Tag: Clint Eastwood

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Oscar-winning sucker punch (literally) movie as a woman goes against the odds to make her boxing dreams come true

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Clint Eastwood (Frankie Dunn), Hilary Swank (Maggie Fitzgerald), Morgan Freeman (Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris), Jay Baruchel (Dangerous Dillard), Mike Colter (“Big” Willie Little), Lucia Rijker (Billie “The Blue Bear” Osterman), Brian F. O’Byrne (Father Horvak), Anthony Mackie (Shawrelle Berry), Margo Martindale (Earline Fitzgerald), Marcus Chait (JD Fitzgerald), Riki Lindhome (Mardell Fitzgerald), Michael Pena (Omar), Benito Martinez (Billie’s manager)

Spoilers: I thought the end of Million Dollar Baby was pretty well known, but when I watched it with my wife, I realised half-way through she had no idea where it was going. I’ll be discussing it, so consider yourself warned!

We know what to expect from most Sports stories don’t we? A plucky underdog fights the odds and emerges triumphant, winning the big match or going the distance when everyone doubted them. So it’s not a surprise Million Dollar Baby was marketed as a sort of female-Rocky. It had all the ingredients: Swank as a dreamer from the wrong-end-of-the-tracks, tough but humble and decent; Eastwood as the grizzled trainer; a working-class backdrop; a struggle to put their pasts behind them on the road to glory. Then, imagine what a sucker punch the final act of the film is when you suddenly realise you’ve not been watching a feel-good drama, but the entrée to a heart-wrenching euthanasia story.

Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) has spent months persuading grouchy boxing trainer Frankie “I don’t train girls” Dunn (Clint Eastwood) to train her. Frankie suffers from a string of lifelong regrets, from the daughter that returns his letters unread to not ending a fight decades ago that saw best friend Eddie (Morgan Freeman) blinded in one eye. Frankie’s resistance is eventually worn down by Maggie’s persistence and the two form a close bond. Maggie is on fire in the ring – until a foul punch leads to a terrible fall leaving her paralysed from the neck down. With Maggie having lost everything that gave her life meaning, how will Frankie respond when she asks him to end her life?

Of course, the clues should be there earlier that we are not about to settle down for a triumphant Rocky II-style yarn. Eastwood’s (self-composed) maudlin score constantly works against the action, until we realise it is sub-consciously preparing us. Expectations are overturned: Frankie’s reluctance to let his fighter “Big” Willie (Mike Colter) go for a title shot – hesitation that lasts so long, eventually Willie hires a new manager – is shown to be misjudged when Willie wins. Dunn spends hours in church every day, plagued with guilt about misdeeds he can’t begin to put into words. Maggie’s family are not a supportive working-class bubble, but trailer-trash dole-scum who react to Maggie buying them with house with fury as it may affect their (unmerited) benefit cheques. We even get several shots of the stool that will eventually play a crucial role in crippling Maggie.

What the film is actually building to in its opening 90 minutes is not a story of triumph, but how a close relationship builds between a man who has lost his family and a woman whose family is a grasping horror story. Eastwood charts this with a carefully judged pace, delivering one of his finest performances as the guarded and grouchy Frankie, who uses his gruff exterior to protect himself from the possible hurt of emotional commitment. Because it’s clear Frankie actually cares very deeply, frequently going the extra mile to help people, even while complaining about it.

It’s that buried heart, that draws him towards the determined and good-natured Maggie. Rather like Frankie, Hilary Swank makes clear in her committed performance Maggie’s optimism and enthusiasm is as much of a shield as Frankie’s gruffness. She knows that she’s nothing to her family except a meal ticket and her entire life seems to have been one of loneliness, working dead-end jobs to funnel money to her mother at the cost of any life of her own. Switching away from her grinning enthusiasm leaves her in danger of staring at her own life and seeing what a mess it is.

With their two very different shields, these two characters are exactly what the other needs and one of the film’s principle delights is to see them slowly confiding in each other, sharing their vulnerabilities and filling the void their own families have left in their lives. This all takes place inside a conventional “sports movie” structure, which writer Paul Haggis almost deliberately doubles down on, as Maggie builds her skills, via training montages and Frankie starts to relax about sending people into the ring to have seven bells beaten out of them and dreams about one more shot.

This all means it hurts even more when that (literal) sucker punch comes. Eastwood’s film doesn’t shirk from the horrors of Maggie’s disability – re-enforced by the previous 90 minutes establishing how crucial movement and reflexes are to boxing, and how this element in particular helps give her life meaning. She’s covered with bed sores, can’t breathe without a respirator, it takes over an hour to lift her into a wheelchair (which she cannot operate) and eventually her infected leg is amputated. Her family visit only to get her to sign over her assets (she tells them where to get off). She is reduced to biting through her own tongue to try and bleed to death, meaning she is left sedated to prevent self-harm.

It’s all more for Frankie to feel guilty about. Although the film could have given even more time to exploring the complex issues – and moral clashes – around the right to die, it does make very clear the crushing burden of guilt and the impact his final decision will have on him. In fact, it would have benefited from spending more time on this and giving more time to O’Byrne’s priest (who quite clearly states that it’s wrong), to help give more definition to the arguments around assisted suicide (I wonder if Eastwood’s agnostic views came into play here).

Perhaps the film spends a little too long on its initial – even deliberately formulaic – rags-to-riches boxing story. In its boxing club vignettes, you can see the roots of the film in a series of short stories by former boxing trainer FX Toole. Mackie’s cocky boxy and Baruchel’s gentle intellectually disabled would-be boxer run through the film play like short story anecdotes. The narrative is linked together by narration from Morgan Freeman. It’s a natural fit for Freeman – essentially a semi-reprise of Red in Shawshank – and fits him like a glove (it was no surprise he won an Oscar). But trimming this content could have given more time to the films closing moral dilemma.

Which doesn’t change the impact it has. Eastwood’s low-key style – with its drained-out colours and piano chords – make a perfect fit, and its expertly played by himself and Swank (who also won an Oscar). Even on a second viewing, Million Dollar Baby still carries a real impact, particularly as you appreciate how subtly the sucker punch that floored so many viewers first time around is built up to.

Unforgiven (1992)

Clint Eastwood rediscovers the dangers of killing in classic Western Unforgiven

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Clint Eastwood (William Munny), Gene Hackman (Sheriff Little Bill Daggett), Morgan Freeman (Ned Logan), Richard Harris (English Bob), Jaimz Woolvett (The Schofield Kid), Saul Rubinek (WW Beauchamp), Frances Fisher (Strawberry Alice), Anna Thomson (Delilah Fitzgerald), David Mucci (Quick Mike), Rob Campbell (Davey Bunting), Anthony James (Skinny Dubois)

The Western has a reputation for “white hats” and “black hats” – goodies and baddies, with sheriffs taking on ruthless killers with the backdrop of civilisation hewn out of the wildness of the West. It had passed out of fashion by 1992, and this memory is largely what remained. That helps describe the impact of Unforgiven. A great revisionist Western, searingly honest about the brutality of the West, it was made by an actor more associated with the Western than almost any other since Wayne, Clint Eastwood. Articulate, sensitive, intelligent and superbly made, it marked the transition of Eastwood from star to Hollywood artist. It’s still his greatest movie.

In 1880 in Big Whiskey, Wyoming, the face of prostitute Delilah (Anna Thomson) is slashed with a knife after she sniggers at a customer’s unimpressive manhood. The two cowboys responsible are ordered to compensate her pimp by sheriff “Little Bill” Daggett (Gene Hackman). Disgusted, the other prostitutes chip in for a $1000 bounty on the men responsible. A young man calling himself ‘The Schofield Kid’ (Jamiz Woolvett) seeks out famed gunslinger William Munny (Clint Eastwood) to help claim the bounty. Once a brutal killer, Munny is now a repentant widower raising two children – and desperate for money. Recruiting old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman), Munny rides to Big Whiskey – but will he return to his violent ways?

Unforgiven explodes the romantic mythology of the West, in a way that really made people sit up and notice. In truth, revisionist Westerns had been made for decades before 1992 – Eastwood himself had already directed at least two – but as the public hadn’t flocked to see films like McCabe and Mrs Miller (wrongly!) the main memory of the Western was of the (excellent) likes of High Noon, Shane and John Wayne (but not the Wayne of Red River). Nearly every classic Western, to be frank, has a dark heart and questions the mythology. But few films so starkly exposed the violence, ruthlessness, cruelty and empty morality of the West – or more viciously attacked the romanticism built up around it.

In Unforgiven characters – particularly Munny – are constantly haunted by their past killings. The violence described is always cheap, pointless and brutal, fuelled by huge amounts of booze. Munny never seems to remember why he even did something – be it blowing a man’s face off to killing women and children. Whenever we hear about the past, it is a parade of short-tempered, violent, pissed men using the gun as a first-and-last resort, and never thinking of the consequences. The real ‘heroes’ of the West kill without batting an eyelid and, no matter how charming they might seem, have a terrifying capacity for sadism and violence. Place Munny back into this environment, and it isn’t long before his long-hardened ease with killing emerges once again.

It’s men like this the bounty will draw to Big Whiskey – and Little Bill knows it. Little Bill is superbly played by Gene Hackman (he won every award going), full of bonhomie and charisma matched only by a ruthless “end-justifies-the-means” philosophy that sees this law-giver carry out increasingly brutal and sadistic acts to preserve order. Brutally beating gunslingers – and worse – are justified in his mind, to prevent the chaos and slaughter they bring. And he mocks the pretensions of gunslingers fancying themselves romantic heroes, but doesn’t half enjoy telling tales of his own of exploits.

It’s not a surprise that the film’s face of law-and-order is shown to be just as at ease with violence as the killers he is protecting the town from. It’s part of Unforgiven’s intriguing study of morality. When, if ever, is violence justified? Do the ends justify the means, or is killing never acceptable? Or is it fine if you are convinced the cause is right or the target deserving? How long before you’ve slid so far down this slippery slope, that questions of right-and-wrong don’t even enter your head before you pick up a gun?

There couldn’t be a better face for this than Eastwood. Clint looks old, ravaged and tired, just as Munny is, haunted by the screams of men he no longer even remembers. He’s soulful enough to know he has no soul, capable of understanding he needs to change, but also able to revert to dealing out murder. Eastwood deconstructs his own screen personae of “the man with no name” into an old man who can’t face his past and is filled with regrets. As the film progresses, more and more Munny rebuilds his ease with killing – eventually exacting a revenge that leaves a trail of bodies behind.

There is nothing romantic about any of this: despite the best efforts of journalist WW Beauchamp (played with wide-eyed gusto and energy by Saul Rubinek) to inject it. Beauchamp has made a living turning the adventures of gunslingers into romantic best sellers – and is the films’ clearest attack on Hollywood itself for romanticising an era of violence and mayhem. Beauchamp is the biographer of genteel killer English Bob, who has made his money “shooting Chinamen” for the railroads. Played with a self-important grandness by Richard Harris (one of his finest performances), English Bob (actually a working-class oik masquerading as a gentleman) is living his own press release as a gentleman gunslinger. The fact that – as Little Bill delightedly reveals – he is just as much an alcoholic murderer with no principles is just another example of how little reality and fiction meet.

At least Munny accepts he’s a bad man. Perhaps that’s why his late wife shocked her mother by marrying him – he has enough self-knowledge to want to change even if he can’t. But of his three companions – Morgan Freeman is brilliant as the jovial Ned who has lost his taste for killing – only he lasts the course. That’s not a good thing. When we finally see a fully reverted Munny, downing a bottle of whiskey and shooting up a saloon he’s terrifying: brutally efficient with shooting, in a way that panicked shooters can never compete with.

In Unforgiven violence comes with a cost. A shot man takes a long time to die. The women who called most for violence, are left speechless by meeting the reality of it. A man’s soul is marked forever by taking life – “It’s a hell of thing killing a man. You take away everything he’s got and everything he’s ever going to have”. It’s a responsibility only a fool takes on lightly – or sober. Munny and Little Bill are they only ones we see who have come to terms with it in some way, one as a necessary evil, the other as an evil he can switch on and off like a tap. Their ruthless coldness is hardly an advert for wanting to be part of this world.

Eastwood’s masterpiece tackles all these ideas with gusto, while telling an engrossing story powered by brilliant performances – Hackman in particular, Freeman and Eastwood are all stunning – and asks you to take a deep look at what we admire so much about violence. It does this in a subtle, autumnal way (with a haunting score), its muted colours helping to drain any further romance from the West. Gripping, thought-provoking and engrossing, Unforgiven is one of the greatest of Westerns.

Invictus (2009)

Morgan Freeman perfectly captures Nelson Mandela in Invictus

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Morgan Freeman (Nelson Mandela), Matt Damon (Francois Pienaar), Tony Kgoroge (Jason Tshabalala), Adjoa Andoh (Brenda Mazibuko), Julian Lewis Jones (Eitenne Feyder), Patrick Mofokeng (Linga Moonsamy), Matt Stern (Hendrick Booyens), Marguerite Wheatley (Nerine Winter)

Sometimes, very rarely, a man emerges perfectly suited to his time and place. Perhaps there is no finer example than Nelson Mandela, who emerged from a hellish imprisonment for 27 years on Robben Island to become the first black President of South Africa. The man who could have sparked – and arguably would have had the sympathy of many if he had – a wave of policies that inflicted the same unfairness and injustice on the white population that they had poured onto the black for decades. Instead he chose reconciliation and forgiveness. Can you imagine many other political leaders saying when his people were wrong – and that as their leader, his duty is to tell them so? Invictus would be triumph even if it all it did was remind us of the vision and greatness of Mandela. Fortunately it does more than this.

Like many modern film biographies, the film focuses on a single moment or point in history to explore in microcosm a complex man and his dangerous times. When Mandela (Morgan Freeman) comes to power, South Africa is a country seemingly doomed to division. The whites fear and resent the new power the black population has. The black population is keen on vengeance after years of persecution. Mandela however knows there must be a new way: the hatred propagates only itself, and for the country to move on it must come together as one Rainbow Nation. But in this new nation, there are symbols that are particularly divisive. South Africa’s rugby team, the Springboks their green and gold colours a symbol of apartheid, are the most visible of these targets.

But Mandela understood that, to bring the country together, he must ease the fears of the white population that the end of the apartheid meant an apocalypse for everything they held dear. He pushes to preserves the Springboks name and their colours. He gives the team his backing, and enlists Springbok captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) to help him. Because Mandela knows that the approaching Rugby World Cup, hosted in South Africa, is a glorious opportunity to show the world that the nation is solving its problems. And Mandela is shrewd enough to know that sport can bring people together in ways few other things can. Against all the odds, rugby will become the tool he will use to start the nation healing.

Eastwood’s film is sentimental in the best possible way. It presents a stirring true-life story with a simplicity and honesty that never overpowers the viewer or hammers them over the head. Eastwood also allows space to show in small but telling ways how dangerously divided this country is. From the Presidential staff who start packing up their desks the morning after Mandela’s win, convinced the new President will show them all the door (wrong), to the slow fusing together into one team of Mandela’s personal security staff (black) and their colleagues from the secret service (all white – many of whom arrested Mandela’s colleagues in the past). Even liberal whites like the Pienaar’s keep a black maid as a servant, while ANC party members push for a sweeping aside of every vestige of the old regime.

It’s a dynamite environment in which a single man can make a difference. And with a combination of the sort of patience you learn from 27 years living in a small cell, charm and an unbelievable willingness to turn the other cheek, Mandela is that man. While Eastwood’s film allows beats to remind us he is just a man – his difficult relationship with his family gains a few crucial scenes – the film is also unabashed in its admiration for this titan. And rightly so. Mandela’s smile, his humbleness and his determination to both do the right thing and to avoid provocation is awe-inspiring (his white security guards are stunned that he seems not to hear the abuse he is showered with when attending a rugby game early in his Presidency – he hears and sees everything, their black colleagues assure them).

Morgan Freeman is practically a Hollywood symbol of dignity and righteousness – if he can play God he can play Mandela – and his portrayal of the great man is a perfect marriage of actor and subject. Capturing Mandela’s speech patterns and physicality perfectly, he also brilliantly seizes on his character. This is a man who can put anyone at their ease, who humbly speaks of his excitement of meeting Pienaar, who we see putting hours into learning the names and backgrounds of every member of the South Africa Rugby squad. He’s a realist who knows that change needs time, political muscle and sometimes a willingness to cut corners and force the issue – but he’s also a man to whom principle drives all. Freeman’s Oscar-nominated performance is outstanding.

The strength of the film lies in the simple, stirring hope that it derives from seeing the struggle that even small triumphs need. As we see personal relationships begin to grow – from a security team that segregates itself in their office to eventually enjoying a kick-about together – and the growing sense of community in the nation as the world cup draws near, it’s hard not to feel a lump forming in the throat. The film doesn’t overegg this, but allows the moments to speak for themselves.

But it’s also a sport film – possibly the highest profile rugby film since This Sporting Life. The film recreates the drama of that World Cup very well – as well as the intense physicality of rugby as a sport. Matt Damon physically throws himself into it, as well as playing Pienaar with a natural ease carefully allowing his sense of national duty and awareness of being part of something larger than himself to grow (although an Oscar nod is still a little generous). The camera throws us wonderfully into the games, and the film largely manages to avoid the manufactured drama of the game (largely because what happened in real life was often dramatic enough!)

Invictus may not be the most revolutionary film ever made – and catch it in the wrong moment and you might think it was a sentimental journey – but it’s made with a matter-of-fact, low-key charm that I think manages to not overwhelm the heart. Instead it manages to produce a great deal of emotion from its carefully underplaying. With a fantastic performance from Morgan Freeman, it’s a wonderful tribute most of all to a very great man, who changed his country and the world for the better through the power of forgiveness – a power he was able to invest a whole nation with.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966)

Clint Eastwood is the Man with no Name in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Director: Sergio Leone

Cast: Clint Eastwood (“Blondie”/The Man With No Name), Lee Van Cleef (“Angel Eyes”), Eli Wallach (Tuco), Aldo Giuffrè (Union Captain Clinton), Mario Brega (Corporal Wallace), Luigi Pistilli (Father Pablo Ramírez), Al Mulock (Elam, one-Armed Bounty Hunter), Antonio Casas (Stevens), Antonio Casale (Jackson/Bill Carson), Antonio Molino Rojo (Captain Harper)

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly closed out Sergio Leone’s “Man with No Name” Western trilogy, the role that turned Clint Eastwood into a star. Unlike the other two films in the Dollars series, TGTBTU was shot on a larger and more expansive budget, and showed Leone stretching himself into something more than a peddler of Americana pulp. This was a film that was as much an artistic statement as it was an entertainment – perhaps more so. 

The plot of the film is very simple – considering its extended runtime. Three bandits and hired guns are on a quest for buried gold, while all around them the American Civil War rages. The bandits are: “The Good” (Clint Eastwood) – the taciturn “man with no name” who has more of heart than he lets on; “The Bad” (Lee Van Cleef) – known only as “Angel Eyes”, a stone-cold killer with no soul at all; and “The Ugly”, Tuco (Eli Wallach), a larger than life Mexican bandit, scruffy, scuzzy but with plenty of joie de vivre. The money is hidden somewhere out in a graveyard in the West – but who is going to get there first?

TGTBTU is Leone at a midway point of his career. Tonally the film falls between the more straightforward thrills of the first two Dollarsfilms, and leans closer towards the artistic epic canvasses that Leone would paint in his Once Upon a Time… films. Perhaps this is why TGTBTU is possibly the most popular of all Leone’s films, it’s more entertaining than either of the latter two but has more thematic depth than the earlier two. But that doesn’t change the fact that, watching it, I feel this is reaching for a moral and thematic richness and complexity that is just beyond Leone’s grasp. He’s straining for this film to be something more than his earlier films – and I’m not sure that’s something he manages to do. 

But let’s focus on what the film does right, which is a hell of a lot. This is the film where Leone really found his voice and ran with it. It’s a hyper real world he creates of the Old West, with a tone of artificiality about it. Part of that comes from the odd disconnect you get from the European actors and the dubbed voices that overlay them (not always completely accurately), but it’s there in every inch of the style of the film.

It’s an explosion of style, with artificiality frequently alongside reality, all thrown together into a sort of crazy Western world where everything seems to be happening at once (from bandit towns to the Civil War), and you could turn a corner and end up in either a desert, a battle field or a town under siege. His style is heightened, and makes for some wonderful shots, not least the way first Blondie and later Tuco’s banditos seem to drop into a wider frame, expanding the world suddenly as we watch it. 

Leone’s a director who practically invented the term “operatic” for cinema. His gun battles are 99% build up and 1% action, and it’s the simmering tension of those build-ups that really make his films stick in the mind. If you think of it, you’ll imagine that iconic Ennio Morricone score (recorded before the film was shot, so Leone could shoot the film to match it – composers dream of having such licence today!), followed by slow series of escalating cuts. Leone will cut to hands approaching triggers, then close ups of faces, then long shots for context, then all of these again and again, each time the hands getting closer, the close-ups getting tighter, the long shots being more prolonged, all of it about building the tension and then BANG the shooting is done in seconds.

The film was criticised for being violent at the time, but it’s more like extremely tense. You can see why Tarantino sites Leone as his master. Watch that introduction sequence for Angel Eyes, a long, quiet scene where he eats a peasant’s food while questioning him and then ends by a sharp series of shootings that leave the family devastated. It’s the style Tarantino was going for in Inglourious Basterds and a tone establisher for Leone. You always know the violence is coming, and you know it will be quick and merciless when it does, but the film makes you sit tensely waiting for it for minutes at a time. The violence when it comes is often cold and those who carry it out are cynics and thieves rather than heroes and villains.

It makes for a sprawling, epic, even rather unfocused film at times – and it means the runtime is hopelessly overextended at over three hours uncut – but it’s also what interests Leone. He sees a world where killers are cool, calm, calculating and don’t go in guns blazing. Where intimidation is an art and micro-calculations occur before any trigger is squeezed. 

And these ruthless killers are in a world of violence all around them. Around the edges of the film’s narrative, the world of the Civil War rages, claiming lives left, right and centre. It’s here that Leone targets a thematic richness that I don’t feel is completely successful. There are elements that work – and the Union prison camp that Blondie and Tuco end up in (staffed by sadistic guards under the guidance of Angel Eyes) is the best of them. Clearly paralleling Nazi extermination camps in the herding of prisoners, the trains that carry them to certain death, the brutal beatings and the Yankee soldiers who are forced to play music (literally for their lives) to cover the noise of those beatings, you can feel Leone’s anger at the horror mankind unleashes on itself. 

But it’s heavy handed at places and makes its points too bluntly, dropping them into the film rather than weaving them neatly into the overall narrative. Towns and villages are bombed out and dead men lie on the edge of roads, but it doesn’t really get tied into an effective contrast with the central treasure hunt narrative. This is Leone straining for greatness, but not having the chops to get there yet. Blondie may bemoan the pointless slaughter of civil war – and even comfort a dying soldier – but these beats could be removed from the film without affecting its overall impact. Leone’s real love is Americana pulp, and his focus on this sometimes gets in the way of achieving his wider aims.

Perhaps that’s also because the impact gets lost slightly in the film’s great, sprawling length – and Leone’s lack of discipline, his insistence in taking everything at his own pace (often a slow dawdle through details), while it works really well for some sequences it also gives us others (such as Tuco running through a graveyard) that seem to last forever for very little impact.

Leone also increasingly became more a director with epic visuals in which characters are only details, with this film. Eastwood – reluctant to return in any case – especially feels like a much blanker presence in this film, coasting through his role almost on autopilot. Although you could say he generously cedes much of the limelight to Eli Wallach, who roars through the film as Tuco. Wallach’s eccentric but heartfelt performance – full of odd mannerisms but underscored with a genuine emotional vulnerability at points matched with a childlike enthusiasm – becomes central to the enjoyment of the film (he’s really the lead character). Van Cleef meanwhile drips demonic, cold menace behind unflinching (Angel) eyes.

Leone’s epic work is a sprawling, over extended, self-indulgent epic that mixes moments of pure cinematic entertainment with heavy handed digressions into man’s inhumanity that are a little too on-the-nose and unthreaded into the central plot to carry as much impact as they should. But it remains one of the most popular films of all time partly because what it does well, it does better than almost anyone – those long, tense build-ups, that electric energy that Wallach represents, the otherworldly artificiality mixed with cold reality. The Good the Bad and the Ugly is Leone’s crowning achievement, and for all its flaws, it still packs a punch.

American Sniper (2014)

Bradley Cooper takes aim as the American Sniper in Eastwood’s surprisingly thoughtful war film

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Bradley Cooper (Chris Kyle), Sienna Miller (Taya Kyle), Luke Grimes (Marc Lee), Jake McDorman (Ryan “Biggles” Job), Cory Hardrict (D), Kevin Lacz (Dauber), Navid Negahban (Sheikh Al-Obodi), Keir O’Donnell (Jeff Kyle), Sammy Sheik (Mustafa), Mido Hamada (The Butcher), Eric Close (Agent Snead)

All war films walk a fine line: too far one way, and you glorify the violence of conflict; too far the other way and demean the bravery of the soldiers sent to fight it. It’s a tricky balance, but one American Sniper handles with real confidence, astutely putting together a film that can celebrate the bravery, skill and professionalism of its lead character but deplore the psychological impact killing has on him, while subtly suggesting the war he was fighting was scarcely worth the sacrifice.

Chris Kyle (played by an almost unrecognisably beefed up Bradley Cooper) is a Navy SEAL sniper stationed in Iraq. Kyle’s role as a sniper is to protect the troops on the ground from threats they can’t see, and it’s a job he treats with immense seriousness, believing he has a duty to protect others. Kyle soon builds up an astonishing number of kills (a record for US soldiers), but increasingly the burden of killing from a distance impacts Kyle more and more. Over the course of four tours in Iraq, Kyle becomes distant and withdrawn at home from his wife Taya (Sienna Miller) and children. Only after his final tour does he begin to seek help, finding a new purpose in life in helping other veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress. Which, tragically, leads to Kyle’s death, as he is killed in February 2013 by a veteran whom he was trying to help.

Eastwood directs with his expected unfussy smoothness and American Sniper is one of his finest films, a largely unsentimental, gritty look at the true cost of war physically and emotionally. Eastwood balances respecting Kyle’s skill and deploring the impact using that skill had on him. The film stresses the perverse necessity for empathy the role of sniper demands. Kyle is so good at the role because he will go the extra mile to protect his brothers-in-arms on the ground. The psychological impact is heavy because this man, hard-wired to protect others, has to do so by gunning down hundreds of people. Is it any wonder it has such a huge impact on him?

The sequences set in Iraq have the grimy air of reality to them, with dust, dirt, sweat and glare dominating every frame. Eastwood pulls no punches on the impact of bullets from distance on bodies, the violence of direct combat, the terror of being pinned down by enemy fire or the waste of lives (both civilian and military). While the film celebrates the bravery of frontline soldiers, it’s telling we see very few officers at all, but stay with the grunts, and the film is one of their stories and their choices. The politics behind why the soldiers are even there are barely touched upon and, as the tours tick by, the feeling of being there because they are there permeates the film. There is always another insurgent leader to take out, another target to find, and the soldiers make so little progress towards their actual target (locating al-Zarqawi) that he’s barely even mentioned.

Eastwood still subtly suggests our cause in Iraq hardly helps to win over hearts and minds. The soldiers’ interactions with the population are consumed with tension and violence, usually involving scared soldiers shouting at unarmed people, cable-tying men on the floor and failing to relate to or understand the cultures they are in. Any attempts to do so usually end with poor consequences, and the closest to a bond Kyle forms with someone outside of the soldier circle leads to a tragic ending. It’s not a film that has an affinity with the consequences of war, or the impact it has on lives.

If you have any doubt about that, then watching the slow breakdown of Kyle over the course of the film (manfully shrugged off and denied for as long as possible by the man himself) should shake that. Much of the impact of this comes from the excellent performance of Bradley Cooper, who slowly turns the light, fun and intelligent man we meet at the start of the film into someone sullen, withdrawn and permanently on the edge of anger, unwilling to even to begin to think about the possibility that anything he has seen has had any lasting impact on him. There is even some questioning of the damage extreme masculinity and an unwillingness to be open about your problems has on people (themes that Eastwood has always been far more interested in than he is given credit for). 

In fact, excellently assembled as the sequences in Iraq are (especially the tension around a semi-duel between Kyle and an insurgent sniper known only as “Mustafa”), I could actually have had more time given over at the end of the film to exploring how this man with such a warm empathy in him discovered a new purpose in his life. Kyle’s other heroism – and perhaps the secret to the regard he was held in by so many when he was murdered – was his commitment to helping people any way he could. His refocusing his life to help veterans deal with PTSD and physical disabilities could have been brought out into greater focus. Kyle’s greatest strength was his empathy and he became so open about his own problems, and his struggle to readjust, that it helped inspire many others to do the same – and it’s a plot thread I feel deserved a few more minutes at the end of the film.

It does however make a wise call by ending the morning of the day that Kyle was killed, with him leaving his family to spend a few hours with the veteran who killed him. Kyle had been involved in the development of the film, and it stands as a fitting, honest, tribute to him. Powered by Cooper’s superb performance, well supported by Sienna Miller as the wife who wants him to acknowledge the impact war is having on him, Eastwood assembles a fine war film, that acknowledges the sacrifices and heroism of soldiers, but also deplores the horrors conflict enacts on their psyche. It’s a mature, intelligent and well-handled film and well worth your time and effort.

J. Edgar (2011)

Leonardo DiCaprio is excellent in Clint Eastwood’s decent J. Edgar

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar Hoover), Armie Hammer (Clyde Tolsen), Naomi Watts (Helen Gandy), Judi Dench (Anne Marie Hoover), Josh Lucas (Charles Lindbergh), Dermot Mulroney (Norman Schwarzkopf), Damon Herriman (Bruno Richard Hauptmann), Jeffrey Donovan (Robert F. Kennedy), Zach Grenier (John Condon), Ken Howard (General Harlan F Stone), Stephen Root (Arthur Koehler), Denis O’Hare (Albert S Osborn), Geoff Pierson (A Mitchell Palmer)

J. Edgar Hoover holds a unique place in American history. As the first ever director of the FBI he ruled it as his own personal fiefdom from 1935 to his death in 1972. A workaholic, he revolutionised the investigation of crime in the USA, centralising records, introducing and championing scientific techniques, and working to change the image of lawmen into heroes. On the other hand, Hoover frequently abused his position, used the FBI to investigate rivals and stamp out groups he judged as dissident, and put together secret files of unpleasant and damaging material on political opponents.

Eastwood’s film actually does a pretty good job of balancing these two J. Edgar Hoovers, and of presenting a fairly even-handed portrait of a man most people see now as the worst example of a power-abusing policeman. The film follows the career of Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), focusing in particular on the Lindbergh kidnapping, clashes with Presidents, and his relationships with his deputy (and probably long-term lover) Clyde Tolsen (Armie Hammer) and with his domineering mother (Judi Dench). 

The film’s main advantage is a typically power-house performance from Leonardo DiCaprio. His Hoover blusters with insecurity, resentment and a monomaniacal obsession with his own sense of right and wrong. He’s the sort of guy who takes a woman on a date because he thinks it’s time to get married and then takes her to see his filing system. Hoover was a man whose life was work and power – but DiCaprio doesn’t forget that amidst the maniacal power grabbing, he had a confused personal sexuality.

The film suggests Hoover repressed his homosexuality due to the influence of his mother (“I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil”), and contrasts this painful struggle with the preppy, tender, manly Clyde Tolsen, played with equal skill by Armie Hammer. Tolsen was Hoover’s long-term friend and companion, they holidayed together, ate meals together, lived opposite each other, and Tolsen even accepted the flag after Hoover was buried – neither man married. The film creates a fairly sweet love story of a man who couldn’t fully accept his own feelings falling in love with a man comfortable with who he was. 

The old-married feeling of this couple – whose physical contact never really goes much further than the occasional hand holding – is the emotional heart of the film. Although the repressed Hoover never admits his love openly (to the occasional hurt of Tolsen), it’s actually a fairly good expression of a normalised same-sex marriage, and Eastwood never succumbs to some of the odder gossip about Hoover’s cross-dressing (except in grief at the death of his mother) or sexual preferences.

His relationship with his mother (whom he lived with his whole life until her death) is more predictable: she is demanding and controlling, he is loving, placid and deferential to her. It’s what we’ve seen before several times – and Judi Dench can play this role standing on her head – but it gives us a nice context to get inside Hoover’s head and understand why he behaved the way he did. 

The film doesn’t lose track of Hoover’s ongoing political clashes. We get showpiece senate hearings as Hoover struggles to establish the FBI with the powers it needs to combat crime (DiCaprio is pretty electric in these scenes). Repeated shots show Hoover watching various inauguration parades, or stopping to stare at the same portrait of Washington as he heads in to meet with (and intimidate) various (unseen) presidents. The film hits these beats hard at times – did we need Hoover telling Robert Kennedy that he has information on “your brother, the President of the United States”? But it’s not afraid to show Hoover unsympathetically, particularly in his vindictive campaign against Martin Luther King.

What Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay, and Eastwood’s professional, smooth direction, do well is explain why Hoover may have hated these people so much. The film focuses on Hoover’s early days – full of anarchist bombings, wildfire communist strikes that led to clashes with the police, years of bank robbers and gangsters carrying on unrestricted in America – that makes you at least understand why he felt America was under threat. 

The film’s reconstruction of period detail is exquisite, and much of the photography has a brilliantly murky, sepia tone to it I really liked. The reconstruction of details from the Lindbergh kidnapping is very well done. All this is much better than some of the wonky “old age” make-up Di Caprio, Hammer and Watts (playing Hoover’s faithful secretary) have to labour under towards the end of the film (Hammer in particular looks slightly ridiculous under laboured liver patches). 

In structure, this is a fairly traditional biopic, and in trying to cover Hoover’s entire career it often skips over or misses key incidents. In an era where “modern” biopics tend to focus on dramatizing one key moment in their subject’s life (such as Selma or Lincoln), J. Edgar feels a bit more like a 1990s biopic. It crams so many events in, it sometimes feel like an “and then this happened” sort of film, rather than the more interesting thematic film under the surface.

It’s also struggling to bring more interesting depths out. It has a neat structure of Hoover dictating his biography to a string of indistinguishable “trusted” FBI agents (each scene has a different one, and there is neat visual gag as Eastwood cuts to a series of these guys in a row offering the “wrong” answer to Hoover’s question as to who was the most famous American of the 20th century – the answer being Lindbergh). Interestingly a final speech from Tolsen suggests much of what we have seen is Hoover’s vainglorious “legend building” rather than the “true story” – a theme that you feel could have been explored more.

It’s stuff like this that makes J. Edgar stand out a bit more. That and the wonderful performances from DiCaprio and Hammer, as the truly rather sweet married couple-who-weren’t. The film could make more of exploring the psychology of Hoover – the man who hated anyone different, including homosexuals – but who carried this open secret. But there isn’t time. It’s a film with good ideas and scenes, which could be more than it is. But it’s a decent film for all this. Many won’t like the fact that it takes a sympathetic angle on Hoover. But it shows every life has its right and wrongs.

Sully: Miracle on the Hudson (2016)

Tom Hanks braces for impact as heroically normal hero pilot Chesley Sullenberger

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Tom Hanks (Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger), Aaron Eckhart (Jeff Skiles), Laura Linney (Lorraine Sullenberger), Anna Gunn (Dr Elizabeth Davis), Autumn Reeser (Tess Soza), Ann Cusack (Donna Dent), Holt McCallany (Mike Cleary), Mike O’Malley (Charles Porter), Jamey Sheridan (Ben Edwards)

On January 15th 2009, a miracle happened in New York. A plane struck birds, causing double engine failure. Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, left with no options, decided to land the plane on the Hudson River. Amazingly, all 155 passengers and crew survived unharmed.

Eastwood’s emotional, skilfully made film brilliantly recreates this true-life event, with Hanks taking on the lead as Sully. The framing device Eastwood uses is the National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the crash, here re-imagined as an almost persecution, convinced that pilot error and failure to react quickly enough were the causes.

What’s most striking for me is this film’s tribute to the professionalism and heroism of everyone involved. Just as Sully states during his hearing, this was a team effort, not the work of a lone hero. This comes across strongly here. Air hostess is a profession which, god knows, it’s easy to mock: but this film shows their unflappable bravery, calmness and leadership. Similarly, the first responders are dedicated and compassionate. I’m not ashamed to say I felt myself choke up at one point, when a first responder tell one waterlogged passenger “no one dies today”. The film ends with a tribute to New York coming together to save lives – and it’s a message ringing through the film.

Eastwood knows the drama of the film is directly linked to the crash, so weaves this event throughout the film, returning to it at least four times from different angles. He opens the film with Sully’s nightmare of what could have happened if he had flown towards an airport (the plane ploughing into New York) – a grim reminder of what could have been, which hangs over the rest of the runtime. The evacuation of the downed plane is gripping, and is filmed with a restraint that lets the events speak for themselves. The emotional force throughout these sequences is compelling.

Tom Hanks is perfectly cast as the low-key everyday hero achieving the impossible with only quiet courage and years of experience behind him. To be honest, it’s a role Hanks could probably play standing on his head, but his quiet everyman quality is essential to the film’s success. He’s well supported by Eckhart and other members of the cast.

It’s good Hanks is so assured, as he is required to anchor much of the film’s plot. The plot is where the film struggles as, to put it simply, the story away from the crash isn’t actually that dramatic or interesting. An attempt has been made to make the investigation into the crash into a sort of inquisition into Sully’s actions, but it never really rings true (it largely wasn’t) and it’s never really interesting enough, certainly not when compared to the crash itself.

In fact, it’s hard not to think that there is some sort of message being built into the film here, contrasting the low-key individual Sully with the faceless, procedural suits who can’t imagine the importance of the human element. Maybe that’s reading a bit much into it, but either way it’s average drama: there is never any doubt in the viewer’s mind that Sully will be completely exonerated. It’s an attempt to add dramatic tension to a story everyone already knows.

Furthermore, Sully is too “normal” a man to sustain a drama around his life: in another film inspired by these events, Flight, Denzel Washington played a drunken pilot who saved an aeroplane in a moment of inspired flying. The drama of that film was based on the film’s exploration of Washington’s character’s lack of responsibility vs. his act of heroism. Sully doesn’t have this, so we don’t get that sense of conflict within the character or with others. Put simply, Sully is such a regular decent, guy that, outside these unique circumstances, he is not really a dramatically interesting character – and the film can’t create a plot that brings drama out of his situation.

So Sully is a mixed bag of a film. Hanks gives his best as ever, but the film can’t really get over the fact that it’s recreating a moment in history, and fails to give that moment an effective dramatic framework. There is some good supporting work, although many of the other roles are thankless (Laura Linney’s role in particular is literally phoned in), but the film only flies when the plane doesn’t. The reconstruction of the event, and the people who were involved in it, is inspiring and stirring – but the rest of the film is little more than a humdrum courtroom drama.