Friday 22 February 2019

Eastwood: a career beyond compare

Work ethic: Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks on the set of Sully, the first time the two stars have worked together
Work ethic: Clint Eastwood and Tom Hanks on the set of Sully, the first time the two stars have worked together
Paul Whitington

Paul Whitington

Photos have recently emerged showing Tom Hanks and Clint Eastwood chatting on location in New York. Remarkably, this is the first time the two men have ever worked together, and Hanks seems the perfect choice to play Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger, the American airline pilot who became a national hero in January of 2009.

Sully recreates the dramatic path of US Airways Flight 1549, which had just taken off from LaGuardia Airport when it hit a flock of Canada geese, knocking out both engines. With no power to get him back to a runway, Sullenberger decided to attempt an extremely risky emergency landing in the Hudson River: air traffic controllers reported seeing the Airbus 323 gliding less than 270 metres above the George Washington Bridge before Sully successfully landed it in the choppy waters of the Hudson.

All 155 passengers and crew were saved, and Sullenberger became an instant folk hero. Sully will be released here later this year.

The appeal of this story for Mr Eastwood is obvious: he's always been attracted to tales of laconic and iconoclastic American males who won't be diverted from their chosen course of action. His view of his country's ideals and history can seem anachronistic, and his Republican and sometimes libertarian politics make him stand out like a sore thumb in liberal Hollywood.

He couldn't care less, however, because he's always been a hard man to pigeonhole. A handsome beanpole of an actor who started out in cheesy TV shows like Rawhide, he seemed stiff and awkward until Sergio Leone cast him in his spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars, allowing Eastwood to reveal a darker and more sinister edge.

He was then dubbed the next John Wayne before becoming one of the biggest action stars of the 1970s and 80s. But a conventional career as a Hollywood actor would never have been enough for Clint, who was a secret film buff, a lover of French cinema, of Akira Kurosawa and John Ford. Directing was what he really wanted to do, and he's one of only a handful of acting stars who've made that tricky transition.

One thinks of Robert Redford, Mel Gibson and Jodie Foster, but Eastwood's achievements surpass those of any pretender. Sully will be his 35th film as director, his CV includes some real gems, and at 86 years old, Clint has no plans to retire any time soon. Like his near contemporary Woody Allen, Mr Eastwood's relentless work ethic and tight shooting schedule sometimes result in good rather than great films, but on his day he's capable of real grandeur.

When he first ventured behind the camera in 1970, on the thriller Play Misty for Me, Clint was determined not to follow the bad examples of most of the directors he'd worked with. He'd always hated the practice of endlessly reshooting scenes until they're 'perfect', believing it wastes time and reduces spontaneity. He avoids rehearsing actors, often goes for the first take, and those who work with him quickly learn that hammy acting will not be tolerated. He's a minimalist, both as an actor and a director, and when he gets a good story, he knows exactly how to tell it.

Play Misty for Me was a very accomplished feature début. Industry insiders weren't expecting much from a taciturn western actor, but Eastwood paced his nervy psychological thriller perfectly. In it he played a suave Californian radio DJ who loses some of his cheesy swagger when he realises he's being stalked by a psychotic female fan. Critics compared his style to Hitchcock's, and the film's success helped Eastwood establish himself as a jobbing Hollywood director.

Learning to pick the right stories would be key to his success, however. In 1973 he got it badly wrong when he decided to shoot Breezy, a rather creepy drama about a romance between a middle-aged man played by William Holden and a woman 30 years his junior. It bombed, but in the same year Eastwood released a film much more suited to his temperament and talents.

High Plains Drifter starred Clint as an enigmatic stranger who appears out of the desert to bring rough justice to a lawless frontier mining town. In a film that builds its tension cleverly, we later find out the stranger may actually be an avenging ghost. High Plains Drifter was a shot in the arm for a genre then on its last legs, and Eastwood followed it, in 1976, with a bolder and even better western.

Set in the messy aftermath of the American Civil War, The Outlaw Josey Wales starred Clint as an embittered Southern veteran who'd joined a notorious militia group after Union troops killed his wife and children. He's on the run with a price on his head when he reluctantly amasses a motley crew of fellow travellers that includes an old Cherokee, a squaw, a tough Yankee woman and her granddaughter.

Josey Wales picked up the baton from the revisionist westerns of the 1960s, and quietly contradicted the simplistic narratives of traditional frontier history.

You would have to say that in 1980s, Clint lost his way as a film-maker somewhat. Starring roles in popular action vehicles like Tightrope, Escape from Alcatraz and Any Which Way You Can distracted him from directing for a time, and the films he did choose to make himself, like Firefox and Heartbreak Ridge, were often formulaic and unedifying. But the 1985 western Pale Rider, which in ways felt like a remake of High Plains Drifter, marked a welcome return to form, and in 1988 Eastwood took his career in a new direction with Bird.

He'd long been a lover of jazz, and brought depth and sensitivity to his biopic of Charlie Parker, the legendary saxophonist memorably played by a young Forest Whitaker. Thereafter he would move fluently between action films and weightier dramas.

In 1992, he returned to the western one last time to make a film that matched the achievements of his hero, John Ford. Unforgiven, which won Best Film and Best Director Oscars in 1993, thoroughly debunked the notion of gunslingers as glamorous heroes. Eastwood starred as William Munny, a former outlaw who's given up alcohol and forsworn violence until he's tempted out of retirement by an intriguing offer.

A pair of drunken cowboys have disfigured a prostitute in the town of Big Whiskey, Wyoming, and her colleagues are offering a $1,000 reward to anyone who'll kill the guilty parties. And so Will and his old friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) head north into a dangerous and volatile situation. Gene Hackman co-starred as the town's odious sheriff Little Bill in a film that may prove to be the last of the great westerns.

Through the 90s Eastwood had solid hits like A Perfect World and Bridges of Madison County, but in the early 2000s, as he entered his 70s, he embarked on an extraordinary purple patch. First came Mystic River (2003), a powerful tale of long buried abuse based on a novel by Denis Lehane, then in 2004 Eastwood released Million Dollar Baby, a boxing picture with a big difference.

That difference was Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank), a young female boxer with a raw talent who's taken under the wing of grizzled trainer Frankie Dunn (Eastwood). It was a sports picture, a melodrama and a tragedy all rolled into one: Swank won the Best Actress Oscar, and Clint won Best Picture and Best Director awards.

He followed it with perhaps his most ambitious project of all, a two-movie analysis of the Battle of Iwo Jima told from opposite sides. Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima gave us very different perspectives on that crucial Pacific battle, and opted for a much less jingoistic tone than one might have expected.

Clint's films over the last decade or so have been a mixed bag, often ambitious (Invictus, J Edgar) but not always artistically successful (Changeling, Hereafter). His most recent, American Sniper, made almost $550m and is his highest grossing film to date. But my favourite of his recent films is Gran Torino, a lean, mean urban drama filmed on a tight budget in the summer of 2008. Eastwood starred as Walt Kowalski, a grumpy, trigger-happy racist who becomes attached to an embattled south-east Asian family that moves in next door.

It was funny, tough and touching, and somehow seemed like quintessential Clint.

If you watch one film…

So many myths have agglomerated around Bobby Sands in the 35 years since his death that the real person seems unknowable. But in his excellent new documentary, Bobby Sands: 66 Days, director Brendan J Byrne paints a clear and moving portrait of Sands by placing his 1981 hunger strike in the broader context of his life. Including interviews with everyone from Gerry Adams to Fintan O'Toole, Byrne's film gives a compelling insight into this pivotal figure in 20th-century Irish republicanism.

Sands grew up on the mixed north Belfast estate of Abbey Cross, and remembered playing football with Protestants as a child. But after the brutal suppression of the civil rights movement in the late 1960s, he became radicalised, and joined the IRA. During his first spell in prison at Long Kesh, Sands took part in blanket protests, but came into his own in the Maze, when he led a hunger strike of IRA inmates demanding to be treated as prisoners of war. Before he died, Sands was elected an MP, and though the hunger strike was unsuccessful in its aims, it changed the nature of the Northern conflict. Byrne's film captures the terrifying volatility of its period, and is admirably balanced in its approach to this eternally sensitive subject.

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