Scene by Scene explores an auteur’s finest moments — the scenes that let you know you are in the hands of a master storyteller. This week, in light of his latest film, The 15:17 to Paris, Sam will reflect on the magic moments of Clint Eastwood’s career.
Unfortunately, Eastwood is currently known as a crusty old conservative who makes jarringly jingoistic tributes to ’Murica. But the point of this column isn’t to dwell on filmmakers’ flaws. Its purpose is to put them in a time capsule that captures their finest hours. Sure, it could include everything — the good, the bad and the ugly. But this column is about showing artists at their absolute best.
Film offers fleeting moments of perfection. When filmmakers fall from grace, we can go back in time and see them at the peak of their powers. That’s the immortal magic of movies.
When the ones we love are gone, we want to remember them in a positive light. If the Eastwood we used to admire rode off into the sunset, let’s look back at the brief yet unforgettable moments that once cemented him as a cinematic giant.
5. TRUE CRIME: A REPORTER WITH A HUNCH
This is a sentimental pick, as True Crime was my introduction to Eastwood’s directorial efforts. I watched this movie with my mom when I was 8 years old, and her giddy enthusiasm for the juicy crime story rubbed off on me. The tale of a grizzled reporter racing against time to prove a death row inmate’s innocence, it’s charmingly simple and quaint — like the kind of pulpy novel you’d read in an airport.
This scene sets up an archetypal Eastwood character — a gruff guy with a rocky reputation but a soft heart beneath his abrasive exterior. It moves at a faster clip than typical Eastwood, mirroring the rapid pace of its newsroom setting. Eastwood’s character exchanges quips with his editor (a ferociously comical James Woods), but he also quietly reveals his compassion during the chaotic conversation. You feel his character’s urgency to save the convict (Isaiah Washington) — and his own soul.
Eastwood’s character is a reflection of the director himself — a seasoned veteran still devoted to capturing the truth.
4. GRAN TORINO: A CONFESSIONAL SWAN SONG
Forget Trouble with the Curve. Gran Torino is the perfect ending to Eastwood’s acting career. It’s a gritty yet graceful farewell salute to the tough-guy characters that define him. Like Unforgiven, it revolves around an aging antihero seeking redemption through one last act of vigilante justice.
When the teenage boy he befriends begs to help him take down a neighborhood gang, Walt Kowalski (Eastwood) re-sensitizes him to the harsh reality of the violence he is about to inflict. “You want to know what it’s like to kill a man?” Walt asks. “It’s goddamn awful. You don’t want that on your soul.” Here, Eastwood removes the glory from the actions of the gunslinger characters he has played throughout his career. He reminds us how harrowing an act of heroism can be.
In this moment, you can feel the crippling weight of Walt’s history of violence. And when he shares a haunting experience from the Korean War, you’ll feel as if you’re eavesdropping on a confession he is making for the first time. It’s the climactic moment of Eastwood’s acting career.
In terms of its relevance to other 2008 films, Gran Torino works on the same sort of meta level as Iron Man and The Wrestler. Each film is a redemption story as much about its star as the character he is playing. In Iron Man, Tony Stark’s transition from a reckless playboy to an honorable humanitarian resembles Robert Downey, Jr.’s transformation from a troubled celebrity to a serious actor. Similarly, The Wrestler is not only a portrait of a washed-up fighter getting back in the ring; it’s the comeback of Mickey Rourke. Gran Torino is Eastwood’s swan song.
3. LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA: THE MARINES STORM THE BLACK SANDS
Letters from Iwo Jima may be Eastwood’s most significant directorial accomplishment. It’s something no one expected from the conservative, old-fashioned filmmaker — a war film told from the enemy’s perspective. Released in the midst of the War on Terror, the film arrived as a reminder of the moral murkiness of war and a response to the George W. Bush administration’s good versus evil rhetoric.
Eastwood presents a remarkably empathetic portrayal of Japanese soldiers who fought in the 1945 Battle of Iwo Jima. In this scene, their fear becomes our own as we watch U.S. Marines storm the black sands of the volcanic island. Our allegiance shifts back and forth between the two sides, and we see that war is hell for both. Many World War II films take the safe route of focusing on the “glory” amid the bloodshed. This sequence forces us to face a much darker and more complex reality.
In this scene, Letters from Iwo Jima emerges as one of Eastwood’s most emotionally intricate films — and one of the greatest war movies ever made.
2. MYSTIC RIVER: “I CAN’T EVEN CRY FOR HER”
This scene captures what’s at the heart of Mystic River — childhood friends grappling with growing pains. As Jimmy Markum (Sean Penn) mourns the loss of his daughter, his old friend, Dave Boyle (Tim Robbins), sits by his side. It’s an uncomfortable moment, evoking the kind of awkwardness that kids feel when they see their friends in pain.
“Do you want me to leave you alone?” Dave asks after Jimmy breaks down crying. “No, just sit here for a minute, if that’s cool,” Jimmy replies.
In this brief moment, these two men become little boys again. It’s a tender, quietly devastating summary of what Mystic River is about — people regressing to their past selves as they struggle to cope with the present. This scene is intimate, wistful and achingly real — a prime example of Eastwood at the height of his craft.
1. UNFORGIVEN: A MOMENT OF TENDER MERCY
In this one scene alone, Eastwood strips the Western genre of romance and brings its typically larger-than-life heroes down to earth. He transforms from the mythic Man with No Name gunslinger of his youth into an achingly human character. When the old outlaw William Munny fumbles with a rifle and says, “I ain’t very good with one of these,” it stings as a stark contrast to the Western icon we know.
After his partner’s conscience prevents him from shooting one of the cowboys they were hired to kill, Munny reluctantly takes a shot, clipping the guy in the gut. It’s far from a moment of victory. As he waits for his victim to die, Munny nervously fiddles with a rock, adding to the banality of the brutality. A thick air of regret looms over him and his fellow gunmen as they sit on a hill and watch the boy bleed. Munny calls out for someone to give the young man a drink of water as he’s dying. Although he is exacting justice upon this cowboy for attacking a woman, he feels shame after striking vengeance.
The Eastwood of today delivers much simpler portraits of heroes. His more recent films zero in on moments of courage rather than exploring the moral ambiguity surrounding them. In this sense, they mark a backward step from Unforgiven. Eastwood fell off the saddle. But with this film, he rode tall.