What you lookin’ at old man?
A movie about America: “I heard there was trouble in the neighborhood.”
Eastwood’s Gran Torino: why character matters
By Allan Erickson
Hollywood can’t decide if it loves or hates Clint Eastwood. In the early days, his hardcore approach to crime ala Dirty Harry drove the beautiful people like film critic Pauline Kael up the wall. Later efforts won accolades, most notably, best picture, best actor, best director for Unforgiven. No doubt, given this year’s Oscar snub of Gran Torino, another anti-thug, no non-sense thriller, the once loved and celebrated Eastwood has new enemies among the beautiful people, and he could care less.
For Eastwood, it is more important to tell a great story about a sacred warrior despite the PC thought police and the art thugs among us. It appears audiences agree. Despite Hollywood’s disapproval, this film is setting box office records.
Few of us ever experience the horrors of war. Fewer still grasp the deep sadness older vets feel these days watching the country they fought for unravel before their eyes. Gran Torino helps us experience and grasp, but it does more: it helps us remember some of the things that made America great in the first place, and apparently, Hollywood is too busy promoting the under belly of human existence to be bothered by greatness remembered.
Eastwood stars as Walt Kowalski, Korean War vet and widower. Kowalski, a tough, difficult man, tells Father Janovich, “The thing that haunts a guy is the stuff he wasn’t ordered to do,” remembering the nightmare of war.
Eastwood is at the top of his game as an actor, director and producer. It is great to see a cinematic giant work his art regardless of what anyone may say or think. Eastwood obviously has no patience for the PC crowd. Hollywood won’t likely embrace this film. Their loss. After all, Gran Torino is the antithesis of all things multicultural and politically correct. It is filled with racial epithets. PC princes will be horrified by Kowalski’s relentless slurs. What the PC crowd misses however is Kowalski is no racist. In fact, by letting his biases show, by showing a willingness to be inclusive, and by focusing on essential moral values, Kowalski shows the way toward deep and meaningful racial reconciliation. People who can’t get past the slurs never discover the value of the rock tumbler.
Kowalski demonstrates the essential character of the American soldier: a servant not a butcher, a hero denying his heroism, a good man who hates war but fights for what is right and good all the while rejecting the idea he is good in and of himself. Living next door to Kowalski is a Hmong family from Southeast Asia. The daughter and son befriend Kowalski through conflict and friction, eventually leading the girl to tell Kowalski he is “a good man.” He denies it. She shares how she wishes her father was like him, but “he was old school.”
“I’m old school,” Kowalski says.
“Yes, but you’re an American,” she replies, reminiscent of Alexis de Tocqueville: “America is great because she is good. If America ceases to be good, America will cease to be great.”
The great melting pot was great for the goodness of our ideals, ideals we worked toward, together: character, courage, freedom, respect, thrift, faith, mutual regard, dignity, love of country, self-sacrifice, self-reliance, pride in ownership, (paint your house, mow your lawn.) Wave after wave of immigration created a pattern of clash, then assimilation. It could hardly be otherwise, but through it all, through the fire and the clash, we forged a new nation, “conceived in liberty.”
Our greatest writer made the point best: “California Chinese, Boston Irish, Wisconsin Germans, yes, and Alabama Negroes, have more in common than they have apart….It is a fact that Americans from all sections and of all racial extractions are more alike than the Welsh are like the English, the Lancashireman like the Cockney, or for that matter the Lowland Scot like the Highlander.”
John Steinbeck, 1962
Shared ideals providing great goodness transcend race and color and culture and origin, and the more we joke and laugh about our differences, the better.
And so the Pollock Kowalski trades racial jabs with his Wop barber as he mentors the Hmong boy from Laos to become American, helping him get a construction job with a Mick contractor, lending him all kinds of tools to make the grade, and the transition. It’s an act of love, and a bare-knuckled school in the fire and clash of assimilation, repudiating the soft and worthless ways recommended by those who would keep us at odds, fighting camp against camp, chasing Rainbows rather than building a Republic.
The angry old white guy is redeemed, and becomes the redeemer, going to war to give others peace, in the end, a picture of Father Janovich’s first love.
Interestingly, Gran Torino doesn’t suggest people forget their heritage, or bow to grand homogenization. Rather, it points to a revitalized future drawing from a proven past, that America can be great once again, if average people take a courageous and principled stand against thugs and crime and dishonesty and sloth.
You won’t find a more inspiring picture this year that so masterfully examines the questions posed by any Great Conversation: what is it all about, why am I here, what am I supposed to do? Gran Torino inspires, challenges, provokes, confronts and stuns you.
Preparing himself Kowalski visits his barber and a tailor: “I’ve never had a fitted suit before,” — once again giving his life for his country as naturally as giving away his cherished automobile to a young boy from across the Pacific.
Altogether American. Altogether good. Altogether great.