THE POPCORN REEL FEATURE STORY: CLINT EASTWOOD'S "GRAN TORINO"


Clint Eastwood directing on the set of "Gran Torino", in which he also stars.  With him are the film's cinematographer Tom Stern (standing) and camera operator   "Gran Torino" opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, expanding to San Francisco on December 19, then to additional U.S. and Canadian cities on Christmas Day and in January 2009.  

Is There Any Film That Clint Eastwood Can Direct Wrong?
By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel
December 10, 2008

He starts directing his 30th feature film in early 2009.  He is 78 years old.  He is:
a) Feeling More Alive Than Ever Before
b) Dirty Harry
c) Making His Day
d) A Filmmaker Without An Off Switch

Everyone has a passion and whichever of the choices above appeals most to you about Clint Eastwood or how you think of him these days versus in the late 1950's "Rawhide" television era, one thing he can never be accused of is lacking passion.  Earlier this year he verbally sparred with filmmaker Spike Lee through the press at Cannes about Mr. Eastwood's absence of black soldiers fighting for their country in the San Francisco-born director's "Flags Of Our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jima", which arrived just two months apart in American movie theaters in late 2006.  More recently this year behind the scene, he was a strong supporter of Senator John McCain, the Republican nominee for U.S. president.  Mr. Eastwood's own political career was a relative success in the 1980's as mayor of Carmel, a small, tranquil retirement community village by the sea in Northern California, and even then he managed to complete two films.

Now, in late 2008 in the U.S., Mr. Eastwood has the two-films-in-three-months-thing down pat once again, as "Changeling", which arrived in North America in theaters in late October, partners with this month's (specifically December 12) "Gran Torino" as the Eastwood double dip. 

Two different stories.  Same director.  Same result: acclaim. 

Mr. Eastwood directs Angelina Jolie in "Changeling", set in late 1920's Los Angeles, where Christine Collins is looking for her abducted son in this true story that gripped the City of Lights.  Critics of numerous publications, including The Popcorn Reel, have hailed the artistry of "Changeling", not just its strong performances but its technical artistry, from the direction to the cinematography to even the music, which Mr. Eastwood also wrote, played and composed.  With "Gran Torino", about a xenophobic Korean War veteran struggling to shatter his own bitter racist and prejudiced inclinations in an evolving middle-class neighborhood of new immigrants, Clint Eastwood is already gaining raves for playing the role of Walt Kowalski, the aforementioned veteran, including winning the National Board of Review's Best Actor Award for 2008, and being nominated yesterday by the Broadcast Film Critics Circle for a Best Actor award.  More nominations are expected tomorrow (Dec. 11) and next month when the Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations respectively will have been announced.

Perhaps economy of filmmaking style and technique accounts for the sheer speed and frequency of getting four films on screen in the space of about two full years.  "Gran Torino" started rolling before cameras in July and completed filming in August, and within four months from completion it has hit the big screen.  Filmed in Michigan, specifically Detroit suburbs like Royal Oak, Grosse Point, Warren and Highland Park, "Gran Torino", written by first-time screenwriter Nick Schenk, is named after the Ford car of the same name, the one passion that Walt Kowalski, a Polish-American, has left.  He gives the 1972 model car a good shine up, better than a shoe shine.  He's a 50-year auto worker who sees his neighborhood changing.  Part of the change took place behind the camera as Hmong actors were scouted to play the new immigrant class in the neighborhood that Walt previously knew as all-white.  When one of Walt's next door neighbors tries to steal Walt's beloved car, well . . .

. . . if you're thinking Dirty Harry, think again.

In an interview with Warner Brothers, the film studio for which the director helmed "Gran Torino", Mr. Eastwood, who has essentially retired from acting (with the exception of this role and his Oscar-nominated role in his best picture and best director-winning "Million Dollar Baby") says of his bigoted character in the new film: "Walt is sort of the Gran Torino.  He doesn't do anything with (the car) except let it sit in the garage . . . Walt with a glass of beer, watching his car -- that's about as good as it gets for him at this stage of life."

The opposite is true of Mr. Eastwood himself however, who at this ripe young age is getting ready to start shooting his next film, titled "The Human Factor", in January.  Taken from the first term in office of former South African president and prisoner Nelson Mandela during the mid-1990's, "Factor" focuses on a rugby sporting event that Mr. Mandela organized and commissioned in an effort to unite and bridge the divide between black and white in the formerly Apartheid nation.  Morgan Freeman will play Mr. Mandela, a role he has played in the past.  Matt Damon is expected to co-star.  "The Human Factor" will mark Mr. Eastwood's third collaboration with Mr. Freeman, whom he directed to an Oscar win in 2005 in "Million Dollar Baby" and co-starred with in his other best director-best picture-winning tandem film, "Unforgiven".


Clint Eastwood directing Angelina Jolie last year on the set of "Changeling", which opened in the U.S. and Canada in October.  (Photo: Universal Pictures)

So when on earth does Clint Eastwood take a break from filmmaking? 

Rarely, it appears -- except to pick up the accolades he continues to receive for his work.  While some actors a decade below Mr. Eastwood's age bracket have become retreads or parodies of themselves as thespians on film, as a filmmaker Mr. Eastwood seems to age like wine of a certain vintage.  He has been in talks with Steven Spielberg, who co-produced both of Mr. Eastwood's war films of 2006, about directing a supernatural thriller called "Hereafter" and will be producing a documentary on famed American jazz artist Dave Brubeck.  Mr. Eastwood is an avid jazz lover and he directed "Bird" in 1988, a film which was a source of both praise and controversy for its cinematic depiction of Charlie "Bird" Parker (played by Oscar winner Forest Whitaker). 

In what might be considered a touch of irony given the "Bird" controversy and the contretemps with Mr. Lee at Cannes, "Gran Torino" producer Bill Gerber says that "Clint has always dealt with complex issues of race, religion and prejudice in an honest way, which can sometimes be politically incorrect, but is always authentic."

Clint Eastwood's feature film directing debut was in 1971 with "Play Misty For Me", a film that was a forerunner to "Fatal Attraction", about Evelyn, an obsessive female caller (Jessica Walter) to a radio station who can't get enough of Carmel radio jazz disc jockey Dave Garver (Mr. Eastwood).  Now almost forty years later, Mr. Eastwood is continuing to follow his directing heart for as long as it beats soundly for the love of film. 

It may be said that Mick Jagger, who has had his own foray into film acting and producing from time to time, is the Clint Eastwood of 1970's British rock and roll, but is Clint Eastwood the Mick Jagger of the film world?  Mr. Eastwood has written and performed music for a number of his films, including "Million Dollar Baby", "Changeling" and "Gran Torino".  Maybe the attempted comparison does justice to neither man, although in their personal lives at least, both men have had or been linked to relationships with numerous women over the years.  Each has children from different marriages and partnerships, and each has always done things his way.

But Clint Eastwood's children are firmly involved in the film and music worlds, with daughter Alison Eastwood having directed her father's alum Kevin Bacon in her directing debut film "Rails And Ties" in 2007, and Kyle Eastwood writing songs with his father (including for "Gran Torino") as well as composing, the Eastwood legacy has at least a century or two to go before it moves peacefully into the night.

Clint Eastwood has joked about contemplating an acting role if the right Western came around, but what was it that propelled him back into an acting chair in "Gran Torino", for only the ninth time since 1992?  "I hadn't planned on doing much more acting, really, [b]ut this film had a role that was my age, and the character seemed like it was tailored to me, even though it wasn't.  And I liked the script.  It has twists and turns, and also some good laughs."

"Gran Torino" opens on Friday in New York City and Los Angeles, with an exclusive opening in San Francisco on December 19.  The film expands its release on Christmas Day before going fully wide across both the U.S. and Canada in January.
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