By now everyone has recognized that Clint Eastwood is an interesting filmmaker, and quite a few have picked up how relentlessly self-referential his cinema is--especially his own appearances in his own cinema. In a sense, Eastwood never plays anybody other than himself no matter what movie he is in. The important thing about him as an actor is his size, which is a matter quite separate from any questions of mastery of the techniques of mimicry. But unlike any of his possible competitors as a screen archetype of heroic authenticity, Eastwood has managed and sculpted his career with complete control for 40 years, and has, precisely, deployed that larger-than-life persona of his in ways that are completely self-conscious throughout that whole period.
Moreover, Eastwood has also been very sensitive to the cultural and ideological environment in which he has found himself, and the extraordinary changes that have characterized his persona and his cinema over the past forty years have always been reflective of that environment in some way. The decade between 1967 and 1977--coinciding exactly with the first decade of Eastwood's career as a star in Hollywood--was a dark one in America: the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, growing disaster in Vietnam internationally and antiwar protests and ghetto riots nationally, eventually Nixon and Watergate. And the Hollywood films of that time were negative in a completely unprecedented way. The level of popular cynicism was so high that it was well-nigh impossible to construct any kind of prosocial narrative in a movie, and the only kind of powerful and effective heroic archetypes available were of a regressive, angry, violent type. That is what Charles Bronson characters of this era were, and that is what Dirty Harry was as well. (Meanwhile in the Western Eastwood was constructing a character of mysterious amoral transcendent violence that was as far from the essentially prosocial role of the cowboy hero as can be imagined.) Already in this period Eastwood was busy pointing to the deliberately mythic, anti-realist nature of the heroic persona, and it is fascinating to chart the denaturalizing elements scattered through movies dominated by a nominal ethic of gritty realism.
Towards the end of the seventies, Eastwood's cinema began to reconstruct forms of prosociality, and prosocial heroism. The same year that Rocky Balboa ran up those steps in Philadelphia, Eastwood painfully reconstituted a kind of socially positive cowboy hero out of charred remnants in The Outlaw josey Wales (1976), and in the subsequent decade the angry and solitary Eastwood persona began to integrate itself more into society and social projects. Bronco Billy (1980) and Heartbreak Ridge (1986) were almost Reaganite in their appeals to believe in something that would make you feel better, no matter how ridiculous that thing was. Meanwhile, Dirty Harry and his relatives in Eastwood's cinema began, in movies like Sudden Impact (1983) and Tightrope (1984), to show for the first time something that might exist inside that character, and to draw him outside of mythic righteousness and into something more accountable. The 1990s then saw the maturation of this project, in deeply conflicted tales of heroic leadership like White Hunter, Black Heart (1990) and In the Line of Fire (1993), and ultimately in those twin masterpieces of complexity and self-deconstruction, Unforgiven (1992) and A Perfect World (1993)--films that took the two most important bastions of heroism in Eastwood's cinema, the charismatic man of violence and the charismatic Good Father, and subjected them to a withering examination. (1)
After Unforgiven Clint Eastwood the filmmaker was seen differently, in a more serious light. Critics were then willing to forgive a succession of movies that were quite disappointing (Absolute Power , True Crime , and Blood Work ), movies that were puzzling and unsatisfactory (Midnight in the Carden of Good and Evil ), and even movies that were embarrassingly bad (Space Cowboys ). …