The RNC and the Post-Space-Age Clint Eastwood

by micahbloomberg

The most damning criticism of Clint Eastwood’s speech at the RNC has focused on how it was a strategic mistake. It’s true that the tightly structured, ritualized environment of the conference made Eastwood’s casual, vulgar speech seem strange. Worse though, according to the strategy argument, was that it bumped a biographical video on Romney to an earlier time, outside the one hour of allotted network coverage. If, as the Romney campaign said again and again, the RNC’s goal was to introduce their candidate to an American audience that, statistically, does not like him, then Eastwood’s introduction was off-topic and off-brand. But it’s hard to imagine how any speaker, no matter how successful, could have been more effective than the biographical video they bumped. By opting for the personal endorsement of a film icon, the RNC turned its back on the efficacy of film itself and betrayed a misunderstanding of how politicians communicate with viewers right now. But worst of all was the error in thinking that Eastwood’s goals were the same as the RNC’s.

A week later at the DNC, Davis Guggenheim’s video intro to Obama’s speech proved the film-efficacy point clearly. Employing the time-lapse cityscapes, sunrise B-roll and moody piano of new-wave American pop-docs, the video satisfied all the requirements of its genre and, in a more effective use of star power, was narrated by George Clooney. In a commercial, it can be more pleasing to hear a beloved star’s detached voice rather than receive his or her endorsement directly. We trust what’s being said without exactly knowing why; just ask Lowe’s, Hyundai, Home Depot and E-Surance which respectively employ the detached voices of Ed Harris, Jeff Bridges, Gene Hackman and John Krasinski for just this reason.

The video’s smooth surface helped conceal an unusual editing choice. While Joe Biden, Bill Clinton and Michelle Obama all appear in traditional talking-heads, Obama is heard only in voice over and seen only in candid photos and video, or in grand-scale news footage. In the grammar of a political video, a talking-head is the equivalent of eye-contact with the viewer. The fact that Obama’s absence, in this sense, isn’t conspicuous is a credit to the movie. Choosing advocates (all of whom are statistically more well-liked than Obama) avoids the dissonance that seeing Obama speak provokes. The luke-warm response to Obama’s convention speech bears this tension out. While many of us like and admire Obama, the direct contact of a talking-head naturally reminds us of the difficulties we’ve faced during his presidency. And this tension gets heightened because Obama’s Republican adversaries have successfully used his gifts as a speaker against him by saying that, while what he says may sound pretty, the words themselves are lies, that he’s using them to hide secret intentions, that the flash of his persona is a mask for incompetence.

The DNC video counters this by taking that moment of contact out of play, choosing instead candid moments of Obama working, solemnly reading the letters of hard-luck citizens, gazing red-eyed but steady as dire news is reported, always unaware of a camera. The movie turns this absence into a strength, using it to convey Obama’s modesty, humility, resolve. Footage of Obama announcing the death of Bin Laden cuts before he says the key words, leaving the crowd-pleasing accomplishment modestly unspoken.

Michelle Obama describes dinner-table conversations where Obama is “an afterthought” the last to be asked about his day. And isn’t that just what it’s like to be a father? the movie asks. You work hard, you come home, and your family is too involved in their own struggles to realize what great challenges you face. It’s good copy for “humanizing” Obama but it’s also a strong metaphor for our relationship with him as a president. The video is like our mother coming up to our room after we’ve had a fight with our dad and explaining how tough things are for him, how he loves us but it’s hard for him to say it, that there’s great strength in the way he goes to work every day to support us, never asking for anything in return.

Elevating Obama over the rest of the cast was a gamble, but it was smart because, statistically, despite our disappointment and worry we care about him, feel connected to him. The movie turns our hesitation on its head so that it starts to feel less like we don’t want to see him talk because we’re mad and more like he’s not talking to us because he’s so busy working. That if we’re angry and frustrated, we should imagine how he feels. And do we hear him complaining? Guggenheim quietly shames us for not appreciating Obama more to begin with, for being so tied up in our own problems we forget what he has been through.

For me, Eastwood’s raunchy comedy routine was entertaining and I thought his line at the end, “if someone’s not doing the job, you’ve gotta let them go,” delivered with all the gritty wisdom you could ask for, was succinct and effective. But the broad response was negative and, even if the speech hadn’t been ridiculed the way it was, the RNC’s belief that a speaker can do what a well-made biographical video can (and the Romney doc is very well-made) means they’re playing small-ball and don’t realize it. Obama’s campaign has pointed to recent legal changes that have unleashed a torrent of new money for both parties (much more for Republicans right now) as a cause for alarm. But, given that the bulk of that money is used on political ads, and observing Romney’s stubbornly low and flat poll numbers, the question might not be how many commercials you can buy but whether or not they’re any good.

After the trauma of the 2004 election, I became fearfully convinced that Republicans are just better at ads, better at media, than Democrats are. But what’s strangest to consider, as far as Eastwood’s speech, is the distance between what the RNC thought they were getting, as far as a celebrity endorsement, and the filmmaker/actor they actually hired. Eastwood’s backdrop, an orange-tinted, Leone-era image, reminiscent of VHS sleeve art, made me wonder if anyone at the RNC, or the Romney campaign, has seen an Eastwood movie since the turn of the century. The truth is that there’s a lot for a conservative not to like.

Throughout his career, but more pointedly since 2003’s Mystic River, Eastwood has chosen scripts that are curious about the world beyond American borders, seek to include characters whose stories are traditionally marginalized and condemn and ridicule violence (which is not to say that the RNC supports violence, just that, I think it’s safe to say, there was a strong expectation in Tampa that Dirty Harry, a character defined by violence, would be appearing).

Eastwood’s most recent film, the biography J. Edgar, describes a narcissistic, manipulative government lackey bent on ruling a nation by controlling the flow and storage of information (for libertarian Eastwood, probably a satisfying target) but, more centrally, it’s a sympathetic portrait of a closeted gay couple in their dying years. Released at the same time the legal debate around gay marriage tipped heavily toward inclusion, Eastwood’s film followed right in progressive step. For the movie, J. Edgar’s problem isn’t that he’s in love with Mitchell, his long-time assistant, it’s that he lives in a time and place where their love is unacceptable, that it’s something J. Edgar is ashamed of. A scene near the end where J. Edgar kisses his now-senile, life-long lover on the forehead was nearly unprecedented in an American movie theater. How would it have been received on-screen at the RNC.*

Similarly out of step is the curiosity Eastwood’s spiritual drama, Hereafter, has about French history and current media. In that film, he lets long discussions about former French President Francois Mitterand run their glamourless course. Eastwood is known for only minimally changing the scripts he directs and it shows here because, in the austere economics of American screenwriting, such a digression is inappropriate; most directors and producers would have cut it. But if the scene feels odd in a Hollywood movie, it seems just as dissonant with the ethos of the RNC and its hectoring focus on American exceptionalism. Nor would the social workers, who diligently and effectively work to rehabilitate the drug-addicted mother of another character in socialist England, be warmly welcomed had they accompanied Eastwood on stage in Tampa.

2008’s Gran Torino promises some good red meat, pitting Clint Eastwood (playing Walt Kowalski) against teenage gangs in run-down Detroit, but ends up more interested in the culture of the Hmung people than spaghetti-western vengeance. A great, funny scene in a barber shop has Walt and Martin (John Carroll Lynch) articulating their greatest-generation views on how men should act for the benefit of Thao (Bee Vang), Walt’s teenage, Hmung neighbor.  In one sense this is a conservative fantasy: if immigrants would learn to act a little more American we’d all get along better. But it becomes clear that Gran Torino has more on it’s mind than congratulating fed-up white people (a task the vapid The Blind Side took on with gusto in 2009)A narrow-minded, bitter shut-in, Walt is redeemed not by closer ties to his family (his wealthy suburban son is his greatest irritation) or his church (he repeatedly insults his young priest) but by broadening his world-view, learning about his Hmung neighbors. The audience learns also, by means of long, explanatory speeches on Hmung history dutifully kept in the script by Eastwood and delivered by young, unknown, actors. At the end, Walt sacrifices his life for Thao and his family in a Christ-like act that’s miles distant, philosophically, from Mike Huckabee’s Elijah on Mount Carmel holy-warrism. The fact that Gran Torino thinks a character like Walt needs to be redeemed at all starts a discussion some on the right would prefer not to have and shows how different the movie is from The Blind Side, where what’s wrong are the lives, habits and values of poor minorities and the solution is white straight-talk. The film’s inclusive spirit seems pie-eyed-liberal next to the vote-grabbing condescension of this year’s RNC Latino outreach (my opinion, I suppose, but it would be hard to argue that current Republican policy on immigration has an inclusive spirit).

Mystic River presents as a sentimental crime-drama lamenting the tragedy of child molestation (a topic that focuses social-conservative ire as effectively as abortion). But the greatest sin in Mystic River isn’t that abuse, it’s weakness. Like Eastwood’s more-praised Unforgiven, the film uses genre methods to reveal ugly truths usually unwelcome in a multiplex. When Jimmy’s (Sean Penn) daughter is murdered in the opening, he appears to be an anguished, brave victim of senseless violence, bent on revenge (a Dirty Harry in waiting). But it’s revealed, by means of an unfashionably dense script that Eastwood shoots with dogged patience, that Jimmy himself is a murderer and that, in the byzantine morality of the film’s Boston neighborhood, his daughter’s killing may have been a form of justice. In the end, Jimmy murders his life-long friend, Dave (Tim Robbins), whose childhood was derailed when a Priest molested him, thinking that he (Dave) murdered his daughter. Jimmy is wrong (his daughter’s death is his own fault, in a way) but he ends the film as a hero (his wife, Annabeth (Laura Linney), calls him a king). In the last scene, Jimmy and his family, bathed in sunlight, watch a parade pass their house. On the other side of the street, abandoned in the shadows, Dave’s wife, Celeste (Marcia Gay Harden), cowers. Her mistake marrying a weakling who couldn’t protect her.**

To claim that morality is irrelevant in the face of strength is an uncommonly dark thing to do in a Hollywood movie, which makes Mystic River special. But it’s hard to call the theme either liberal or conservative. I’d argue, however, that the film is examining some core social principles conservatism by treating Dave’s abuse not as the story’s central evil, and by asking instead whether there is any force protecting us at all, or if we’re left alone in brutal chaos to fend for ourselves. God is of no help in Mystic River and corruption in the Church isn’t an outrage, it’s part of the neighborhood’s landscape, an obstacle the weak may stumble over. When Jimmy tells Annabeth what he’s done, she comforts him and says she’s told their children about Jimmy’s four hearts, one for each of them, and that “they were filled up with love that meant, you would never have to worry, and that their Daddy would do whatever he had to do for those he loved. That is never wrong. That can never be wrong.” Jimmy doesn’t seem convinced though, and neither is the viewer.

The nuclear family, its intrinsic cultural value, is the center of American social-conservative philosophy. But Mystic River finds the limit of what love for your family can justify. Dave isn’t as strong as Jimmy but, as Jimmy himself admits early in the film, Dave’s life has been harder. If Jimmy had suffered like Dave, things may have turned out differently. If Jimmy is the King of Mystic River, as Annabeth says, is he not bound to protect Dave, whose weakness is not his fault, but the result of his upbringing? Jimmy’s tortured expression while Annabeth speaks and the figure of Celeste, forgotten in the shadows, are hints that the film might think so. It’s possible that Eastwood is presenting a world where defending your family can never be wrong, where a corrupt Church isn’t just tolerated but taken for granted, where the suffering of the weak is a necessary evil, without meaning to criticize it. But I think it’s unlikely.

What’s most conservative about Eastwood’s films, it turns out, is how he makes them. He’s known for rarely shooting more than two or three takes, which saves time and film. He plays scenes out in long master shots, only cutting to close-ups when it’s necessary, which means less time shooting and (I’d imagine) no need for a second or third camera. He uses the same methods regardless of the movie (he’s been criticized for never varying his lighting style and it’s true: Bridges of Madison County looks a lot like Gran Torino though one of them is a romance and the other is an action movie) which means his process and crew have been routinized, which, if it hinders style, certainly prioritizes efficiency. Shooting the script as he found it prevents schedule changes and reshooting due to revisions. His films are known to come in under budget. There’s a truly conservative spirit in Eastwood’s shop-worn methods, they’ve been in use for more than a hundred years. According to this older philosophy, any “artistry” has to result from the reliable delivery of a valuable, interesting story, on or below budget.

I imagine that if you asked Eastwood about his work he wouldn’t describe it as an extended liberal manifesto. His movies are intended to make money and entertain and it’s easy to see political meaning where there is none. You could easily argue that Eastwood never intended to have his films read the way I’m doing here. But you cannot argue that his films are simple. His way of shooting them may be straightforward, but they demand adult, broad-minded viewing, something the Romney campaign either didn’t do or isn’t capable of, which is why they were caught flat-footed in Tampa.

In interviews, Eastwood has said that he didn’t allow the RNC or the Romney campaign to vet his speech and that he came up with the “empty chair” routine right before he went on stage, which I think is revealing. To me, Eastwood’s lack of preparation, his irreverent attitude on stage, his indifference to the negative response that followed, don’t seem “bizarre” or show “confusion.” They show disrespect for Romney and the RNC. If Eastwood is like many libertarians, he may feel a great deal of anger over the profligate government spending of the Bush years, the entropy of Republican intellectual culture, the dogmatic social issues that have been prioritized over personal liberty. It’s clear that he does not want Barrack Obama to be president anymore and considered it worth his time to, in his mind, lower himself to speaking on behalf of an institution he finds distasteful; his greater goal being access to a huge audience of viewers who, he correctly worried, are feeling reluctant to give up on Obama. Hence the only sincere and most effective part of his speech, the line reassuring us that it was Ok to let Obama go.

His reaction to the delegate who screamed “GO AHEAD MAKE MY DAY!” was telling. He smiled at what must have been the ten-thousandth request for him to deliver a decades-old catch phrase that’s completely unconnected to the dozens of movies he’s made since. He began the line and then threw it to the audience for them to finish. I’m only one viewer but, to me, this had the quality of chatting with your drug dealer to make him or her feel like you’re friends: an irritating nicety, a means to an end.


* Not to pile on, but this was a convention where delegates threw peanuts at an African-American camerawoman and called her an animal before they were removed by what must have been some very, very disappointed campaign officials.

**There’s more to it than that, even, in case you haven’t seen it and don’t mind having everything spoiled. It’s because of Celeste that Jimmy thinks Dave killed his daughter (she may be in love with Jimmy), meaning that Celeste sinned by marrying a weakling then makes it even worse by betraying him. So at the end, in the moral world of the movie, she’s totally screwed.