Staff Picks: The Captivating Clint Eastwood

On the eve of his 40th directorial effort, Cry Macho, making its debut, we at A Fistful of Film pay tribute to a living legend, Clint Eastwood. A Western star turned filmic Renaissance man, Eastwood has become known for more than just kicking ass and taking names on the big screen. We’ve picked four of our favorites directed by the economic craftsman for your viewing pleasure.

Unforgiven (1992) by Saorise Selway

“It’s a hell of a thing, killing a man. You take away everything he’s got and everything he’s ever gonna have.”

Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven is not only Clint Eastwood’s best film as a director but it might just be the best western ever put to screen. The new plus ultra of the revisionist western, Eastwood takes to a logical conclusion and then some, the work he did as an actor under Leone. Leone’s films, like the Kurosowa epics that inspired them, are steeped in mythology and that is largely their brilliance but it seems like at every turn Eastwood seeks to unpick the mythology but the genius of this film is that it’s not just a formal exercise for Eastwood. Eastwood was made a star by these films, it’s a core part not only of his cinema but American cinema, and there is good and bad that comes with that. Eastwood carves his protagonist not only as a representative of his place in cinema but of the place in cinema of Westerns in general, both the American and Italian lineage. In a way he’s been doing that his whole directing career with films like Pale Rider and High Plains Drifter but in Unforgiven, he reaches the peak of his exploration of the humanity of such a person. David Webb Peoples, of Blade Runner and Twelve Monkeys, weaves a deft screenplay hitting home at moral ambiguity and making it essentially impossible to question the legitimacy of any moral dynamic in any western we may ever see with its awareness of how Westerns rely on a mythology that is often completely false. There’s a key reference at one point as to how one of the members is the most vicious killer since Billy The Kid, called by his real name in the film, a sly reference to a person who history has greatly exaggerated and was, to some degree, condemned by the sensationalising of his crimes. Unforgiven follows someone who actually committed monstrosities and has reformed, and thus  exposing the central lie of the western mythology to emotionally devastating effect. 

The cinematography is gorgeous and really highlights what is essential about celluloid photography. The score is evocative and emotionally rich. The performances across the board are stellar. 

It’s just a masterpiece.

Space Cowboys (2000) by Amos Lamb

Space Cowboys is a low-risk, low-reward film. The important part of that is low rather than no reward, because there is a charm and enjoyment that can be gleaned from it. It’s the poster-child for “Sunday Movie films”, something you can chuck on when you have nothing else to do, easy watching, turn your brain off and relax for a couple of hours. 

The film follows four former test-pilots who dreamed of going to space, before it is announced that the recently created NASA would be handling space travel rather than the US Air Force that the pilots work for. But years later, the band of brothers is called upon to travel to space to repair a disused Soviet-probe that was designed with Eastwood’s character, Frank, schematics. What starts off initially as a simple repair mission, well as simple as Space Travel can be, reveals a dark truth about the nature of the probe. But while this is the framework for the narrative, the film is much more of a character study about old men reuniting after years of resentment over old wounds. The sense of camaraderie, helped tremendously by the chemistry of the four main actors, is the real joy of the film.

For me the first half, where we see the team come back together and train with NASA in preparation for their mission, is the best part of the film. As I mentioned the chemistry between the actors creates a sense of fun that feels very genuine. Seeing Tommy Lee Jones and Eastwood compete against each other during the trials, and the jokes and banter between the four leads is surprisingly heartwarming. It all adds into the themes of the film about being young-at-heart and not letting age stop you from pursuing your dreams. While the second half is still fun, it becomes a bit more routine as the space mission begins to get complicated and malfunctions happen in space; the film falls into pretty cliche territory. The heart still shines through, but it feels more limp that the beats in the first half. But I will say that the special effects, especially for the year 2000, hold up surprisingly well. It’s far from seamless but it looks much better than I expected it to look.

The real selling point of the film is the leads, Eastwood and Jones are superb and play off each other excellently, while Donald Sutherland and James Garner round out the troupe by playing the comic relief characters to the former duo’s tenser performances. Together they genuinely feel like old friends coming back together and the authenticity of their performances fit together wonderfully. But while it’s far from Eastwood’s best directorial effort, it really is a solid effort (and far from his worst); the space sequences are all well shot adding a sense of momentum and tension in a way that feels climactic. While this is by no means a masterpiece, it’s definitely one I’ll be returning to when I need something easy, charming and fun to fill my time.

Mystic River (2003) By David Alkhed

A recurring phrase used by film critic Mark Kermode when discussing the films of Clint Eastwood is “unfussy.” Basically this means that Eastwood doesn’t fool around with crazily over-the-top stylizations and technical trickery to wow or make his movies pop, he’s instead a rather straightforward and simple storyteller. Kermode doesn’t mean that as a criticism and neither would I, as it perfectly sums up Eastwood’s filmmaking philosophy. Whilst that unfussy attitude could lead to some rather bland telling of stories that could benefit from a little more spark and energy as is the case with films like Jersey Boys or Invictus, one of the films it works absolute wonders in is his 2003 murder mystery Mystic River.

Adapted from a Dennis Lehane novel following the story of three former childhood friends who are reunited due to the murder of one of their daughters, Mystic River offers a rare triple hander in the form of the films three leads, Sean Penn, Kevin Bacon and Tim Robbins, all of whom channeling loss and grief in their own individual ways. Along with the somber tone and it’s attitude towards violence, the film seemingly belongs in the same category as Unforgiven in which Eastwood seems to take a step back from the bordering fascist glorification of violence and police brutality of his early Dirty Harry days and presents violence instead as a very real and horrific ordeal that severely impacts the lives of his protagonists. Eastwood also shows through Tim Robbins’ character, how. In one of the darkest openings to a mainstream Hollywood film, Robbins’ character as a young teenager gets abducted and molested by two pedophiles presenting themselves as authority figures, forever breaking a potentially jovial and lively spirit who spends the rest of his life living with trust issues and guilt over what happened, a feeling all too common amongst victims of sexual assault. It’s a level of maturity that Eastwood doesn’t show too often but when he does, the results are extremely rewarding on a dramatic level.

Mystic River is an exceedingly dark film with and probably one of the darkest in Eastwood’s career, but it absolutely thrives due his own unglamorous style and personal reconsideration of the effects of violence in life, both physically and mentally, and is one of his finer films as a result.

Changeling (2008) by Jacob Calta

A tale of loss, injustice, & the correction of the latter is found in one of the most incredible docudramas of the career of American icon Clint Eastwood. “The Man with No Name” found himself directing many a biopic going into the 21st Century, and it is safe to say that Changeling stands as one of, if not the finest of these modern-day efforts. Changeling tells the tale of Christine Collins, a mother living in Los Angeles in the late 20s whose son goes missing. What follows are the attempts of a corrupt Los Angeles Police Department to turn the case into good publicity, only for Collins to realize the boy is not her own. Her protests are met with malice, leading to the unraveling of Collins’s life by the police, a reverend’s protest against this corruption, & an investigation into a possible lead which may prove revelatory for many missing children’s cases.

Eastwood delivers a film that is touching and terrifying all at once. His quiet approach to directing yields wonderfully human performances from his cast, especially Angelina Jolie who knocks it out of the park as Collins. But he isn’t shy about the brutality of the crimes & heinous acts detailed in the picture, and it makes for some of the most gut-wrenching moments. You can see the man who started his career with the original home invasion thriller, Play Misty for Me, in those moments for they are truly suspenseful in every way. The emphasis on tight pacing, and the inherent sympathy & intrigue of J. Michael Straczynski’s script ensure that the 2 1/2 hour runtime is spent fully invested in this story. Tom Stern’s stunningly lit, gliding camerawork and the attention to period detail immerse ourselves in this world thoroughly. And all of this is amplified by the soft, tender compositions penned by Eastwood himself and marvelously orchestrated by Lennie Niehaus, easily one of the movie maker-turned-maestro’s finest in the field.

To keep short, sweet, & to the point: this film is something else. Heartbreaking, believable yet unbelievable, and mesmerizing. It’s a period tale of corruption told only the way Eastwood could tell it. One of the man’s finest latter-day efforts.

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