Thursday, June 19, 2014

Clint Eastwood The Director: The 1980s

The 1980s would bring another 7 films to Eastwood’s directing resume. In 1980, he once again tried for a departure from his usual action movie and Westerns – making Bronco Billy (again unseen by me – don’t worry, there’s only a few more like it) – where Eastwood plays a man from New Jersey who at 31 quits his job selling shoes and decides to start a Wild West travelling show. The film was generally shrugged at the time, but has garnered some defenders over the years. At the very least, it seems clear it’s Eastwood trying something different – a largely plotless comedy-drama about relationships – and has Eastwood as a man pretending to be a cowboy – which he, of course, did often.

In 1982, he returned to his action roots with Firefox – which to me is a rather mediocre, and at times ridiculous, action film – and certainly one of Eastwood’s weakest as a director. Eastwood plays a Vietnam vet – with flashbacks to the war – who nonetheless is selected to be the man the Americans send into the Soviet Union to steal their latest, top secret plane – and fly it home to America. The movie isn’t entirely bad – it’s actually kind of fun if you can stop thinking about just how crazy the story is, and go with it. But it’s certainly not a film that many remember – and there’s a reason for that.

Later that same year, Eastwood again made a slight departure – directing Honkytonk Man (again, unseen by me) – where he played a depression era country singer, tramping along in the South alongside his young nephew (played by Eastwood’s son). Again, the film was mainly greeted with indifference at the time, but like Bronco Billy, it has gained some supporters over the years.

The following year, he directed the fourth Dirty Harry movie, Sudden Impact – the only one of the series five films
that he directed himself. I wrote about the five Dirty Harry movies before ( – and I do think that Sudden Impact is one of the best in the series – a morally complex film that looks at vigilante justice in a more complicated way than most films of its ilk. It is hampered a little bit by too many subplots – even if one of them gives Eastwood his most famous line of all time “Go ahead, make my day” – and like many Eastwood films of this time, it’s hurt by Sondra Locke, who isn’t very good in what should be a great role. Overall though, this is a very good film – and one of the best of the Dirty Harry series.
His next film was his third Western as a director – Pale Rider – which of the three Westerns he had made to this point in his career, is probably the best. In many ways the film resembles High Plains Drifter – but it’s a calmer, more confident, and less violent film. In both, the idea that Eastwood’s character is a ghost is plain, but never explicitly referenced. He is once again out for revenge, but he isn’t as violent as last time – as hell bent on it. He is a quiet character – he barely speaks – and although he becomes a hero to a small group of people, that’s more because of what they project onto him than anything else. The Outlaw Josey Wales is his most famous of his first three Westerns – and it’s a great movie – but Pale Rider is, I think, even better.

His next film was Heartbreak Ridge where Eastwood plays a battle hardened veteran –
having his glory days in the Korean and Vietnam wars – who has been busted down to size, and is assigned to a new platoon of men – where he has to face off with a younger officer – an Annapolis grad. The film contains basic training scenes, a reunion with Eastwood’s long lost ex-wife (Marsha Mason) and eventually some combat scenes as well. It is brisk, fast paced, entertaining – and gives Eastwood a fine role. He plays the basic Eastwood tough guy –the guy who takes no crap, and wins every fight – but it does make him seem slightly more lonely and pathetic – a man who has sacrificed everything, and doesn’t have much to show for it. It’s not going to make anyone’s list of the best war films – it’s not even close really – but it is an entertaining film.

His final film of the decade was the best film of his directing career to that point – and only the second film he directed where he also does not star. At two hours and forty minutes, Bird (1988) was the longest and most ambitious film of Eastwood’s directing career – a biopic of famed jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker, an absolute genius when performing, but a complete mess offstage. He is a drug addict for most of his life, and although he tries never to hurt anyone else, he cannot stop hurting himself. Played, in the best performance of his career by Forest Whitaker, Charlie Parker is a gentle man who simply cannot stop himself. Eastwood’s film is full of the smoky darkness of the clubs he spends so much time in. It is full of great music and great moments. It is the first film of Eastwood’s career that got taken very seriously by critics – it won two prizes at Cannes (for Whitaker’s performance, and for the sound) and Eastwood won the Best Director Golden Globe – although the film would be virtually ignored by the Oscars (once again, it won for its amazing sound work – it didn’t even get nominated for anything else).

The 1980s were a largely transitional decade for Eastwood as a filmmaker. He made 7 films – and while four of them – Firefox, Sudden Impact, Pale Rider and Heartbreak Ridge – fit neatly into the persona he is best known for, three of them – Bronco Billy, Honkytonk Man and Bird – show him reaching for something beyond that. Even in Sudden Impact and especially Pale Rider, Eastwood seems he isn’t interested in making the simplistic genre films he has best known for – he wanted to do something more complex even when working in genre films.

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