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Gran Torino a Conservative Movie?


Matt Yglesias
observes that, “The idea that Gran Torino is a conservative movie is, meanwhile, bizarre. In its main plot arc it’s very clearly a subversion of Dirty Harry-style right-wing vigilante fantasies.”

I fully agree with the first sentence of Matt’s quote above but for a totally different reason:  There’s no such thing as a conservative movie.  Or a liberal movie.  Or a libertarian movie.  There are only movies which are produced by conservatives, liberals, or libertarians hoping to get across a message that comports with their views and conservative, liberal, or libertarian viewers of said movies who find elements therein that reinforce their own view or, alternatively, strike them as hamhandedly trying to get across a contrary view.

As to Gran Torino itself, without giving away enough to spoil the film for those who haven’t yet seen it, I tend to side with his first commenter, Miracle Max, who observes, “You can’t very well characterize someone who totes a pistol around and waves it in peoples’ faces, albeit in a good cause, as committed to non-violence. Eastwood resorts to non-violence at the end out of practicality, not any moral determination.”

Eastwood’s politics, judging from various interviews I’ve seen with him as well as the films he’s made in recent years, is rather eclectic.  He doesn’t dispute Neil Cavuto‘s characterization of him as libertarian and he’s a lifelong Republican who endorsed McCain in 2008.   Judging from his movies, I gather he thinks killing, including in war, is generally senseless but he’d do what he had to if backed into a corner.

The thing with movies, though, especially ones driven by complicated characters, is that people will watch them and come away with decidedly different messages.  Turning to another recent highly acclaimed Eastwood flick that can be discussed without concern about spoilers: Is “Million Dollar Baby” a liberal movie because of its message about gender equality? A conservative movie because of its message of what can be achieved with hard work? A libertarian movie because of its message on euthanasia? Or just a movie?

UPDATE: Regular commenter Triumph below notes that there are movies — he cites “Birth of a Nation” — where the filmmaker’s political intent is so pervasive as to defy counter-interpretations.   That’s probably true.  Some of the Michael Moore films come to mind as more recent examples.

Aside from sheer propaganda, though, it’s really hard to do a political movie.  Take, for example, Joel Schumaker’s 1993 classic “Falling Down,” in which anti-hero William ‘D-Fens’ Foster (Michael Douglas) gives the famous “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” rant. Many people embraced Foster as a regular guy speaking out for them.

Ditto the 1992 Rob Reiner-Aaron Sorkin film “A Few Good Men.”  You couldn’t ask for a more liberal — or talented — creative team.  Yet, as I recall from the debate here at OTB during the run-up to the Iraq War, a huge number of people thought the Colonel Jessep (Jack Nickolson) character was a hero and triumphantly quoted his line “I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said ‘thank you,’ and went on your way” without realizing it was meant to be an expression of fascism.

I’m not a postmodernist by any means but people do assign meanings.  And well made films, which make the characters something other than black and white caricatures, often have people sympathizing with the bad guy.

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About James Joyner
James Joyner is the publisher of Outside the Beltway, an associate professor of security studies at the Marine Corps Command and Staff College, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. He has a PhD in political science from The University of Alabama. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter.

Comments

  1. Triumph says:

    There’s no such thing as a conservative movie. Or a liberal movie. Or a libertarian movie.

    There are only movies which are produced by conservatives, liberals, or libertarians hoping to get across a message that comports with their views and conservative, liberal, or libertarian viewers of said movies who find elements therein that reinforce their own view or, alternatively, strike them as hamhandedly trying to get across a contrary view.

    I think I understand what you’re saying–however, this isn’t always the case. You are embracing the post-modern stance that authorial intention is irrelevantt–that representations get their meaning through processes of consumption and iteration.

    I think your postmodernism is limited. In cinema it really depends on the film and filmmaker in question.

    “Birth of a Nation,” for instance, can ONLY be read as a Conservative movie. Its main thesis is that Blacks created what Griffith called the “seeds of disunion” in America which culminated in the Civil War and the chaotic representation of Reconstruction.

    It was only through the Klan’s ride that the Union could be restored–and that is exemplified in the film by the literal marriage between the Southern Stoneman family and the Northern Camerons.

    Griffith was quite explicit in his commentary at the time that he was using cinema to literally write history and his political and social views are inscribed all over the film.

    It is really IMPOSSIBLE to have a counter-reading of “Birth of a Nation.”

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  2. James Joyner says:

    It is really IMPOSSIBLE to have a counter-reading of “Birth of a Nation.”

    Heck, they don’t even talk in that movie — it can be about anything you want!

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  3. Triumph says:

    it can be about anything you want!

    Dude, your postmodernism is killing me!!!!!!

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  4. James Joyner says:

    Dude: Why are we wearing these sheets?

    Other dude: They were having a white sale at Woolworth’s and, gosh darn it, at these prices, I just had to buy me some!

    Dude: And mighty white they are, too!

    Other dude: Yup. Just the way I like ‘em!

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  5. Triumph says:

    Take, for example, Joel Schumaker’s 1993 classic “Falling Down,” in which anti-hero William ‘D-Fens’ Foster (Michael Douglas) gives the famous “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!” rant.

    I’m not familiar with this film, but the “mad as hell” quote is from the Howard Beale character in “Network” (1976).

    Spike Lee ripped it off in “Bamboozled” too.

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  6. PD Shaw says:

    Re Birth of a Nation: That largely depends upon your definition of conservatism. Was Woodrow Wilson a conservative? Was the film’s treatment of carpetbagging entrepreneurs conservative? The Clansman’s author, Thomas Dixon, was also an advocate/believer in social Darwinism, which at that time was popularizing an offensive view of race traits in the name of science and progress. I think the film’s values have many roots in different soils that don’t transplant well to today.

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  7. Triumph says:

    FYI: Here’s the You Tube link for the HOward Beale soliloquy.

    One of my favorite film scenes of all time:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dib2-HBsF08

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  8. Here’s the full Col Jessup quote:

    Son, we live in a world that has walls and those walls need to be guarded by men with guns. Who’s gonna do it? You? You, Lieutenant Weinberg? I have a greater responsibility than you can possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago and curse the Marines; you have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know: that Santiago’s death, while tragic, probably saved lives and that my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don’t want the truth because deep down in places you don’t talk about at parties you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use then as the backbone of a life trying to defend something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom I provide and then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said “thank you,” and went on your way. Otherwise, I suggest that you pick up a weapon and stand a post. Either way, I don’t give a damn what you think you are entitled to.

    I think it changes the meaning a little in the context of Col. Jessup replying to Lt. Kaffee, but YMMV. My intent is not to defend Col. Jessup’s incipient facism, but to note that facism is a epithet hurled too liberally about by, how you say, creative teams. If you limited your quote to the following:

    We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use then as the backbone of a life trying to defend something. You use them as a punchline.

    Would it still strike anyone as fascist?

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  9. James Joyner says:

    Charles, I sympathize with much of what Jessup says there. The problem is the implication that, because he provides necessary protection, he should be immune from questioning is, however, a fascist idea.

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  10. I concur. Just noting that Mr. Reiner and Mr. Sorkin aren’t exactly a duo I would enlist to write a story about the values the Marines hold dear.

    They built their strawman and then tore him down and in doing so managed to impugn via guilt by association a lot of other ideas that I would support.

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  11. Bithead says:

    Hmm.
    If I read the quote aright, it wasn’t the questions per se he objected to. Rather, it was the questions within the context of the person doing the questioning, and the attitude of that person.

    What it comes down to, in the end, is how highly what Jessup is trying to defend, is taken by his accusers. In Jessups mind, apparenty it is paramount. In the minds of his accusers, not so much.

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  12. Dodd says:

    There’s no such thing as a conservative movie. Or a liberal movie. Or a libertarian movie.

    There are only movies which are produced by conservatives, liberals, or libertarians hoping to get across a message that comports with their views and conservative, liberal, or libertarian viewers of said movies who find elements therein that reinforce their own view or, alternatively, strike them as hamhandedly trying to get across a contrary view.

    I think this statement is too sweeping, too. But not just because of the likes of BOAN or Michael Moore or An American Carol.

    I think your real point is that people take what they want from art and, as such, what the filmmakers meant is less important than the consumers’ impressions. And that’s not wrong, per se. But authorial intent is not meaningless. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that there are such things as political movies, but a lot of messages don’t fit into the kind of easy idological boundaries that make for easy discussion.

    I sparked quite a debate on this very issue over at whedonesque by posting a link to the Hot Air poll last month that included Serenity. A lot of (liberal) posters there found the notion that a Malkin site could find a Whedon product so amenable damned near offensive. And yet, it is patently obvious to me that the most important message of Serenity — that we all have the right to be wrong — is an unequivocally libertarian message. Whedon may be a liberal in the main, but that principle flies in the face of the modern liberal project of forced equality that the Alliance attempts — and which is clearly viewed as evil — in the film.

    There are other themes in the film that lean the other way, of course. And then there’s the nonsense only people who think caricatures are real would give credence to (for instance, a few posters objected that Serenity couldn’t be considered conservative because conservatives would never approve of Wash and Zoe’s inter-racial marriage. No, really.). Sadly, one sees such absurdities all the time, even from certain regulars in these threads.

    So, yes, Serenity is a conservative movie, precisely to the extent — and because of that fact that — libertarianism and conservativism are conflated and/or aligned. I could make much the same argument about The Incredibles (the theme of which is that it’s okay to be special and trying to make everyone ‘special’ means that no one is). Sounds like GT falls into this category, as well, no matter what Eastwood intended. If that’s a problem, it’s down to the failure of people’s imaginations, not the message itself.

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  13. Eric says:

    Y’know, something else that defies counter-interpretations is… Triumph not being tongue-in-cheek. I had to down a glass of Jack Daniels just to make sure I was reading his posts right. ;)

    Of course, what isn’t defying interpretation is Bitsy defending Jessup. Y’see, Jessup was just misunderstood–plus those dang liberals just weren’t asking him questions very nicely. If only they’d a’ asked with respect, why, Jessup would’ve freely and gladly admitted to ordering the Code Red instead of lying about it.

    Next up: Bitsy defends Peck’s Mengele in “The Boys from Brazil,” explaining that if only Olivier’s Lieberman hadn’t been so liberal and smug, he (Mengele) would’ve totally told Lieberman about the Hitler clones if only asked.

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  14. Hmm…, so was Ishtar a conservative or a liberal movie?

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  15. Zelsdorf Ragshaft III says:

    Tri, it is an ignorant point of view to claim D.W. Griffth made conservative movies as you do not have any idea what his politics was. Since liberals feel rather than think, you just feel you know what his purpose was. As to Gran Torino. It was a movie about a man who was tired of the BS that surrounded him and did what should have been done. However, cowards and idiots wait for police protection. Police investigate killings and DUI’s.

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  16. Eric says:

    … as you do not have any idea what his politics was.

    As James points out above, Griffith’s “political intent is so pervasive as to defy counter-interpretations. That’s probably true.” And I could agree; yet, you nutty righties have no problem criticizing Michael Moore’s films and politics even though you probably have no idea what Moore’s politics may truly be. So, Zelsdorf, you can’t have it both ways; you can’t say, well, Birth of a Nation wasn’t conservative but then criticize Moore.

    Moreover:

    Since liberals feel rather than think, you just feel you know what his purpose was

    How does this not apply to the very thing you’re criticizing Triumph about? Seriously, you are so blatantly hypocritical here within in the span of just two sentences that I’m surprised you didn’t fracture your neck with such an about-face.

    However, cowards and idiots wait for police protection. Police investigate killings and DUI’s.

    Shouldn’t you be living out in the woods a la Randy Weaver with stupid talk like this? Seriously, if it’s one thing you nutty righties have a hard time with, it’s separating movie fiction from reality. That’s why “24” is so popular with you guys; you think it reflects reality when it merely reflects your cowardly sense of bravado. Here’s one reason why your analogy breaks down: most “cowards” and “idiots” aren’t retired military who know how to adequately fire a gun and protect themselves. I suppose that never occured to you? Of course not, because in Zelsdorf’s version of reality, talking about how tough you are means being tough.

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  17. Bithead says:

    Of course, what isn’t defying interpretation is Bitsy defending Jessup.

    Quit trying to be an idiot, Eric. Extra effort in that area you don’t need, trust me on this. Look closely at my response again and you may note that there’s no defense at all, there. What there is is a sharper definition.

    plus those dang liberals just weren’t asking him questions very nicely.

    Once again, were you to actually read what I wrote, you’ll notice the emphasis on their respective values.

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  18. Bithead says:

    Does anyone in here aside from Eric, have any doubt whatever about what Moore’s politics really are?

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  19. Brian says:

    Does anyone in here aside from Eric, have any doubt whatever about what Moore’s politics really are?

    Ironically, I think you misinterpreted Eric’s intent. I don’t actually believe Eric has any illusions of what Michael Moore’s politics are. The point was, you can’t claim that Moore is liberal because of his movies while at the same time saying…

    Tri, it is an ignorant point of view to claim D.W. Griffth made conservative movies as you do not have any idea what his politics was.

    As Eric said to ZR3…

    …you can’t have it both ways; you can’t say, well, Birth of a Nation wasn’t conservative but then criticize Moore.

    I think this is the whole point of James’ post. You can’t tell what Eastwood’s politics are necessarily from his movies. You can try, but you will probably fail since there are innumerable interpretations available. Moore and Griffith are the exceptions rather than the rule.

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  20. Bithead says:

    Well, two points.

    First, I suppose that to depend on the strength of the movie-maker’s views. If positions are strongly held, they can hardly avid getting leaked out to at least some degree into the finished product. The Great Rotundo would seema fine example of this.

    Second, comparing Moore to Grffith seems a little misplaced, since we’re ignoring in that comparison the shift in baseline values between then and now.

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  21. Brian says:

    Second, comparing Moore to Grffith seems a little misplaced, since we’re ignoring in that comparison the shift in baseline values between then and now.

    True.

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