Culture

Clint Eastwood and the Recovery of Manliness as a Civic Virtue

Eastwood (at right) with actor Bradley Cooper on the set of American Sniper
In his later movies, he depicts the nobility of America’s warrior classes.

Clint Eastwood has turned 87. He is old Hollywood’s last man standing. After the remarkable success of last year’s Sully, he’s working on a new movie, The 15:17 to Paris, about a couple of young American men on vacation who, risking their lives, stopped a terrorist attack on a train from Belgium to France.

A man who ascended to stardom by playing violent killers with no concern for the lives of others, Eastwood has decided to end his career by portraying American heroes, men who take responsibility for others in times of crisis, whose highest deeds are dedicated to saving as many lives as possible. He seems concerned to rehabilitate manliness and the civic spirit. The two are inextricably connected, or at least were thought to be back when prudence was a serious concern of public discourse.

Educating men for public service of various kinds was a tacit but obvious purpose of what we now call entertainment. The plots of movies were concerned with the consequences of the characters’ actions, and plot resolution depended on an understanding of right and wrong. Actors were supposed to set a good example, to beautify doing the right thing, in order to inspire men to do likewise. Life as seen on screen was a moral-political drama. The greatest moviemakers prided themselves on their prudence, not merely on popularity or prestige. The greatest of them all, John Ford, did the most to portray the specific forms that heroism took in America.

With Eastwood, something of classical Hollywood returns. He wants a legacy, not as an artist or a businessman but as an American. He wants to show what American confidence is about at a remove from political institutions and the upper middle class, whose successes incline it to look to the future with hope.

This attempt to reveal heroism in the lives of Americans, and to portray it as both a source of confidence and a spur to gratitude, was the meaning of his last war movie, American Sniper. It was not the number of confirmed kills or the prowess of the sniper that was paramount but the protagonist’s dedication to the lives of his fellow soldiers. Whether demonstrated on rooftops or in the streets, or in kicking down doors and clearing buildings, the heroism consisted in trying to protect others. The death of Chris Kyle is shown in the same light: Even back home, he dedicated himself to his fellow veterans, knowing full well how difficult adjustment is to a normal life when such heroism, and the love that binds men as brothers in arms, is not available.

Americans responded to this story immediately, spontaneously, and with appropriate humility and gratitude, for the director and for their heroes. In the plethora of movies about the wars fought since 9/11, American Sniper was the only great success. It captures both the sacrifice made by the men of war and the suffering of their families at home: It shows what Americans have in common and that they can act nobly. It is not a pro-war movie, except in the sense that it is about doing one’s duty and being willing to fight for country. But it is certainly not an anti-war movie. Eastwood understood the subjects of his film too well for that.

Americans have forgotten about wars in which only very few of them were involved. The political classes of America have ruined American foreign policy in the Middle East with a kind of electoral sanction. Like it or not, both the current president and his predecessor were elected more or less on the understanding that they would abandon post-9/11 foreign policy. It is hard, therefore, to look back on the years of war without regret for the past and without perplexity about the future, but holding on to the nobility of the warrior classes is the least Americans should do, and that’s what Eastwood intended to offer with American Sniper.

This arguably succeeded much better than his World War II films of 2006. Those, too, were aimed to give Americans the truth about military sacrifice. Eastwood started from the famous six men raising the flag on Iwo Jima — now a monument, not merely a contender for most famous war photo — to tell their story. There was an implicit reproach there: Celebrating the monument more than they celebrate the men, Americans find an unearned relief from recalling the suffering of war and the price that others have paid to fly the American flag. Patriotism should not be so easy and comfortable, he suggested — people will not respect heroes if they’re indistinguishable from celebrities at photo-ops. If we do not know the real story of the men, their units, and their battles, how is watching a movie about it any different from watching any other movie? Reality is easily lost, especially after generations pass.

If we do not know the real story of the men, their units, and their battles, how is watching a movie about it any different from watching any other movie?

For about a dozen years, Eastwood has been trying to retrieve the experience of patriotism but also of other forms of manly service to country. Sully is especially important. It has nothing to do with the military or politics — it’s about an airplane crashing in New York. Note how little American movies have dealt with 9/1. It’s a touchy subject still, but it’s also at risk of being forgotten. Eastwood wanted to depict again the difference between heroism and celebrity but also to demonstrate that a manly assumption of responsibility is a feature of civilian life, too, not just the military.

The high point of this domestic side of Eastwood’s rehabilitation of manliness must be Gran Torino (2008), his last turn as an actor-director. In this case, an old white American man in a decaying Detroit neighborhood takes responsibility for his Hmong neighbors and helps out a family facing a gang. A lot of what’s wrong in America is on display in a heartbreaking way: the mid-century America where men could live decent lives working for the car companies, the collapse of the liberal metropolises that were once safe, the failure to integrate various immigrant populations, the rise of gangs that replace authority in lower-class areas already blighted, and unemployment. So Eastwood created his most persuasive blue-collar hero, Walt Kowalski, with the virtues and vices you’d expect, and with a remarkable moral realism, which is at once American and Biblical. Walt wants to make the American dream true in at least one case, in which he can change things by assuming responsibility.

The late Peter Lawler rightly identified American Sniper as a story about southern Stoicism and insisted on how the South contributes to America’s warrior classes beyond what its numerical representation might suggest. He also mentioned that American Sniper got the highest praise an American movie can get: not applause, no standing ovations in theaters, much less prizes — though it got all of those — but silence at the end of the story. In an age of distractions and novelties, people took it seriously and took it to heart. That’s where we need to begin thinking about these movies.

Of course, not all stories of heroism are set in the South. Neither do all of them feature southerners. They don’t need to, because the southern Stoic is an all-American hero. Atticus Finch, in To Kill a Mockingbird, was Peter Lawler’s favorite example. “Southern” there more or less stands for manly; and “Stoic” means a man who takes his duties to include public service of a dignified kind, without looking for great power or making a career of piling up privileges and entry into the classes of the wealthy and influential. A variety of this kind of dignified American man seems to dominate Eastwood’s concerns in his later years, and it brings together his reflections on both what’s great about America and what’s going wrong.

The Biblical verse in which his later-career movie-making can be cast in the best light is Matthew 5:9: Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God. Eastwood has managed to stay out of partisan conflicts, except when he compared Mr. Obama with an empty chair at the Republican convention in 2012. That was the only public action he ever took that lacked class, but it was rather mild. It also showed that Eastwood’s partisanship is not conservative in an ideological sense.

Instead, he’s all about conserving what’s good about America. He decried the lack of leadership in America. His movies offer Americans worthwhile stories of leadership, and that’s one part of prudence in our times. He wants to give America something that it had when he himself was growng up but that it lost somewhere along the way: popular stories that beautify what’s good about America, in order to inspire, and which include dramatic renderings of what’s gone wrong without inducing despair. He has insisted on true stories for the most part to show that hope is grounded in American realities and that escape into fantasies is not the path to take in a time of troubles.

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Titus Techera is a graduate student in political science and a roving writer on American society at Ricochet.com.

Titus Techera hosts the American Cinema Foundation movie podcast. He is a Claremont Institute Fellow and a contributor to Law & Liberty.

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