Clint Eastwood’s movie posters over the last couple of decades feature an almost invariable iconography: film after film, one one-sheet after another, a choleric Eastwood (or sometimes just his floating head) squints out from a black backdrop, half his likeness lost in shadows. Even without knowledge of the films themselves, we understand what these images stress: that, almost without exception, every Eastwood character—from Blondie to Bill Munny and beyond—has a skeleton in his closet. The Man With No Name is discernibly a Man With a Past, as is every successive incarnation of the Outlaw Clint Eastwood—disappointment, failure, and wrongdoing are wrought into the lines of his face, like the mole perched above his upper lip.
Clearly this is a man with something to hide, and more often than not, that “something” is history itself: the Civil War, World War II, Korea, Vietnam, even Kennedy’s assassination. (The only films that even resemble sci-fi in Clint’s canon—Firefox and Space Cowboys —are about a Vietnam vet and a space-race leftover, respectively.) With this inherent historical interest, Eastwood’s films often involve a certain amount of archival research, as if we’re obliged to dig up our collective pasts along with Eastwood’s characters’. And like a good librarian, Clint helps the audience along in its fieldwork: excavating long-buried truths in Letters from Iwo Jima and The Bridges of Madison County, or sorting out men from their myths in White Hunter, Black Heart, Unforgiven, and Flags of Our Fathers. In Eastwood’s films in which he also stars, this process is especially pronounced: we’re often faced with that weird pseudo-historical moment when the young, familiar face from Rawhide or Leone’s spaghetti Westerns peers out of a dog-eared black-and-white photograph or old newsreel footage, jogging alongside Kennedy’s convertible or squatting amid the carnage of Korea. It’s as if, for decades, Eastwood has been positioning himself as a brooding man’s Leonard Zelig or Forrest Gump, a witness to all of America’s wrongs who’s been trying to live them down ever since.
Korea is the requisite historical albatross for Walt Kowalski, Eastwood’s proxy in Gran Torino, and we get this early in the film. Click here to read the rest of Leo Goldsmith’s review of Gran Torino.