Bill Maher recently took aim at Clint Eastwood’s American Sniper(2015) referring to it as two-dimensional hero-worshiping of a psychopath. True to form, Maher immediately drew the indignation of monosyllabic patriots like Sarah “let’s kill wolves from a copter, ‘cause it’s fun” Palin.
The National Glorification of Snipers Association was equally up in arms, proving Maher wrong with their “This film has made 200 gazillion dollars. The people have spoken!” [insert gavel sound] Of course, we may look at this as another illustration of Maher’s ongoing insistence that, by and large, Americans really are a stupid lot. After all, we love to throw our dyed green paper at anything that is merchandised to us, without scrutiny. We transformed the Scooby Doo Movie (2002) and Mel’s homophobe capitalist Messiah Passion Of The Christ into sacred, dumbed-down box office gold.
Perhaps the most nauseating example of a perpetually bored, illiterate American audience is its ongoing love affair with Clint Eastwood. It is tempting to write that I have lived long enough to see the actor turn into a 200-year-old blithering idiot. However, the fallacy in such a statement is that Eastwood has always been a blithering idiot who preaches to his choir of extremist right-wing Neanderthals and empty chairs (which are actually one and the same).
Criticizing such a fossilized institution as good old boy Clint might be paramount to questioning the Old Pie in the Sky himself, or Dale “he died for our Budweiser sins” Earnhardt. Take your pick.
However, Clint and his generation of camouflaged hayseed worshipers should receive credit where credit is due, and one of those initial credits came from The Duke himself.John Wayne, of all people, once criticized Eastwood’s brand of hyper-realistic violence. Wayne argued that while the Westerns he had made with John Ford were violent, they used stylized violence. Wayne clearly found Eastwood’s variety of fetishistic fascism to be a disturbing glorification of carnage. That is, until Wayne (or his agent) noticed all the ticket-booth silver being dolled out by the yokels to see their stoic, cinematic sociopath in action. Wayne, hypocrite that he was, then spent the rest of what little career remained appearing in pale Eastwood imitations, such as The Cowboys (1972) and McQ (1974).
Eastwood can and should also be give credit for having sucked all the mythological poetry out of the western; a poetry so carefully nurtured as “the Great American Art Form” by the likes of John Ford, Howard Hawks,Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, and, above all—Aaron Copland.
In place of a sweeping, stirring, panoramic landscape, Eastwood and company gave us nihilistic sadism served up in a red, white, and blue pastiche. While the westerns with Sergio Leone had a sense of style, once Eastwood divorced from his mentor he soon fell into a pit of caricature.
A shockingly banal resume followed: woefully predictable pulp tripe (1973’s High Plains Drifter), unintentional comedy with staggeringly risible dialogue (1976’s Outlaw Josey Wales) or Eastwood walking corpse-like through a sophomoric rip-off (1985’s Pale Rider) of a pedestrian mythology that wasn’t good to begin with (1965’s Shane).
Far worse were the non-westerns that began, like the Leone films, with a director of some competence. Don Siegel helmed Dirty Harry(1971) and his sense of direction is the only thing tolerable in this tyrannical, blood-soaked bourgeoisie arena. For his part Eastwood proved his facial muscles were just as immobile in contemporary garb.
The “Dirty Harry” Callahan sequels were even more shockingly hackneyed, with anonymous direction wallowing through a charnel house-like bijou. Eastwood himself directed one of them like a misogynistic cartoon (1983’s Sudden Impact), which paved the way for exploitative pornography (1984’s Tightrope) and homophobic grunts representing our armed forces (1986’s Heartbreak Ridge).
Occasionally, Eastwood tried something different, often falling flat with lamebrain comedic efforts to appease his target audience (Every Which Way But Loose, Any Which Way you Can, and Pink Cadillac). He fared better turning himself over to Siegel’s dramatic direction (1979’s Escape From Alcatraz), but was howlingly inept as the center of an Atari game (1982’s Firefox) and emulating really old geezers embarking on a star trek (2000’s Space Cowboys).
He was more successful (although never entirely) with smaller efforts: in front of and behind the camera in the surprising Play Misty For Me, waxing nostalgic in Bronco Billy, indulging his passion for jazz in Bird, playing John Houston in one of his better films White Hunter, Black Heart, managing schmaltz in Bridges of Madison County, and letting others take center stage in A Perfect World, Mystic River, Flags Of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima, Changeling, Invictus, and J. Edgar.
The Academy Awards congratulated itself by giving the archaic fixture an award for Unforgiven (1992), although its pseudo-reflectiveness amounted to a washed-up drunk who only paradoxically came to life pulling a trigger. His Gran Torino (2008) attempted a different solution in making a martyr of a bigot with violent humor. It might have served as a coda.
Late in his career, Eastwood has often been compared to the likes of John Ford. While Ford himself was a wildly uneven director, he could produce something approaching poetry. Eastwood simply does not have it in him. He can and occasionally does reveal more depth of craftsmanship behind the camera than he ever has in front of it, but being more like John Huston than he probably imagines, Eastwood is also given to equal parts sloppiness. Cue his 21st century realistic western, American Sniper, which is based on Chris Kyle’s bestselling autobiography.
It could easily have been titled “Passion of W’s Homeboy.” Eastwood and his team of superior craftsmen (writer Jason Hall, cinematographer Tom Stern, editors Joel Cox & Gary Roach, art directors Harry Otto & Dean Wolcott, and composers Joseph Debeasi & Clint Eastwood) have pulled out their star-spangled bullhorn to sell us the ideology of 9/11 wedded to the Iraq War.
Predictably, the rustic trailer park boys, who probably do not get out often to visit the silver screen, have responded in droves, arriving in the same dusty buses they took to see Mel’s two-fisted desert deity. Eastwood’s locals desperately need an assuring savior to confirm the sanctity of their double-wide creed. Like most fundamentalists, they are not apt to actually access the sacred scrolls. That would be too much effort, because St. W himself denied the marriage of Saddam and Osama on more than one occasion. Rather, it is simpler to adorn oneself in fatigues and genuflect at the concession stand.
Eastwood delivers a shrewdly manipulative, polished gospel, shorn of messier matter. Never mind that it is the cinematic equivalent of the Boss’ “Born in the USA,” containing some anti-war sentiments in a pro-military ribbon. Like ol’ Methuselah himself (Ronnie Reagan), Clint’s congregants are not likely to process the lyrics.
A beefed up Bradley Cooper, taking the route of a Brandoesque jingoist, and barmaid Sierra Miller serve as icons. Indeed, a sliver of good work can be found in the acting here, amidst the rural angst.
The son of a pious WASP, Kyle is indoctrinated. His bullseye is a portrait of unadulterated, black and white evil. Political nuances are skimmed over, which conveniently renders Eastwood’s opus apathetic enough to be box office gold.
Maher’s assessment was spot-on: Kathryn Bigelow’s Hurt Locker(2008) already covered this terrain with considerably more substance, but Kyle’s indoctrinated disciples do not desire a concept. Rather, they merely crave a compilation. That goes down easier with popcorn.
*this article originally appeared at 366 weird movies (link below) and, with it,reader feedback.