HARVARD SQUARE COMMENTARY

January 19, 2009
Now Showing

Grand Torino

John Turner
It's ironic that just as we're caught up in the inaugural excitement, with promises of a new beginning, the leading film in the movie houses should be about a relic of past times. Who would have thought that an aging man, full of prejudices, without an ounce of political sensitivity, could become the major film hero of the season?

It's worthwhile asking why that is. My best answer is that though we are sick of much of our past behavior, there are some things about it we would like to hold on to.

Clint Eastwood's character, Walter Kowalski, has only a few of the features we say we admire nowadays. But those he does have -- courage, toughness, a deep sense of fairness -- are things we know we can't do without. That's why the ending of the film is more likely to bring tears to viewers' eyes than anything else we've seen lately.

When I walked into the men's restroom after seeing Grand Torino, I noticed that no one referred to it by name. The common conversation went like this:

"Did you see Clint?"

"Yeah."

"How was it?"

"It was good."

Not subtle, but right. It was good.

Watching Grand Torino can't help but remind those of us who are old enough to remember what an extraordinary career Eastwood has had. It's easy to recall when virtually all artsy film viewers scorned him. I've been in rooms where the mere mention of his name brought forth howls of derision.  He has simply outlived their superiority because there was never anything superior about it.

One of the surprises of the movie, for me, was its comedy. There are some extremely funny scenes, and if they push the bounds of realism, I think that's all right because the story needed something to balance its general bleakness. I suppose it wins us over because we know that behind Walter Kowalski is Clint Eastwood, still handsome, still arresting, grizzled as he is. It would be rare to find a real Kowalski in a rundown Detroit who's much like the character, but at least the movie teaches us that we hope he's there.

One of the major puzzles of modern life has been how a boy can become a man, without either emasculating himself or transforming himself into a ridiculous mannequin of macho. This story tries to answer that question, in the setting of modern urban squalor, and is at least passably persuasive.

The young actor Bee Vang does good work and helps the story along, but, let's face it, Grand Torino is Clint Eastwood's film. He gives it the only face we'll remember, and I would guess that it will stick with us for quite a while.


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