LOS ANGELES — Of all the directors who could have become a lightning rod for the right this election season, Clint Eastwood wouldn’t be high on the list. Michael Moore? Certainly. Spike Lee? No doubt. But Eastwood? This is Dirty Harry, a man who for years epitomized rugged individualism, outlaw independence, no-nonsense self-reliance. If there was ever an actor who could play Ron Paul, Eastwood is it.
Starting out as a Republican-leaning voter in the 1950s, Eastwood later came to be a vocal critic of the Vietnam War and other U.S.-led conflicts. But in the main, he has stayed above the fray, calling himself a “political nothing” and showing in his governance of small-town California that he’s far from an ideologue.
Yet the icon’s “Halftime in America” spot for Chrysler during Sunday’s Super Bowl — in which, sure, Eastwood spoke his gravelly voice on behalf of a company that was bailed out by Washington, but mostly just rallied America to fight back in an economic recession — has roused all kinds of right-wing ire.
On Monday, Fox News Channel’s “The O’Reilly Factor” had him on the show and asked why he was fronting for the president. Eastwood denied that the commercial contained any endorsement.
“I am certainly not politically affiliated with Mr. Obama,” the director told the cable-news network. But that attitude didn’t stop standard-bearers on the right from voicing their displeasure. Karl Rove said he was offended by the ad. Michelle Malkin wondered why Eastwood was supporting bailouts. Their general point seemed to be that Eastwood was aligning himself with the comeback narrative that Obama was making a key part of his reelection campaign.
Watching the storm develop, it’s hard to understand how Eastwood came to be in the eye of this hurricane. His I-don’t-make-political-judgments could seem like a cop-out from many other public figures. But Eastwood has a body of work to support the point.
Wielding an almost singular creative freedom in Hollywood, the director has in recent years chosen to make movies that are conspicuously above the fray. Apart from single-issue pictures like “Million Dollar Baby,” his work over the last decade has a decidedly apolitical strain — “J. Edgar” this year was actually criticized for avoiding politics in favor of Hoover’s personal and psychological motivations. Many of his recent movies focus heavily on individual redemption — like “Gran Torino,” coincidentally also set against the backdrop of an ailing Michigan economy, or “Invictus,” with its largely harmless unity-through-sports message.
Eastwood even went to the trouble of making two World War II movies, “Letters from Iwo Jima” and “Flags of our Fathers,” to show both sides’ perspective. If anything, the argument is not that Eastwood has gotten too tendentious — it’s that he’s been too neutral.
But you don’t need the movies to see Eastwood’s vantage point. Lost amid all the outcry Monday is that the director himself has said he didn’t agree with the bailout, going on record in to my colleague Patrick Goldstein that he was against the package that sent billions to Chrysler and General Motors.
“We shouldn’t be bailing out the banks and car companies,” he told Goldstein, which suggests that, no matter what pro-stimulus message some might read into the ad, Eastwood himself certainly didn’t see it that way when he agreed to do it.
Or just listen to the language of the ad itself, a pep talk so general it could practically be a call to sing Kumbaya.
“I’ve seen a lot of tough eras, a lot of downturns in my life, times when we didn’t understand each other. It seems that we lost our heart at times — the fog of division, discord and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead. But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right and acted as one.”
It’s hard to see how Eastwood was doing anything but offering a generic call for strength in hard times — not saying a comeback has already been completed, and certainly not saying which party should be put in charge of making sure that it did.