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Eastwood: Go Ahead, Punk; Go Ahead, Clint

by Greg Wahl--page 2

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In the 1983 "comeback" Dirty Harry movie Sudden Impact, produced and directed by Eastwood, this political vision is refined against a setting that, despite the increased conservatism of the American judicial system, somehow suggests that liberalism has run rampant, softening treatement of criminals and causing even more chaos on the streets. In the opening scene, one of a vaguely punk gang of young toughs is let off by a matronly judge because Callahan had violated his rights; the inspector immediately goes out and fights back by reprising the "feel lucky" scene, this time coining one of the most memorable lines of American cinema: to a black, satin-jacketed, would-be stick-up kid who calls him "turkey" as he points a gun at a hostage, Callahan growls, "go ahead, make my day." The rest of the dialogue is filled with rhetoric about Callahan as a throwback, "the one constant in an ever-changing universe," a "dinosaur" whose "ideas don't fit today." Indeed, one of the few notes of sympathy the character gets from others in the movie comes from the cranky bluehairs in a commandeered retirement home van. When the inspector tells them he's a police officer in pursuit of a suspect, they enthusiastically urge, "Shag his ass!"

The Dirty Harry movies always provide a political alibi for Callahan's behavior. In the original, he tracks down Scorpio, a serial killer who preys on "whores, Catholics, and niggers." In Sudden Impact, he tracks down a serial killer, then lets her off because she too is a vigilante, shooting--in the genitals--the men who raped her as a young woman. Like Scorpio, she is Callahan's flipside, describing him, and by analogy herself, as "an endangered species" in "the age of lapsed responsibilities and defeated justice. Today an eye for an eye," she continues, "means only if you get caught." The implications of the last statement are remarkable--in some way, the world at large, mainstream or marginal, is guilty of failure regardless of whether it can be proven innocent by PC tricks. Even in the service of "justice," this ideology smugly and confidently confirms the series' deep-seated anti-egalitarianism, and the PC alibi emerges as little more than window dressing.

"Go ahead, make my day," from Sudden Impact.
Download dialogue (37KB, WAV).

Further alibis for the more and more overtly conservative politics (which, like the policies of Reagan and Bush themselves, have begun to seem in hindsight more and more regressive to many people) in "old" and "new" Eastwood movies are provided by the casting choices for supporting roles. Dirty Harry's partners are almost always minorities, women, young, or a combination of these. It is always made clear that these partners are, as much as anyone can be, "some of his best friends"; we are supposed to understand, for example, that he is merely hazing his Latino partner because he's the new guy when he slurs him in Dirty Harry. Magnum Force is the epitome of this overcompensation, as Callahan has sex with an Asian woman, saves his black partner from a hate crime, and actually works to bring down a ring of vigilante cops. Not coincidentally, the "problems"--violent racial spectacles and vigilante assassinations--are filmed in loving detail. It is never clear with whom the audience identifies with most, Callahan or his quarry. (This is not to mention the fact that there are about a hundred naked women are shot in or around the chest in the series.)

The fact that Callahan's partners are predictably smoked, maimed, or badly shaken by the bad guys (usually a result of imprudent eagerness, idealism, or naivete) is also intended as a mechanism to show that Callahan is special, that underneath Callahan's seemingly offensive exterior lies an old-testament sense of justice and fairness. After being nearly killed (beaten to a pulp, firebombed, thrown off the pier, etc.) himself, he invariably returns from the brink of hell, standing in silhouette with his enormous gun held impressively down and away from his side, to avenge the criminal's social wrongs. We are supposed to see here that it doesn't matter if you're black, white, yellow or green, but whether you've been righteous or wicked. We're all the same in the eyes of Clint.

Certainly, we see Eastwood as way too savvy to believe it himself. Thus, it is widely held that, after a stint acting with monkeys in the Every Which Way But Loose series (which amazingly failed to end his career) the "new" Eastwood has used film to publicly reconsider his politics and their effect on American viewers. A typical nineties Eastwood character is still a throwback, but one who, as he ages, ends his tenure as a force in his line of work and admits his past social failings, often symbolized by excessive drinking.

Rene Russo and Clint Eastwood in In the Line of Fire.

In In the Line of Fire, he is an ex-drunk Secret Service Agent trying desperately to atone for having failed to save JFK. He pants trying to run alongside limousines, gets horribly sick from standing out in the rain, and otherwise generally humiliates himself on the way to finally outwitting the villain. At one point, he confronts a CIA agent who has been stonewalling him on important information. When the staunch republican Eastwood makes a crack about the CIA's alleged involvement in cocaine smuggling, one of the most damaging information leaks of the Reagan-Bush years, it is a jarring moment. He's acting, of course, and we understand that, but usually it's clear that Eastwood always plays Eastwood. Despite the dissonance of the moment, what seems even weirder is that he wins the girl, played by Renee Russo, despite his ridiculous chauvinism. At one point, this subplot reveals an affinity with the politics of the "old" Eastwood with an important political admission, or perhaps proud assertion: "I'm a heterosexual male piano player over the age of fifty. There's not many of us, but we have a strong lobby."

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