An American Icon Looks in the Mirror

By Scott Kurashige

Michigan Citizen, Jan.11-17, 2009

Gran Torino is a film everyone should see and discuss. Clint Eastwood, who has said this will be his last acting role, has been called a leading contender for best actor. It's hard to imagine the film without him at its center because so much of its meaning is tied to his status as an American icon.

The ads of a scowling Eastwood holding a rifle appeal to fans of Dirty Harry. In that 1971 film Eastwood played a cop who used brute force to restore order in a manner paralleling the Nixon-era crackdown on urban rebellion.

Gran Torino, however, is about the frailty and reflection of a Dirty Harry-like character in his old age. The film's central message is that it's time for us to think openly and honestly about the costs and limits of American power

Polish-American Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) represents what to many Americans was a "golden age." Walt paid his dues. He fought communism on America's behalf in Korea, worked the rest of his active years on the line at Ford's, and raised two sons.

For most of his life he was rewarded. He bought a nice Detroit house, found a loving wife. He was part of a generation of American workers that experienced an unprecedented standard of living.

Now it is practically all gone. The movie begins with the funeral of Walt's wife. The good-paying factory jobs have disappeared. Walt keeps his house in meticulous condition, but his neighborhood has deteriorated. And Walt's sons and grandchildren, awash in consumerism, have fled with most whites to the suburbs. At best, they pity him. At worst, they expect the chain-smoking, beer (PBR)-guzzling Walt to die off soon, so they can claim his remaining possessions.

Rebuilding community on this block means that this grumpy old white man will have to find common ground with a population now entirely composed of low-income people of color, especially Hmong refugees from Southeast Asia. This means confronting the racism, materialism, and militarism that, beyond hard work, made the "American Dream" possible for white workers like Walt.

Most of the movie takes place on one block in Detroit (though you can tell by the street signs it was actually shot in Highland Park). Its small scale works to great advantage. (The glaring exception is that the film, originally set in Minneapolis/St. Paul, only depicts blacks and Latinos as stereotypical gangbangers in two gratuitous scenes.)

Many Detroit activists, pointing to all the failed attempts to renew the city with a "quick fix" (e.g. freeways, Ren Cen, the GM Poletown plant, casinos), have been arguing for years that real change can only come when all of us work together on a block-by-block basis to build stronger, cooperative relations among each other. As Martin Luther King JR. once preached in Detroit, we need to "rediscover lost values" that sustained humanity for hundreds of generations before the false promises of unbounded progress and prosperity.

For Walt, this process begins with getting to know the Hmong family next door, something he does reluctantly. The symbol of Walt's resistance to all the change surrounding him is his 1972 Gran Torino, which he bought fresh off the line and has kept in mint condition. Thao "Hmong teenage neighbor” tries to steal the car under peer pressure from his cousin's gang.

The story then becomes one of truth and reconciliation. Through a traditional Hmong act of restorative justice (the offender repays the community rather than being sent off to prison), Thao's family orders him to atone by working for Walt, who puts him to work cleaning his house and tending to his garden.

This unexpected relationship becomes the opportunity for Walt to begin atoning for a lifetime of noxious racism and for some horrible but unspoken wartime atrocity. And Walt learns that his Hmong neighbors are neither "chinks" nor the "commie gooks" America napalmed in Vietnam. They are casualties of the CIA's secret, illegal war in Laos.

Together, Walt and his neighbors begin to fix up the whole block, giving everyone a new and shared sense of pride.

However, Eastwood, still defying liberal Hollywood norms, assures us that transformation is not this simple. The Hmong gang returns to throw a wrench (literally and figuratively) into Walt's and Thao's plans.

I don't want to spoil the emotional ending. Suffice it to say that the "Shoot first, ask questions later" approach of Dirty Harry, like that of American presidents from LBJ to Bush, creates more problems than it solves. Macho vengeance and cowboy invincibility must give way to sacrifice and redemption.

Gran Torino's most symbolic imagery may be the considerable time Walt spends looking in the mirror. With our cities torn apart, our imperial designs faltering in Iraq and Afghanistan, and our economy in shambles ”no longer just in Detroit but now nationwide" we all need to confront some hard truths.

What has prompted this shift in Eastwood's approach (which most critics say began with Unforgiven in 1992)? Does aging just make you weaker? Or can it also make you wiser?

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