Clint Eastwood, Political Wanderer

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Whatever the 82-year-old star has to say at the RNC tonight, it would be wise not to take it too seriously.

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With the revelation that the "surprise" speaker at the Republican National Convention tonight will be Clint Eastwood, expect a lot of conservative hagiography of the 82-year-old star as an ageless representative of all-American values such as justice and self-reliance.

How things change. Or perhaps more accurately: How things change and then change back again.

Few figures in American popular culture have cast a longer political shadow than Eastwood—and I know of none for whom that shadow has fallen so crookedly. Early in his career, Eastwood was a hero of the right and reviled by many on the left. In 1971, the New Yorker's Pauline Kael described his seminal film, Dirty Harry, as "fascist medievalism." But that sentiment reversed itself almost entirely in the '90s and 2000s, with Eastwood's emergence as the award-winning director of films such as Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby. By 2005, it was Ted Baehr, head of the Christian Film and Television Commission, who was accusing Clint of fascist tendencies, decrying Million Dollar Baby as a "neo-Nazi movie."

Around that time, I took note of this radical evolution in an essay in Salon:

Perhaps the clearest summary of Eastwood's shifting political appeal can be found in two essays by conservative film critic Richard Grenier in the magazine Commentary. The first, published in 1984 and titled "The World's Favorite Movie Star," praised Eastwood lavishly for lacking "the slightest doubt as to the legitimacy of the use of force in the service of justice, even rudimentary justice. This attitude has earned him, among some movie reviewers, a reaction I think it is only fair to call hatred."

But a decade later the tables had turned, leading Grenier to rebuke the star in a second essay, titled "Clint Eastwood Goes PC." In it, he noted his former praise for Eastwood and for "the role he [had] played throughout his career: the enforcer of law and justice," before continuing, "But now all has changed. Today Eastwood is the darling of the critics. [He] has been on a spiritual voyage and is now reaping the rewards." This analysis was based largely on Unforgiven, which Grenier described as "a full-scale, systematic act of contrition, a repudiation and dismantling of the whole legendary, masculine character type of which, for this generation, Eastwood himself had become the leading icon." Though Grenier's analysis may be more explicitly political than that of most other critics, his view that Eastwood's latter films have been an apology for his earlier ones has become a common one, particularly in the wake of Eastwood's last two films, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby.

Eastwood's early view of Obama emphasized the superficial. "I loved the fact that Obama is multi-racial. I thought that was terrific, as my wife is the same racial make-up."

As I went on to note in the essay, I think this analysis—on the part of both left and right—was largely nonsense, or at least vastly overstated. Eastwood's second Dirty Harry film, Magnum Force, was a much more explicit rebuttal of the vigilante enthusiasms of its predecessor than Unforgiven. And, given the powerful structural similarities between Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby—and, in particular, the fates of their haunted protagonists, both played by Eastwood—it is peculiar to declare (as most did) that the former was anti-vigilantism and the latter pro-euthanasia. In short, the political undercurrents of Eastwood's cinematic oeuvre have always been more idiosyncratic than they've been given credit for, and certainly never followed an orderly right-left progression. (To wit: the complex—or, alternatively, just confused—politics of J. Edgar.)

As for Eastwood's real-world politics, I claim no particular expertise. But I think it's safe here, too, to say his enthusiasms have been eclectic. He's said that he's never voted for a Democrat for president, but also that "I don't consider myself a conservative." He's described himself as "moderate," "a political nothing," "a libertarian," and "too individualistic to be either right-wing or left-wing." He was a strong supporter both of California Governor Gray Davis and of his successor—Davis's, not Eastwood's, though I suppose you could make the case either way—Arnold Schwarzenegger.

On the issues, Eastwood has, at least publicly, tilted more left than right: though he's occasionally described himself as fiscally conservative, he's staunchly pro-choice, pro-gay-marriage, and (especially) pro-environment. Indeed, if anything, his political ambivalence seems—and this will come as no surprise to anyone who's ever seen a Clint Eastwood movie—more attitudinal than policy-oriented.

Take his support of John McCain in 2008. Eastwood is an avowed anti-interventionist, having opposed the wars in Korea, Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq. So how is it that he came to back uber-hawk McCain? As he explained in an interview with the Huffington Post: "I met him years ago when he first came back from Vietnam.... I thought he was a terrific guy, a real American hero." He was still more explicit with the Daily Mail: "I voted for McCain, not because he was a Republican, but because he had been through war and I thought he might understand the war in Iraq better than somebody who hadn't. I didn't agree with him on a lot of stuff."

Eastwood's early view of Barack Obama also emphasized the superficial. "I loved the fact that Obama is multi-racial," he told the Daily Mail. "I thought that was terrific, as my wife is the same racial make-up." As recently as February, the "Halftime in America" Super Bowl ad he voiced for Chrysler was slammed by conservatives as a veiled pitch for Obama. (Karl Rove implicitly called Eastwood a "political minion" of the president.) Eastwood responded that he was not supporting any presidential candidate, though he added that "If Obama or any other politician wants to run with the spirit of that ad, go for it."

It was only at a Sun Valley fundraiser earlier this month that Eastwood declared his support for Romney, explaining "the country needs a boost somewhere." Tonight he will no doubt add some detail to this latest stage in his cultural evolution. Political minion yesterday, conservative icon tonight—who knows what tomorrow may bring?

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Christopher Orr is a senior editor and the principal film critic at The Atlantic. He has written on movies for The New Republic, LA Weekly, Salon, and The New York Sun, and has worked as an editor for numerous publications.

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