September 1, 2012
Lucky for Clint Eastwood that he has a sense of humor. He’ll need it, if he tries to wade through some of the zanier criticism inspired by his appearance at the Republican National Convention. From the left, he’s being mocked as rambling, strange, and obsessed with empty chairs. The L.A. Times is wondering “Did Clint Eastwood tarnish his film legacy?” Among folks not otherwise dedicated to supporting Mitt Romney, Eastwood also seems to have aroused a lot of oddly charitable concern, that he distracted attention from the candidate, or detracted from the seriousness of the occasion, or wasted valuable Republican airtime.
So far, I’d say the standout bizarre critique is a New York Times piece by a professor of medical ethics, Jonathan Moreno, on “What the Chair Could Have Told Clint.” Moreno begins by claiming that Eastwood, in interviewing an empty chair as a stand-in for President Obama, was appropriating a psychotherapeutic technique developed by Moreno’s psychiatrist father, about a century ago. Moreno goes on to suggest that Eastwood, instead of lampooning the absent president, should have put himself in the chair, and tried to see things from Obama’s point of view. By not doing that, writes Moreno, “Mr. Eastwood wasted an important educational and therapeutic moment from which our deadlocked political system could benefit; putting himself in the role of the other person of whom he is critical and coming to understand that person’s point of view ‘from inside.’”
We can now entertain ourselves by imagining what Dirty Harry would say to that.
Which brings me to the main point. Clint Eastwood has built a film career in which the most iconic moments — those for which he is most often invoked, and acclaimed — involve a character who takes a beating for doing what he sees as the right thing, from Dirty Harry to Gran Torino‘s Walt Kowalski. When Dirty Harry defies the craven officials of City Hall to chase down a killer — “Do ya feel lucky?” — a lot of us cheer him on because with all his gritty, in-your-face unorthodox ways he appeals to something basic in the human instinct for justice. Likewise, when he points that gun and says “Make my day.”
Clint Eastwood’s appearance Thursday on the national political stage had many of those same elements. There’s no dearth of Hollywood celebrities willing to air their political views, but most of them are securely on the left. Surely aware of the opprobrium and ridicule that would come from a press corps that largely tilts left as well, an 82-year-old Hollywood legend steps up to the podium, and in his own way, with grit and (shock! horror!) humor, tells the country what he thinks is right.
He doesn’t have to do it. He’s a giant of the film industry, replete with a long, successful career. People from both parties have enjoyed his movies for decades. He could have stayed home. But he goes and does it anyway, because he believes there’s something important at stake. And in a country sinking under government spending and debt and ever more smothered in regulatory edicts, he reminds Americans of a basic verity — that it is we, the people, not the politicians, who own this country. “Politicians are employees of ours.” Were that a scene in a Clint Eastwood movie, it would be a good one.
But this wasn’t a movie. Unlike the fictitious Dirty Harry, who can walk off into the sunset as the credits roll, this was the real Clint Eastwood, speaking to the real world, despite the furies that were sure to descend. Make what you like of his improv comedy with the chair — a display of humor which in the no-holds-barred world of politics was actually pretty mild stuff, and something from which even the most traumatized members of the viewing audience will probably recover. In terms of a man standing up for his convictions, putting himself on the line, never mind the critics, this was his finest hour.