By Terrence McCoy
By Scott Fishman
By Deirdra Funcheon
By Allie Conti
By New Times Staff
By Ryan Pfeffer
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It's those undercurrents that have dominated the latter half of Eastwood's filmmaking career, in which images of violence have rarely been offered up for mere titillation or visceral excitement. He points to the scene in the Oscar-winning Unforgiven in which retired gunslinger William Munny (played by Eastwood) and his former partner Ned (Morgan Freeman) gun down a young man with a bounty on his head who has violently assaulted a frontier-town prostitute. "Afterward, there's that little moment of, 'Jesus, I didn't want to ever do this again,' " Eastwood says. "He had vowed to stay away from that life, but there he is, just because they figured they would go get a little ransom money, and they rationalize it by saying, 'They deserve it anyway.' And that's the way life is."
By way of real-life example, Eastwood mentions the recent incident in which an employee at a Long Island Wal-Mart was trampled to death by several hundred overly eager customers attending the store's post-Thanksgiving sale. "Those people would probably say, 'Well, the guy shouldn't have been in our way' or 'The crowd was moving, and I had to go with it.' People can rationalize just about anything, but when you really come down to it, the behavior is appalling."
One of Gran Torino's most memorable sequences involves Kowalski's giving advice on "how to be a man" to a shy, gang-victimized Hmong teenager (newcomer Bee Vang). It's fitting, because in the 40 years since he first donned the Man With No Name's desert poncho, Eastwood has defined a kind of squint-eyed, low-voiced, impermeable macho cool for several generations of moviegoers — and even in today's fickle youth culture can still be found gracing the cover of men's lifestyle magazines like Esquire. It's a status that Eastwood, like Gran Torino itself, both embraces and gently mocks, fully aware of the anachronism of being a "man's man" in our supposedly gender-neutral society.
"The idea that men and women are the same is crazy, because they're not," Eastwood says with a chuckle. "They're equal under the eyes of the law, and they're equal in a lot of ways — in fact, women are superior in a lot of ways, and men are superior in other ways. So the more we recognize that, the more we can use those superior aspects of the gender. But being a guy now is a strange thing, especially a Caucasian male. Who's the biggest asshole? It's the white guys. You can attack them without hurting anybody's feelings, because they're the buffoons of society at the present time. But I always figure: What the hell? They can take it."
And true to form, Eastwood, who has four Oscars under his belt and is now well past the age at which almost any major star or director has still been actively working, isn't going anywhere just yet. In the spring, he begins production in South Africa on The Human Factor, a sports drama set during the first year of Nelson Mandela's presidency, starring his old friend Freeman as the celebrated leader.
"He's just won the presidency when it starts, and it's about how he unites the country," Eastwood says. "The country is going every which way at that time. All these different groups are at each other's throats. And he takes this really bad, white rugby team and takes an interest in them. The blacks can't figure it out: What is he doing with these guys? But then he talks them into winning the World Cup, and they win it. It's sort of a fairy-tale story, but it's one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction kind of things. And it shows how brilliant he was, in a way. He knew that if he could make this happen, blacks and whites would come together in genuine enthusiasm."
Which sounds like the second movie of the Obama generation.