Not that I make much of a difference, but I figure it’s time to throw my digital weight behind a film that I really would like to see get nominated for best picture on Thursday when the Oscar nominations are announced. I saw this for the second time last week, and it impressed me even more than the first time. Clint Eastwood’s film is small, unique, and deceptively simple. And it’s about America.
Maybe I’m ethnocentric, but I really miss good films about America. Last year we had There Will Be Blood and No Country for Old Men, but this year Gran Torino stands pretty much in a class of its own. Perhaps Slumdog Millionaire says as much about India in 2009 as Gran Torino says about America, but I don’t live in India. It isn’t my country. Gran Torino is a metaphor for my country – for the uncertain, changing moment we are in.
The title of the film refers to a '70s-era American muscle car, and the story is set in Detroit, at a time when the shrinking, suffering American auto industry—coupled with rising crime and changing demographics—has left everything slightly run-down and depressed. Walt Kowalski (Eastwood), a Korean war vet who worked 50 years for Ford—lives in a Detroit neighborhood full of front-porch, paint-peeled, post-war houses now inhabited by immigrants and aging widowers. The place is rife with the ghosts of a simpler, booming time—when Ford's assembly line was a symbol of the efficient homogeneity of life after the wars, when white picket fences and neighborhood barbers infused everything with a decidedly homegrown, rust-belt patriotism.
But in 2008, things have changed. Detroit is on its knees, praying for a few extra years. American auto manufacturing, like Walt Kowalski, is experiencing its cantankerous twilight, shaking its head as new paradigms set up shop and kick the old school callously to the curb. Kowalski represents the vestiges of a bygone era, but he will not go quietly into the night.
Gran Torino is a Clint Eastwood film in the strictest sense. Unlike his less successful (but no slouch) 2008 effort, Changeling, this is a film that feels utterly personal—a movie that might actually be as much about Clint Eastwood the man/myth/icon as it is about the fictional story he is telling. And if it is indeed his last acting performance on film, it is quite the note to go out on. Eastwood's performance is a blood-spitting, mournful tour-de-force. In the wrinkles, the stilted gait, the dubious eyes of Eastwood, there is so much life lived, so much baggage and regret. As in so many of his movies (especially recently), Eastwood plays a man at odds with himself, his own failures, weighed down by his belligerent refusal to be forgiven his sins.
Torino celebrates life and honor in the same beautiful way that Letters From Iwo Jima and Flags of Our Fathers did a few years ago. And like those films, Gran Torino is also a nostalgic elegy. It laments the passing of time and coming of mortality with the tenderness of a Japanese master like Ozu. Eastwood, like the character he portrays, is reflecting on his life, taking stock of his values and priorities as the sun begins to set. There are pains that cannot be resolved ("I'm soiled," he says), but there is still value in living—still things he can teach and be taught. But, like the industry that was his life's work and legacy (in the symbol of the Gran Torino), Walt also knows that his time is nearly up.
I'd hesitate to say that Torino is a metaphor for the death of the American auto industry, but it's certainly a metaphor for a changed America. We are not a homogenous, white-picket-fence nation anymore. Old industries are dying, new ones rising up, neighborhoods shifting and communities re-aligning. Some things are the same, though: there is still hate and violence, just as there is love, determination, and hard work.
Gran Torino is about pressing on, living life with resolve, and making sure there is some continuity. As Walt discovers, we can lament change all we want, but ultimately what's gone is gone. What's important is what we leave behind—our successes, failures, and '72 Detroit-made muscle cars.
This is a film that is profound on a number of levels—a commentary on our contemporary zeitgeist but also a timeless story of redemption, sacrifice, and grace. It’s Clint Eastwood working through his own Dirty Harry mythos, atoning for his own cinematic sins in the same way that any of us much reckon with our past as we age and the world changes.
[note: portions excerpted from my full review at Christianity Today]