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The White Man Saves the Day Again?

December 31, 2008


Clint Eastwood in ‘Gran Torino’

Hollywood has a tradition of producing films where the heroic Caucasian protagonist saves the helpless people of color. Think Kevin Costner in Dances with Wolves or Tom Cruise in The Last Samurai — not only do the white characters act as the saviors, but the minorities are also usually just supporting characters who exist solely to help the main character achieve his goal.

At first glance, it would seem that Clint Eastwood’s latest film, Gran Torino, in which he stars and directs, fits squarely into this genre. Eastwood is Walt Kowalski, a racist Korean War veteran who watches with displeasure as the Hmong move into his working-class Michigan neighborhood. When Thao (Bee Vang), the teenaged Hmong boy next door, tries to steal Walt’s prized ’72 Gran Torino as part of a gang initiation, Walt starts an unlikely friendship with the boy, his sister Sue (Ahney Her) and their family. Knowing that Thao and his family will not find peace as long as that Hmong gang is around, Walt decides to take matters into his own hands and “save” his new friends.

But a nuanced script by first-time screenwriter Nick Schenk (who collaborated on the story with another novice writer, Dave Johannson) elevates Gran Torino above other similar movies. Schenk does his best to portray Hmong culture and the main Hmong characters with both depth and cultural sensitivity, but the film’s main weapon is Clint Eastwood. Yes, the man known for his conservative Republican politics and for indiscriminately killing bad guys of color in the Dirty Harry series and who, in this film, spouts racist invectives innumerable times, is the reason Gran Torino works.

Even with such a well-written script, had any other actor played the role of Walt, Gran Torino might have been another “white man saves the day” story. But Eastwood brings to this project his iconic status, which takes the film in a different direction entirely.

Many reviewers have already pointed out that Walt shares many similarities with Eastwood’s Dirty Harry character; this is the man Dirty Harry would have become had he retired to a life of suburban ordinariness. Dirty Harry even drove a Gran Torino, and so the car takes on added symbolism here as not just a reminder of America’s lost traditions and past but also of Eastwood’s own history.

Eastwood must have been aware of this connection himself — many of Walt’s tics and character traits are similar to that of Dirty Harry’s — so the film is seemingly a deliberate attempt to repudiate the overt racism of his past characters (most notably Dirty Harry), just as he repudiated the senseless violence of some of his past work in the equally iconic Unforgiven.

What Eastwood has really created is not a story about the white man saving the minority (though it can be read on that level and I’m sure some will) but a critical examination of an iconic brand of white macho maleness that he played a significant part in creating.  Like Dirty Harry, Walt is a man who has committed acts of violence against people of color (Walt tells Thao that he killed at least 13 “gooks” in Korea) but now realizes the world has changed and he must also either change or die.

I don’t think this film would have worked as well with anyone else playing the lead, with the possible exception of the late John Wayne who shared many iconic traits with Eastwood. But although he came close in The Searchers, Wayne never went to the depths that Eastwood does here to question and dismantle his own image.

When Walt decides to enact “revenge” against the Hmong gang who has terrorized his new friends, one would expect the Eastwood character to pick up a gun and kick some major ass. But instead, he does something so unexpected and effective while clearly driving the final nail in the coffin of his Dirty Harry iconography.

Gran Torino may be the best film about “America” to come out in some time. And when we see Thao driving Walt’s Gran Torino, with everything it symbolizes, down an endless highway at the end of the movie, Eastwood provides a surprising image infused with hope. If even Dirty Harry can change, isn’t there hope for us all?

Gran Torino is currently playing in limited release and opens nationwide on Jan. 9.

Philip W. Chung’s Reel Stories column appears every other week in AsianWeek.


14 Responses to “The White Man Saves the Day Again?”

  1. Frank Eng on December 31st, 2008 10:19 pm

    I bow to your sensibilities here, but something in me remains distant, as in er, ah, for real?
    Sight unseen, and the good and the bad and the ugly considered, personallyi, I believe I would still prefer Rowdy Yates, even over Play Misty.
    As for the iconic Wayne, sorry, he wasn’t an “actor,” only an overpufflicized persona who inhabited vacancies of cinematic roles. So, sue me.
    Costner is another case. After all, he made flicks like “Dragonfly,” not to mention popularize sex on the kitchen table in that deconstruction of minor-league baseball.
    Whatever, glad to see that SOME Asian actors got paychecks, probably not much over SAG scale, which isn’t all that bad in today’s lack of an economy.
    Have another good year, Phil.
    And let Clint go back to mayoring small art-colony enclaves, although, at least, he doesnt’t seem to be eying the Presidency like some other megastars.

  2. Christine on January 14th, 2009 5:53 pm

    Finally! You know, I’ve been discussing this concept for while but generally got the same response: “what’s the big deal?” It is refreshing that you are pointing out an irritating media flaw that I like to call “the white messiah.”

    Although I believe the intentions are good, it just irritates me that films cannot focus on people who help their own group.

    SIgh* Oh hollywood.

  3. Frank Eng on January 15th, 2009 1:22 am

    Dear Christine:
    And check out today’s lead piece on New America Media online by one Andrew Lam.
    It’s a beauty.
    It says, in detailed reference to his personal journey through the mindless and presumptuous patronage and patronizations of the world of the WASP, what each and every one of us APAmericans know and have lived through or are trying to survive.
    That said, and one hopes that WASPish world will begin to take note and heed and positive response to same, at least the likes of the Arundhati Roys and the Fareed Zakariases are beginning to breach the moated gates. Although, in hindsight, the passing recognitions of the likes of Jimmy Baldwin and other authors of note proved only surface ripples in the mainstream cultural consciousness.
    No, I’m afraid we-’uns will have to create, construct our OWN establishment of understandings and recognitions.
    And leave our “betters” to stew in their own sociocultural racist juices. Their loss, if not our gain.
    P.S.: Just hold your head high and keep a weather eye on the fringes of the idiot hater/baiters.

  4. Frank Eng on January 15th, 2009 1:25 am

    P.P.S.: And, Philip, hope the demise of the print AsianWeek, can the online website survive?, doesn’t mean the end of YOUR Hollywood watch for us. And great good fortune to your Lodestone gang.

  5. Phil C. on January 18th, 2009 2:22 pm

    Thanks Frank, and to everyone else who supported my musings in these pages for the past few years. I haven’t heard from anyone at Asian Week about what’s happening exactly with the online version but hopefully can get a chance to contribute now and then to it. But hopefully you’ll be hearing some exciting news in the not too distant future about things that I and others are working on so this is by no means the end.

  6. Jabba001 on January 27th, 2009 3:16 pm

    I think this is a very typical movie. But, there are more plots and stuff in other movies that are way more hackneyed than this and viewers/critics give it a way high thumbs up. Wtf?

  7. Justaguy on February 3rd, 2009 8:22 am

    To the majority of people who see this film, it is a story of a man who has rejected the lying that is demanded by the politically correct. He knows his own failings and that they are many. Somehow he falls in love with his neighbors largely through their own courageous outreach to him. He comes to love them so dearly that he is willing to offer up everything he has.

    Its a travesty how some, who are dominated by their own racist perspectives, can only see a white man who is being praised for doing something good, the “white messiah”.

    Those fools choose not to see how this film calls the average man, not just the white man, to honesty, repentance and real love. They will not understand how superior this movie is to others which, by contrast, lift up the violent, arrogant and insolent man: the role model so commonly offered to men.

    So go ahead and keep on bitching about the “white messiahs”. I hope you enjoy the fruit of all your labor.

  8. Frank Eng on February 4th, 2009 12:22 am

    Dear Justaguy:
    I haven’t seen the movie, so I cannot make relevant comment.
    But I trust Phil Chung implicitlly.
    And I KNOW full well just how Gollywood has ALWAYS inflected the assujmptions and PREsumptions of the “given” of WASP benevolence and patronization, going all the way back to “Oil for the Lamps of China” and even Pearl Buck.
    What Gollywood cannot seem to understand is that there are OTHER viewpoints, as valid as their own, more so to the “others.”
    Clint Eastwood exploited his “spaghetti western” imago to the nth degree, including all those supermacho Dirty Harryi escapades, and bully for him.
    But the fact of this specific matter is that, despite his Japanese war pix, his efforts seem to me a far cry from that of, say, Steve McQueen in “The Sand Pebbles.:
    In that flick, McQueen’s relationshp to Mako is that of EQUALS, based on mutual respect, if memory serves, and NOT on a patrron/client basis.
    RESPECT is the ONLY lingua franca that works in ANY huyman relationship, and the premises of such as most of what I have seen of Eastwood’s work AND almost all of the rest of Gollywood efforts, is the diametric opposite.
    “They” still don’t get it, from today’s CounterPuncher piece by one San Jose State professor of :”Latino:” descenct? on the subject of nouveau militarisrt jingoism of the Phi Beta Kappa variety to Chalmers Johnson’s ongoing reminder that the Pentagon, for all its intellectual speech, is still mired in its own megalomanic “superiorit,:: like that of those who “hope” Obama “will fail” and who continue to insist that the night of the hunters is the dawn of civilization.
    :Human Terrain” indeed. Problem is that these gentler and more compassionate practitioners of genoiced contiue to be considerably LESS than “human.”
    But, never fear, Clifton’s in L.A. continue to prove that “cafeteria” food can be as good as or better than most “gourmet” bistros. Ignore the trappings and the guruspeak of gourmandizing and you can still get a really fine and nourishing “meal” for under ten bucks.
    And, whereas Uri Avnery may not be the only, surely a lonely?, voice IN Israel speaking the truth to THEIR idiosts, he will eventually prove to outspeak the Likudites.
    And, for “us,” I outpoint a “factoid” in these pieces wherein the assertion is made that 26,000 South Vietnamese were “assassinated” because they were “suspected” of “ties” to the Viet Cong.
    Does THAT ring your bell for mass murder?

  9. crystal on February 6th, 2009 8:42 am

    I liked this movies and its about time you see some hmong people making movies.
    well this movie its not really how hmong people give out gift like that.thats more like thai.so yeah that all i got to day!But other than that it was wroth watching.

  10. Frank Eng on February 7th, 2009 12:23 am

    Dear Crystal”
    For sure it is good that Hmong got SOME recognition here.
    And that Hmong actyors got paid for same.
    But the fact remains, just exactly WHAT is it that the film is saying, or tryijng to day?
    It’s one thing to be “recognizerd,” but quite another to be RESPECTED.
    As equals, not as clients to a a padrone.
    P.S.: Calm your need for respect. Respect lies within. You don’t NEED tjeors. sp ;pmg as you have your own. And, when you have it, you can bestow the same on “them,” whether or no they deserve it.

  11. Frank Eng on February 7th, 2009 12:25 am

    . . . you don’t neexd THEIRS, so long as you have your own . . .

  12. Linda on February 8th, 2009 11:07 am

    Frank, were you always this spunky? Or did it develop over time? Any thoughts of writing an autobiography? Someone from Asian Week should interview you and write an article. It’ll be a fascinating read indeed!

  13. Frank Eng on February 9th, 2009 11:15 pm

    Dear Linda,
    Phil too:
    Personal peccadillos aside, and I AM “flattered,” but demur profoundly.
    Because . . .
    There are so much more important matters, daily AND apparently portending the long future of the next four, eight?, years here in this great and glorious land of the free abd home of the brave.
    You have to be brave to read and digest the cautionary pieces in today’s CounterPunch and Info Clearing House.
    While Rush Limbaugh brays and most of “us” continue to fail to see the forest behind the trees before our eyes, better minds and clearer observers post what seems more than obvious, that Obama is considerably smaller change than everyone had hoped. Excepting Rush of course.
    Paul Craig Roberts notes that a single soldier sent into the Afghani fray will “cost” about three-q0arter-mil a year. What, are grunts now CEOs?
    And an eminent medic/scholar notes that the identical prescription drug that costs $329, presumably for a month’s supply to stay alive?, goes for a mere NINE BUCKS in Barcelona. How about that, Merck?
    Said authority was bewailing Obama’s proposed Doc for the nation, one neurosurgeon and CNN “expert,” Sanjay Gupta, whom he pronounces unqualified, not to mention a well-oiled tool of Big Pharma. AND insurance.
    An administration that, according to Dr. Roberts is handily in the grip of the neocons and AIPAC, just as the buishytailed ones were, is NOT the one I, for one, voted for.
    The Man is bright, likely “decent,” but, then, so was Clinton, Bill, that is.
    Bottom line: what’s a fool like me to do? Well, at my age, that’s a non sequitur. But for almost everyone else, aside from the greedsters and hangers-on, it is a pressing, daily prob.
    I think it’s time for a grassroots “revolution” of “just say NO.”
    In every which way, in every guise, in every effort.
    Time for barter and tradeoffs. Time for networking and sharing. Time to tweak the “real” “economy” of day to day lliving, that is, if one can survive.
    To hell with “the game.” THEIR “game.”
    If there’s land and soil, grow a “victory” garden. Stock up a few free-range hens and a rooster? Organize neighborhood co-ops for “buying:” and “selling.” Services as well as goods. Maybe Gandhi was prophetic as well?
    There’s an amusing note in Robertses’ assay, wherein he maintains that college grads and pros who have been reduced to waitpersoning and bartending are also on the bubble of downsizings, since ‘most everyone else can’t afford to eat, or drink, “out.”
    And I thought I was bottom rung as a barboy/busboy working my way through UCB at the originhal Trader Vic’s.
    So much for history AND “progress.”
    Man and woman the barricades, folks. Tighten the belt but keep the calories adequate.
    P.S.: Oh, and I spotted Gupta the day he turned to the CNN camera lens and solemnly intoned how MASH medics were attempting to “save” the “life” of a five-year-old Iraqi boy who had lost all his limbs and half his face plus ALL his family. Any human being who fails to perceive the literally bloody irony of said scenario is not simply a dunce, but an ASSHOLE of the first water.

  14. Frank Eng on February 9th, 2009 11:20 pm

    And, oh, has anyone checked in on Margaret Tse lately?
    You, Christian?

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