By Christopher Sharrett.
I have had sympathetic interest in the work of Clint Eastwood over the years, but such interest has been hard to sustain with antics like his talking to an empty chair – as a mock of Obama – during the 2012 Republican National Convention. In retrospect, it compares to former Trump errand boy General John Kelly’s reference to a black Congressperson as an “empty barrel.”
But Eastwood might be a model for us in a limited sense – nearly ninety, he keeps making films that are at least watchable. He has tried, for much of his career, at least in the films in which he appears v. those he merely directs, to undermine his image as the squint-eyed, growling guy with the .44 Magnum (or, in the Westerns, the .45 Colt) that defined his persona for a couple of decades. Critics who admire him point to the useful “ambiguity” of Eastwood films, allowing us to “tease out” ideological readings regardless of their reasonableness. Some recent films, like Gran Torino, make it tough not to see the gun-toting martyr-figure of old, and one with a strong racist tilt.
Richard Jewell, a telling of the 1996 Olympics bombing in Atlanta, Georgia, offers challenges to those who are still in Clint’s camp. Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser), a morbidly obese, down-home boy who loves authority and dreams of being part of it, was a security guard working for AT&T at the time of the Olympics park bombing, and first celebrated as a hero for finding the bomb and reporting it, then vilified by the press and the FBI, since his “profile” as a wannabee lawman who lives with his mother told the FBI that they could close the case fast. An enterprising reporter, Kathy Scruggs (Olivia Wilde), gets Jewell’s name out her friendly fed Tom Shaw (Jon Hamm) for some fast sex.
Those with any memory, or knowledge of the cinema, can figure what happens next: Jewell is paraded before the cameras as the FBI try to frame him. There are some interesting moments in all this, like seeing the smarmy, careerist Tom Brokaw, always in love with his own voice, essentially convict Jewell on NBC, and similar antics by Bryant Gumble on the same network. But everybody is hoist by their own petard when Jewell’s lawyer (Sam Rockwell) takes on the Establishment, making Scruggs look like the corrupt, painted whore she is, and Shaw a lowlife thug. We are told in the end credits that Jewell died of diabetes in 2007 (one waits for him to fall over as the narrative unfolds).
Jewell’s story should be told (I suppose), but it strikes me as one example (and a well-known one?) of the authorities trying to close the books by choosing a villain who fits the part – ours is not, of course, a land of Law & Order. But why do we see so many stories about the FBI’s assault on the right (Jewell was a good ol’ boy with a healthy stash of firearms)? Where are the genuine horror stories about the FBI of the Hoover era, with involvement in the assassinations of King, the Black Panthers, the incessant buggings and burglaries of anti-war groups? – it’s a long list. The only film that takes all this on is Larry Cohen’s The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, currently available only on a very bad and very expensive DVD. Does anyone even talk about it in film studies? Only Tony Williams has a critical study on Cohen.
More important, this anti-government, anti-media view of Yankee culture couldn’t have appeared at a worse time, when the MAGA crowd, which is sizeable, thinks that “fake news” is out to get their fearless leader, a manifestly moronic (so said his ex-secretary of state) psychopath. Complaints about state power are always warranted, but the “anti-government” milieu of the present encourages the most irrational thinking; “conspiracy theory” doesn’t catch the current atmosphere, since, as Chomsky says, there is no theory out there that is even testable. We scarcely have rational assertions. What the Trumpers seem to want is the most reactionary form of state power possible, even if led by a madman who could give a rat’s ass about the public well-being, or if the documents that ostensibly define our system of law are thrown in the rubbish bin.
Clint isn’t answerable for all of this, but his film could pay attention to basic public etiquette. The Confederate battle flag is a bit too prominent in this film’s mise-en-scene. Realism might be the excuse, since Georgia didn’t remove the battle flag until 2002 (replacing it with the Confederate national flag, still a symbol of a slave-based power structure). White America still has zero sensitivity – certainly in the cinema where the Confederacy is still treated as a nostalgic time of sugar magnolia – to the meaning of the Confederate battle flag, at least to those with anything like a genuine knowledge of the nation’s history. It is the American swastika, representing a tyranny that offered precious little even to poor whites.
At times Eastwood’s Richard Jewell is sympathetic, almost comic, mainly because we have here the fat boy as hapless clown, who can’t do anything right, can’t follow his lawyer’s simple instruction to keep his mouth shut – basically because he loves his country so much and has to say it, even when such remarks can be used to bury him. The problem is Jewell’s testimonials are used to jerk tears, to show one-man-against-the-system that has betrayed his values, which are better embodied in the individual courageous, hard-working citizen than in government. Similar sentiments have been conveyed in this season’s Dark Water, where the crusading lawyer is also in a one-against-all predicament, proclaiming that only “we” can solve things, certainly not “the government.”
What Eastwood has offered may amount to very little, in a nation that embraces Ken Burns as a chronicler of history, and thinks that his The Civil War epic documentary is not only useful history, but a national monument that must be venerated and bought in every edition, as its white supremacist lead talking head, Shelby Foote, reinforces a perverse understanding of the nineteenth century. The film reminds us of the fate of public television in the last forty years.
So perhaps I shouldn’t expect too much from Eastwood, but we should probably dispense with notions that he is rehabilitating himself, that his work is “ambiguous” ideologically. Yet he is so much part of the white national fabric that we are obliged to keep track of him. He’s still relevant – and obviously still energetic and enthused – in a way that rightfully defies ageist ideas about “the elderly.”
Christopher Sharrett has taught film for many years at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor to Film International.