Aim for the Heart
The Films of Clint Eastwood
by Howard Hughes
Tauris, 304 pp., $29
It’s a cliché to refer to any particularly prolific filmmaker as “the hardest working man in show business,” but when taking Clint Eastwood’s epic career into consideration, it’s hard to think of a more fitting moniker. That’s not necessarily a good thing; being prolific and being great aren’t always the same.
Since donning The Man with No Name’s poncho in Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1964), Eastwood has starred in or directed (or starred in and directed) 54 films, and post-production work has already begun on his 55th feature, Hereafter. That’s better than one a year for almost half a century—and not the half of the century during which the studio system held directors and actors under contract and required them to churn out art as if it were an industrial product. Eastwood likes working this way.
Aim for the Heart faithfully recounts the plot of 51 of those pictures (touched on but not studied in depth are his latest: Changeling, Gran Torino, and Invictus), as well as the reaction they received from critics and audiences. Additionally, Hughes fills readers in on Eastwood’s early exploits on television’s Rawhide and creature features such as Tarantula. It’s an exhaustive work, fine as a reference resource for someone who needs a little more information than the Internet Movie Database can provide, but not terribly useful if you’re looking for deep criticism or unique insights into each individual work.
Divided into seven parts, Aim arranges Eastwood’s oeuvre not chronologically but by genre: Westerns, cop films, love stories, comedies, dramas, thrillers, and war movies. Needless to say, the most interesting portions have to do with the grizzled westerns and the hair-trigger cops that turned Eastwood into a worldwide sensation. That shouldn’t be too surprising; The Bridges of Madison County isn’t what your average Eastwood fans are interested in. They’re interested in hard-charging, self-assured, windswept, sunburnt, laconic loners with squinting eyes and a quick-witted quip resting on lips fixed in a knowing smirk. They’re interested in someone who can pull a gun at a moment’s notice but knows the boundary between right and wrong, even as he inches toward that line. They’re interested in a man whose name is either unknown or “Dirty Harry” Callahan.
But those characters comprise just a portion of Eastwood’s body of work. Viewers interested in finding a “through line”—a consistent message or thematic core that runs in all of his features—for his career have their work cut out for them. Trying to square Eastwood’s career with the auteur theory is a tough chore for any writer. Of course, that hasn’t stopped critics from trying. In his recent video essay, “Kingdom of the Blind,” Matt Zoller Seitz argues that Eastwood’s career can be defined by characters driven by a desire for revenge who wrestle with the internal tensions that desire produces.
Many Eastwood movies have a self-critical aspect, a sense that Eastwood (as actor, director, or both) is examining dark impulses within himself (and humankind) and finding them troubling, pathetic, repulsive. It’s the sentiment of a moral, humane, internally consistent filmmakers. Eastwood is all three—when Eastwood the icon isn’t undercutting Eastwood the artist.
This claim would have more power if Seitz hadn’t started and ended his video essay with clips from High Plains Drifter: In addition to directing, Eastwood plays a literal spirit of vengeance. The Drifter is a reincarnated marshal who, before the movie begins, was brutally whipped to death by three gunhands while the townsfolk sat idly by and watched. Disgusted by their cowardice, the Drifter claims his vengeance not only on his three murderers but on the town as well, robbing it blind before burning it down. His spirit cannot rest until he has had his revenge. Vengeance isn’t just a means to an end here, it’s an end unto itself.
The same can be said for Unforgiven. Many have argued that this film serves as a deconstruction of Eastwood’s typical western persona, but that’s nonsense. Unforgiven ends like every other entry in the genre, with a wronged man standing alone against his enemies and gunning down evildoers in the name of revenge. Any regret or remorse that Eastwood’s Bill Munny may have shown previously is overshadowed by his righteous violence welcomed and cheered by audiences seeking both resolution and punishment of the guilty.
Readers looking for a through line might be better off going with something that Hughes writes about Eastwood’s directorial debut, Play Misty for Me. Mostly forgotten now, Misty’s themes aren’t particularly relevant. What does matter is this little factoid: “Budgeted at $950,000, the film was completed by Eastwood for $900,000 and four days under its five-week shooting schedule.” In Hollywood, this is what Eastwood is best known for: He doesn’t just work at a maniacal pace, he works at a maniacal pace and completes filming quickly and cheaply. Studios love him because he comes in under budget and on time, and actors love him because he doesn’t demand dozens of takes on simple line readings, or keep them lounging around waiting for the perfect lighting.
Of course, one can’t help but wonder if this incredible efficiency hasn’t hindered his work: Instead of laboring over a film in an effort to perfect it—to squeeze every last drop out of his cast and locations—he shoots, finishes, and moves on to his next project. Yes, he’s won a pair of Oscars, but could anyone make the argument that either Unforgiven or Million Dollar Baby is one of the best films of its decade? When the American Film Institute revised its list of the 100 greatest American films three years ago, only Unforgiven made the cut.
So, yes: Clint Eastwood is the hardest-working man in show business, as Howard Hughes ably demonstrates. It’s important to remember, however, that efficiency and excellence aren’t typically the same thing.
Clarification: "Kingdom of the Blind," the video essay quoted in the review, was a two part review and the author, Matt Zoller Seitz, feels that the quote (taken from the first part) is not representative of the piece as a whole. "The second half is almost all criticism of Eastwood's various hypocrisies," Seitz writes, "and you made it sound as though what I tried and failed to do in the piece was make a case FOR Eastwood as an auteur with a complex, nuanced attitude toward revenge, when in fact the opposite is the case."
Sonny Bunch is a writer in Washington.