Clint Eastwood, Political Wanderer

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.)

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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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