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Dirty Harry Does Detroit

11:01 AM, Feb 7, 2012 • By GEOFFREY NORMAN
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So now they have gone and politicized the Super Bowl ads. Have they no shame?

Dirty Harry

Everyone is familiar with the Chrysler spot that has Clint Eastwood walking ominously dark streets, talking about how America is down and hurting, but we’ve been here before and this is just halftime. We will be coming back. Included in that “we” is “the Motor City,” because this is a commercial about Chrysler cars, which are built in Detroit (by a company that is mostly Italian-owned but never mind).

The ad is tremendously evocative and not so-subtly political. The subtext being an endorsement of the bailouts of General Motors and Chrysler … but not Ford. Obamanomics is working. We’re making and selling cars. We’re tough and we’re coming back and Detroit can be a role model for America. And if Dirty Harry says so, who is going to argue with him?

In the hours since the commercial first ran, Eastwood and Chrysler’s CEO have both denied that it was in any way political. But the White House communications director posted a line on Twitter about, “Saving the America Auto Industry: Something Eminem and Clint Eastwood can agree on.”

Denying the ad’s political subtext is an excellent way to reinforce that message. Anyone who hadn’t noticed it before will certainly do so now. Which leads one to further deconstruct the ad, beginning with the interesting datum that its stark location shots were not filmed in Detroit.

One wonders, why not? Well, possibly because the town is too dangerous. So dangerous, in fact, and so badly policed that the citizens who remain there (multitudes have fled) have armed themselves and announced to the predators that they aren’t going to be dialing 911 and waiting for the slowest police response in the land. They are shooting first and calling later. The rate of justifiable homicide in Detroit is 2200 percent above the nation’s average.

Which leads one to think that instead of Eastwood – whose Dirty Harry character was, at least, a member of the police force – the ad should have used Charles Bronson, whose Death Wish films featured a sure-enough civilian vigilante. Bronson is dead but one feels certain that an ad as lavishly produced as this one ($14 million) could have gotten around that nuisance detail with computer animation and clever editing of existing clips.

And if that wasn’t feasible, the agency that did the ad could have used Jodie Foster who did a so-so vigilante film called The Brave One.

Eastwood, of course, got the call because – now that John Wayne is no longer around – he is the iconic movie face of the old, tough American virtues. For obvious reasons, Brad Pitt just wouldn’t do.

And there is no denying the appeal to Americans of the “get up off the mat and get back in the fight” theme. Think Pearl Harbor. Or, indeed, 9/11.  So why not the implosion and resurrection of the automobile industry?

No reason at all. A big majority of the people who love football and the Super Bowl no doubt like, even love, cars.  And an important subset loves the kind of cars Detroit used to build. And, in truth, some of the cars coming out of Detroit now suggest the sensuality of the old muscle cars. The kind of cars, in other words, hated by people in Obama’s campaign who liked the political message of the ad. 

A lot of viewers who were put off by the ad, in fact, love the old Detroit and its cars and would like nothing more than its renaissance. But like Eastwood’s Dirty Harry, they know when someone is blowing hot air up their skirts. 

The ad was about politics, not cars, and it was an endorsement of bailouts, not hard work and grit. If, indeed, the bailout is working (even as Detroit reverts to a state of nature) that isn’t necessarily good news. It just means that the next time the UAW and the titans of GM and Chrysler decide to run their companies into the ground, they will have reason, based on experience, to believe that the taxpayers will lift them up, dust them off, and give them a few billion to get back on their feet.

Dirty Harry may have never uttered the phrase “moral hazard,” but he sure knew the meaning.

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