Before history gets rewritten by the vicious, some clarity about our confused times might come from the social, political, and humanist idealism in Clint Eastwood’s new film, Cry Macho. Eastwood’s contemporary Western translates the political relations between the U.S. and Mexico into a story about grizzled old white guy Mike Milo (Eastwood), a former rodeo star, who rescues a friend’s young Latino son, Rafa (Eduardo Minett), from below the border. Combining humane and intercontinental concerns, Cry Macho’s folksy metaphor touches on issues of national sovereignty, citizenship, and historical obligation — the confusion that now results from social engineering and calamitous government policies becomes personal.
But Cry Macho is less obviously political than it is mythical. Its appeal lies in Eastwood’s familiar play with masculinity and social responsibility, the main themes of traditional Westerns. After the near-masterpiece The Mule — unfairly neglected by the same leftist critics who resented Eastwood’s powerful Richard Jewell — Eastwood doggedly continues his modern-classicism route.
This is a different kind of Americana, unashamed about the traditional virtues and lessons of history that movies used to depict — and that were missing from Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland, a failed modern Western. Zhao showed what was happening topically, Eastwood shows what’s happening emotionally and spiritually.
Milo’s obligation to his old friend (Dwight Yoakam), an irresponsible patriarch, challenges those specious “humanitarian crisis” claims that some people apply to the current immigrant catastrophe (secretly feigning compassion while manipulating immigration to transform the makeup of the Republic to better fit their ideological agenda). Milo’s intention is to save Rafa from inevitable turpitude — not cornball “toxic masculinity” but the cartel cruelty (inhumanity) found in institutions on both sides of the border.
Cry Macho improves on the too-obvious intergenerational drama of Gran Torino. This title is deeper. There’s desperation behind it, sensing each character’s natural, reflexive cry for help. In the central conflict between old man and young kid, Milo teaches Rafa about life. Hell, let’s call it what it is: chivalry, a rare virtue.
Eastwood’s gnarly cool differs from Robert Mitchum’s anxiety in The Lusty Men or Robert Preston’s whiskered rogue in Junior Bonner, but interacting with the baby-faced Minett creates a dynamic between old ways and new expediencies. Rafa’s cockfighting pastime (his rooster is named “Macho”) simplifies both men’s human/animal conflict. The point here is their search for conscience — the sense of independence that lockdown culture deadens. Milo’s “We all make choices in life; you have to make yours” is the kind of axiom that authoritarian politicians and media figures no longer defend. Milo and Rafa’s journey home would be praised in a Pixar cartoon, but this film’s real-life quality will probably unsettle anyone who is complacent about today’s crises and their ramifications.
For movie-watchers who want to see Eastwood as a conservative icon, compare 91-year-old Clint Eastwood with 78-year-old Joe Biden, then spot the difference between trustworthy self-assurance and teleprompter-reading puppetry. But the Hollywood veteran is too wily to allow himself to be used politically; his public statements duck and dodge expectations. (What movies could be more disgustingly liberal in attitude than the atrocious Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River?) Yet Cry Macho, though minor, confronts the craven politics that pervert parenthood and international responsibility — whether volatile, unresolved concerns at the U.S.—Mexico border or the hasty, humiliating Afghanistan evacuation.
When history’s vicious victors prevaricate about how the West was lost, maybe movies such as Cry Macho, Richard Jewell, The Mule, and The 15:17 to Paris will survive to tell a different, more complicated and compassionate story. Cry Macho’s immigrant tale is old-fashioned but surprisingly timely, and its clean, spare style feels classical because it’s fluent and clear-minded. Eastwood seems to be one of the few remaining filmmakers committed to conscientious storytelling.