controversy of that portrayal, and his very clear choice to script that decision.
In perhaps my favorite project of Eastwood's Richard Jewell, he again approaches the idea of the simple hero, not one in the cockpit but a simple security guard with the same name in a historic event. The film is based on the 1996 bombing at the Atlanta Olympics in Centennial Park, a bombing which was mostly thwarted due to the quick reaction and rescue by Mr. Jewell, who was underestimated for the role and not believed initially. He is portrayed throughout the movie as a heavier, somewhat bumbling security guard who has higher goals and aspirations than what his job allows him. Part of the surprise to his heroism on the event, leads to a very embarrassing and thorough investigation of his character and his mother and private life, as nobody believes a man of his stature or character could have thwarted such a crime.
I truly loved this film. But as is the issue with Eastwood's most recent projects is his approach to warping the narrative in controversial ways to address adding some sort of conflict to the story. In this case, it was his decision to paint the lead journalist, Kathy Scruggs, as a character willing to sleep with sources for the right leads and information. The movie came under scrutiny based on the overall sense of sexism in this approach, as the real life Scruggs died in 2001. It seemed as if Eastwood felt comfortable to speak ill will of one who passed while honoring the late Jewell instead.
Clint Eastwood is not one to shy away from politics. He's been on both sides of the political spectrum, which has included supporting ex-presidential candidates from both the Republican and Democratic side. Some say he sided with Barack Obama in his second term over first, some say he was split. He has certainly shed some layers in his approach to Trump which included a judgment of his twitter activity and a later reproach of his in office behavior. This was before 2016 when he had an infamous and somewhat amusing speech where he...
"endorsed Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. He delivered a prime time address at the 2012 Republican National Convention, where he drew attention for a speech he delivered to an empty chair representing President Barack Obama, which he later regretted.."
So with the racial and political ambiguity it's tough to say where Clint Eastwood lies. I write this article shortly after watching his most recent 2019 release The Mule. The film starring Clint in a truly wonderful performance, is critically considered an overall success with some of the same issues that flocked his latest releases, including racial relations in the crime scene. Eastwood is a gullible but sweet old man, which feels like a representation of even him outside of his character. He gets wrapped up into the Mexican cartel, and slips deeper and deeper into the waters as he takes on job after job. It's easy to enjoy this film for its twists and clever writing, but its also hard to ignore some of the stereotypes that are used and the occasional racial joke made either by Eastwood or a parallel character in his film. It almost recalls of Quentin Tarantino and his use of racial slurs by white characters in his films. Is it commentary? Or is it just stream of conscious on behalf of a writer/director who feels like toeing the line? Whatever it is, there's no denying the talent on-screen and behind the scenes of Mr. Eastwood. His reputation exceeds him from the years of work before his current trend of movies, even in their controversy. I will continue to support him, flaws and all, and I won't deny any other viewers to do the same.