In the endless babbling torrent of news, its easy to miss the small signs of how a culture and a country changes. For me, a marker almost as sweet as a black man in the White House has just flickered into Britains cinemas.
Clint Eastwood is the quintessential icon of the old America: an icy Everyman who made his fame cursing liberals, shooting down suspects, and slaying Injuns on screen. But now, in his eighth decade, Eastwood has done something remarkable. He has been making beautiful, understated movies that apologise for the filth he pumped out early in his career and propagandise for a very different America. Yes: Dirty Harry has turned pinko-peacenik.
Eastwood strutted into the American consciousness in the 1950s in the TV series Rawhide and a string of big-screen Westerns. He caught the tail-end of the uncomplicated Us vs Them cowboy flicks where the Indians were evil, scalping savages who had to be destroyed by the white heroes. The films were gorgeous, romantic accounts of a genocide, told adoringly from the perspective of the genocidaires. The attitude of the genre was typified by John Waynes jeer: I don't feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from them the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves.
But Eastwood found his most iconic role as a new kind of urban cowboy. In the 1971 film Dirty Harry, he plays Inspector Harry Callahan. It was the first of the wave of backlash movies, explicitly taking on the Sixties counter-culture and accusing it of destroying America. The plot focuses on a serial killer called Scorpio, who is a pansy-parody of the peace movement: a long- haired, androgynous, lisping hippie who wears the peace logo. He shoots random civilians, and says he will only stop if he is paid a ransom of $100,000.
Dirty Harry is an old-style cop, fond of beating and torturing confessions out of suspects. He summarises his approach by saying: I shoot the bastard, thats my policy. His colleagues boast that Harry is an equal opportunities hater spicks, niggers, kikes, dagoes especially spicks. He sets out to catch the killer but at every turn he is emasculated by insane liberal regulations. The new laws prevent him from breaking into homes without a warrant, committing torture, or harassing suspects. Appalled, Harry spits: That man has rights? The law is crazy!
As a result of the evil liberals fettering Harry, Scorpio is left free to suffocate a 14-year-old girl and hijack a schoolbus full of kids. In the end, Harry shoots Scorpio in cold blood and throws his police badge away in disgust. Pauline Kael, the greatest film critic of her time (or any time), famously called the film fascist. Dirty Harrys motto Go ahead, punk. Make my day became a classic.
But then something odd happened. The old black-and-white world of Dirty Harry bled away and a subtle, supple film-maker emerged in his place. There were hints of a change in Unforgiven, his 1992 Western. Suddenly, the old gun-slinger at the centre of the film played by Eastwood was broken and traumatised by the sadism he had inflicted in his earlier life. We no longer yelled for him to kill more: we felt uncomfortable, and ambiguous.
Since then, Eastwoods films have been populated with people broken by the kind of casual violence inflicted to such noisy cheers by Dirty Harry. The Changeling is the true story of what happens when the police disobey the rules and embark on torture and violence to achieve their goals told from the perspective of the victim. The Flags of Our Fathers is the true story of the soldiers who raised the US flag on Iwo Jima during the Second World War and how the Native American soldier there, Ira Hayes, returned to face internal apartheid and abuse. …