The White Man Saves the Day Again?

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Clint Eastwood in ‘Gran Torino’

Hollywood has a tradition of producing films where the heroic Caucasian protagonist saves the helpless people of color. Think Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves or Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai — not only do the white characters act as the saviors, but the minorities are also usually just supporting characters who exist solely to help the main character achieve his goal.

At first glance, it would seem that Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Gran Torino, in which he stars and directs, fits squarely into this genre. Eastwood is Walt Kowalski, a racist Korean War veteran who watches with displeasure as the Hmong move into his working-class Michigan neighborhood. When Thao (Bee Vang), the teenaged Hmong boy next door, tries to steal Walt’s prized ’72 Gran Torino as part of a gang initiation, Walt starts an unlikely friendship with the boy, his sister Sue (Ahney Her) and their family. Knowing that Thao and his family will not find peace as long as that Hmong gang is around, Walt decides to take matters into his own hands and “save” his new friends.

But a nuanced script by first-time screenwriter Nick Schenk (who collaborated on the story with another novice writer, Dave Johannson) elevates Gran Torino above other similar movies. Schenk does his best to portray Hmong culture and the main Hmong characters with both depth and cultural sensitivity, but the film’s main weapon is Clint Eastwood. Yes, the man known for his conservative Republican politics and for indiscriminately killing bad guys of color in the Dirty Harry series and who, in this film, spouts racist invectives innumerable times, is the reason Gran Torino works.

Even with such a well-written script, had any other actor played the role of Walt, Gran Torino might have been another “white man saves the day” story. But Eastwood brings to this project his iconic status, which takes the film in a different direction entirely.

Many reviewers have already pointed out that Walt shares many similarities with Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character; this is the man Dirty Harry would have become had he retired to a life of suburban ordinariness. Dirty Harry even drove a Gran Torino, and so the car takes on added symbolism here as not just a reminder of America’s lost traditions and past but also of Eastwood’s own history.

Eastwood must have been aware of this connection himself — many of Walt’s tics and character traits are similar to that of Dirty Harry’s — so the film is seemingly a deliberate attempt to repudiate the overt racism of his past characters (most notably Dirty Harry), just as he repudiated the senseless violence of some of his past work in the equally iconic Unforgiven.

What Eastwood has really created is not a story about the white man saving the minority (though it can be read on that level and I’m sure some will) but a critical examination of an iconic brand of white macho maleness that he played a significant part in creating.  Like Dirty Harry, Walt is a man who has committed acts of violence against people of color (Walt tells Thao that he killed at least 13 “gooks” in Korea) but now realizes the world has changed and he must also either change or die.

I don’t think this film would have worked as well with anyone else playing the lead, with the possible exception of the late John Wayne who shared many iconic traits with Eastwood. But although he came close in The Searchers, Wayne never went to the depths that Eastwood does here to question and dismantle his own image.

When Walt decides to enact “revenge” against the Hmong gang who has terrorized his new friends, one would expect the Eastwood character to pick up a gun and kick some major ass. But instead, he does something so unexpected and effective while clearly driving the final nail in the coffin of his Dirty Harry iconography.

Gran Torino may be the best film about “America” to come out in some time. And when we see Thao driving Walt’s Gran Torino, with everything it symbolizes, down an endless highway at the end of the movie, Eastwood provides a surprising image infused with hope. If even Dirty Harry can change, isn’t there hope for us all?

Gran Torino is currently playing in limited release and opens nationwide on Jan. 9.

Philip W. Chung’s Reel Stories column appears every other week in AsianWeek.

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