The Twilight of Clint Eastwood

During the post-Vatican II push for more “relevant” religion classes, students in my high school “Theology of the Film” course trooped off to see Dirty Harry — the 1971 drama starring Clint Eastwood as the police lieutenant who violates the law, including the torture of suspects, to protect San Franciscans from a wily serial killer.

Afterward, we held the requisite classroom debate on whether Harry was justified in taking the law into his own hands. Most of us teenagers didn’t quite understand the point of the discussion — Harry did what he had to do, right? But our teacher, a Dominican nun, appeared to be quite torn up.

The memory of that futile classroom exercise surfaced again while I watched Gran Torino, the compelling new film that showcases Eastwood’s unique gifts as an actor and director.

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Eastwood has vowed that his staring role in Gran Torino will be his final onscreen performance. Thus, filmgoers who savor his austere vision of the autonomous individual establishing his own code of morality may find themselves approaching Dirty Harry and Gran Torino as ideal bookends for his cinematic career. Indeed, as Eastwood surely intended, Dirty Harry’s moral dilemma is unexpectedly and memorably resolved in Gran Torino, the tale of Walt Kowalski, a retired autoworker confronting a violent gang and his own morality.

Taken together, the two films provide a compelling exploration of the impact of time and experience on moral action, both individually and collectively.

This is a subject that deeply interests Catholics. Revelation provides us with the essential truths we need to properly navigate the world. Yet our interpretation of these truths is not fixed. The pilgrimage progresses and awareness deepens, opening up new vistas and opportunities for transcendence.

In Dirty Harry, the cocky police lieutenant charts his own course, disdaining a compromised judicial system tied up in knots over the civil rights of criminals. In Gran Torino, a grizzled misanthrope is seduced into a friendship with a Hmong immigrant family and haltingly pursues a dialogue with the Almighty.

The first film takes place in San Francisco, the Golden Gate destination for an exuberant counterculture, cushioned by the nation’s unrivaled prosperity. The second unfolds decades later in a tattered neighborhood in Detroit, the toppled icon of America’s industrial preeminence. Dirty Harry is a flashy, American cop movie; Gran Torino is a small-scale film that provides an intimate vision of deeply important matters.

Like many of Eastwood’s films, Gran Torino documents the painful moral lessons meted out when ordinary, well-intentioned people are forced to deal with uncompromising evil. What do you do? And, after you make your choice, can you still live with yourself?

Directed by Eastwood and written by Nick Schenk, Gran Torino opens with a funeral that marks the end of an era. Walt’s wife has died, and he quickly loses all interest in the world. His wife’s absence underscores his failure as a father: His two sons rarely visit — duty alone brings them to his home for brief, angry exchanges. And Walt’s neighborhood is going downhill, too: Immigrant households encircle his home, stirring his deeply racist sensibility to new depths of fury.

Things get worse when he catches Thao (Bee Vang), his young Hmong neighbor, stealing his vintage Gran Torino, just about the only surviving object of Walt’s affections. The teenager, under pressure from bad elements in the neighborhood, was performing a gang initiation rite.

From his front porch seat, Walt begins to notice the comings and goings of his Hmong neighbors. Eastwood’s brilliant characterization of this stiff-necked bigot is deeply enjoyable and often riotously funny. Walt takes note of the Hmong family matriarch and spits over the porch railing; Grandma spits right back. But he’s a sharp-eyed defender of his turf, and his protective instincts are engaged when gang members return to grab Thao, and a struggle ensues. Walt pulls out the M-1 rifle he used during the Korean War and forces the gang members to retreat.

Grateful for his assistance, the Hmong community showers Walt with gifts. Then the family presses Thao to make restitution for the attempted robbery by working without pay for Walt.

Fatherless, and a bit of a wimp, Thao keeps Walt at arm’s length. But the teenager opens up as the older man shares his knowledge of household repairs and the expert use of tools. Before long, Walt is instructing Thao on the proper etiquette for American males, and then helps him land a girlfriend and a construction job.

Walt’s friendship with Thao and his cheeky sister, Sue (Ahney Her), draws him further into the family’s increasingly violent struggle with the gang. Walt defends the family with ferocious energy, implicitly underscoring the ineffectual role of the local police. But Walt’s vigilante justice also stirs up old memories of the Korean War, when he transgressed the moral law in the defense of a just cause. Half a century later, he neither regrets his wartime actions, nor can he dispel his sense of guilt.

Like Harry Callahan, Walt feels little need to seek the guidance of a minister — or anyone else, for that matter. He is antagonized by the repeated visits of his parish priest, Father Janovich (Christopher Carley). Father Janovich doggedly attempts to fulfill the final request of Walt’s late wife, who wanted her husband to go to confession.

Earnest and soft-spoken, the priest doesn’t command Walt’s respect, let alone his obedience. Rather, his burgeoning friendship with the Hmong family compels his grudging reassessment of his spiritual state.

Eastwood has described himself as an indifferent churchgoer who finds spiritual solace in nature. But as a director, actor, and screenwriter drawn to the moral dilemmas that define the human condition, he has employed the potent symbols of Catholic belief and authority as surrogates for civilization.

Christ adjured his disciples to turn the other cheek; democratic societies depend upon their citizens’ adherence to the rule of law. Yet in the thick of warfare — tracking a San Francisco serial killer, resisting a North Korean military assault, or battling a gang in Detroit — such assumptions appear dangerously naïve. Turn the other cheek, wait for the police to handle the bad guys, and leave the vulnerable undefended.

Harry Callahan tires of walking this tightrope and turns in his badge. Almost a half century later, Walt Kowalski takes a different path. Gran Torino proposes a radical response to the problem of evil in the world. Americans, Catholics included, may find themselves embracing Walt’s choice.


  • Joan Frawley Desmond

    Joan Frawley Desmond has written for the Wall Street Journal, First Things, and the National Catholic Register, among other publications.

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