Bridging The Divide In The U.S., One Crusty Old Racist At A Time

Clint Eastwood as Walt Kowalsky, directs himself and first time actor Bee Vang as Thao in "Gran Torino", which expanded its release today in San Francisco and will continue to expand on Christmas Day and on January 9, 2009.  (Photo and poster below: Warner Brothers)

By Omar P.L. Moore/December 19, 2008

Clint Eastwood does well in playing a crusty old patriarchal figure once again in the funny and engaging "Gran Torino", an elegant tribute to endearment and open-mindedness, albeit with overtones of "Driving Miss Daisy".  Mr. Eastwood also directs the film (his second this year after "Changeling") and continues to cement his credentials as one of America's greatest living directors of the 20th century, even though most of his best work has come early in this new century.  In the movie posters for many of his films, Mr. Eastwood is in silhouette, or is an image shrouded in darkness, suggesting a foreboding or reckoning that he or someone he will impact in a film will have to face.  One of the posters for the new film showcases a reverse of Alfred Hitchcock's famous trademark outline, seen so often on his television show "Alfred Hitchcock Presents".  This particular poster (below) for "Gran Torino" is a good indicator that something not so good this way comes.

These days, Mr. Eastwood acts on the big screen on occasions few and far between, but when he does, he usually makes an impact.  The same is true in "Gran Torino", even as the character of Walt Kowalsky, a Korean War veteran and acerbic racist whose suburban Michigan neighborhood has changed rapidly, is essentially a carbon copy, at least in attitude, of the sexist boxing trainer Frankie Dunn in Mr. Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby", the Oscar-winning 2004 film.  Walt is retired, and with death all around him in his life -- he lost his wife years ago and saw death too often to mention in his war-fighting days -- he is essentially binding his time drinking beer and being fearful.  He despises religion and his remaining family members almost as much as he does the Hmong (pronounced "mong") Asian neighbors who have moved in next door (and strangely enough haven't renovated the rundown house they've moved into.)  He shouts racist epithets at them and like Nick Nolte's Mike Brennan character from Sidney Lumet's "Q&A" is at times an equal opportunity hater, trading barbs with a white Irish barber (John Carroll Lynch).

But woe betide you if you make the mistake of stealing Walt's prized 1972 Ford Gran Torino, a shining specimen of a car that he only has the muster to polish and admire from his front porch.  Young teenager Thao (played by Hmong first-time actor Bee Vang), one of the Hmong next-door neighbors, attempts to steal the car as part of a local Hmong gang initiation.  After a series of events resembling scenes from "Dirty Harry" and 1991 films "Boyz N The Hood" and "Grand Canyon", a father-son relationship develops between Walt and Thao (Walt deliberately calls him Toad), just like a father-daughter relationship developed between Frankie and Maggie (Hilary Swank) in "Million Dollar Baby".

"Gran Torino" with its solid script from first-time writer Nick Shenck, isn't as strong or as resonant as "Million Dollar Baby", but with his always economical directing style Mr. Eastwood is so adept at bringing a simple, straightforward and pedestrian story to the screen to warm the heart of even the most cold-eyed cynic that you can't help but be willingly manipulated by the emotional profundity of the story's earnestness, even if it is predictable.  There's something about Mr. Eastwood's own music (he also is heard singing as the closing credits arrive) and bare message of gifts of love and symbolism that always come across so resonantly in most every one of the films he directs. 

While Walt Kowinsky despises life and everything about it, Mr. Eastwood at 78, continues to cherish and celebrate it with another bitter-sweet, tender film.  For his onscreen efforts he will be Oscar nominated as a best director and actor in January 2009 -- that's a guarantee.

With: Christopher Carley, Ahney Her, Brian Haley, Geraldine Hughes, Dreama Walker, Brian Howe and Scott Eastwood.

"Gran Torino", which continues in New York City and Los Angeles, opened exclusively in San Francisco today at the Metreon Theater and numerous other cities and will expand across the U.S. and Canada on Christmas Day and on January 9, 2009.  "Gran Torino" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for language throughout, and some violence.  There are also numerous racist epithets.  The film is in the English and Hmong languages, with English subtitles.  The film's duration is one hour and 56 minutes.

Related: It's Official -- Clint Eastwood Now Walks On Water

Related: Popcorn Hot Minute - YouTube video review of "Gran Torino"


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