Since the mid-1970s, Clint Eastwood’s life and career have provided material for innumerable books, documentaries and magazine articles. While writers initially focused upon his role as one of Hollywood’s biggest stars, more recent years have seen a growing number of scholarly studies which have variously evaluated his work as a director, analysed his role as a cultural icon, and scrutinised his oeuvre within a range of critical contexts. Of the most recent batch, the three books reviewed here each approach Eastwood’s career from different routes. In Aim for the Heart: The Films of Clint Eastwood, Howard Hughes takes a breezy tour through all the films with which Eastwood has been involved as either an actor or director. The rather more scholarly-sounding Clint Eastwood: Evolution of a Filmmaker by John H. Foote turns out to be almost equally populist in its approach but centres solely on Eastwood’s directorial projects and is endowed with a slightly greater critical emphasis in lieu of Hughes’ more extensive production information. The gem of the three – to my mind at least – is Drucilla Cornell’s Clint Eastwood and Issues of American Masculinity, which supplies a genuinely scholarly appraisal of one particular facet of Eastwood’s directorial work. Each book is, of course, designed not only to cover different ground but also to serve different readerships so it seems unlikely that any one reader will find all three books equally to their taste; each, however, has something to offer to an audience in search of its particular style and material.
Clint Eastwood and Issues of American Masculinity by Drucilla Cornell
With so many books about Eastwood already on the market, it is refreshing to find a recent publication that has something genuinely new to say and makes a significant contribution to the existing body of work about Eastwood and his films. While it is certainly true that Eastwood’s increasingly nuanced and sensitive handling of character and his regular examination of and challenge to masculine stereotypes has not gone unnoticed by previous critics and scholars, the scope of Drucilla Cornell’s analysis and the rigour with which she analyses an extensive range of carefully chosen films indubitably merits respect.
“What does it mean to live a life as a good man in a complex and violent world?” asks Cornell. “Over and over again”, she writes, “he returns us to that simple question” (p. ix) and in so doing, she argues, touches upon a revealing range of masculine behaviours and insecurities. Through the course of seven chapters (one co-authored with Roger Berkowitz), Cornell addresses a series of specific loci of masculine selfhood ranging from, amongst other matters, heterosexual and homosocial relationships through to the appetite for revenge and attempts to process the trauma of war. Bar the co-authored study of revenge in Mystic River (2003), each chapter draws together analyses of an aptly selected group of films which, unlike most other books on Eastwood’s work, find their commonality not in period or genre but rather in thematic issues. In each case, these issues are central to the viewing experience, whether or not they present themselves as an explicit focus of the films’ narratives.
Part of the distinctiveness of Cornell’s approach resides in the fact that her book is at once self-consciously personal and sometimes polemical while also proving admirably measured and respectful to and inclusive of other critical opinions, even where these differ from her own conclusions. Her project, she states, “is to study Eastwood as a director as he is relevant to certain major philosophical and ethical themes that I have personally articulated throughout my life’s work” (p. viii). He is, as she compellingly demonstrates, “a filmmaker caught within the integral connections between ideals of masculinity and the fundamental moral and ethical issues of our time” (p. x).
If there is one key thread running through each of the seven chapters, it is a fascination with trauma or, more accurately, post-traumatic effects and how they shape the individual or collective actions of the films’ protagonists. This theme is clearly evident from the outset with the first chapter centring (with atypical restriction to a single critically and industrially established genre) on three of Eastwood’s Western movies: High Plains Drifter (1973), Pale Rider (1985) and Unforgiven (1992). Trauma’s provision of an impetus for the narratives that subsequently unfold is particularly marked in the first and third of these titles with their protagonists’ actions and response to situations guided by significant incidents that pre-date the beginning of their stories proper. In both cases, the orgy of violence ultimately unleashed by the films’ central characters (portrayed in each film by Eastwood) has its roots in past incidents, without audience knowledge of which these scenarios would undoubtedly possess considerably less dramatic force. The theme is followed through in later chapters where it features, for example, in attempts to forge relationships that endeavour to compensate for ruptured biological families (A Perfect World , Absolute Power  and Million Dollar Baby ); the differing responses of three men to a murder that refocuses attention on a shared traumatic childhood incident (Mystic River); and – in a rare discussion of a film in which Eastwood performed but which he did not direct – the doubling of hero and villain characters who have each in their own way been damaged by the callous rigours of employment by American government agencies (In the Line of Fire [Wolfgang Petersen, 1993]). “The question of whether the scars of trauma can heal sufficiently well to free the victim to reach out for healthy, genuine contact with others haunts in one way or another almost all of the films” (p. 95), Cornell remarks. It is an astute observation which helps to illuminate the reasons whereby Eastwood’s work has gained mounting acceptance within the critical canon (both in terms of festival and industrial approbation), academic scholarship and art-house audienceship on top of his longstanding regard by a far wider range of viewers and commentators.
Whilst the exploration of thematic issues is fundamental to Cornell’s approach, the extent to which her discussions make productive reference to film style is striking and somewhat unusual for an academic whose background lies outside the film studies discipline (1). Such close analysis features regularly and always in relevant ways, making substantial contributions to her core theses and giving strength to her arguments. Whether dealing with style, theme, or a combination of the two, the main force of her writing derives from a series of careful observations that often identify features of Eastwood’s work that have not been widely noted. Whether offering new insights into films that have already received wide critical acclaim, such as Unforgiven or Mystic River, or shrewdly unveiling layers of meaning that have hitherto remained largely unobserved in such critically reviled pictures as Firefox (1982), Cornell’s writing proves both persuasive and engaging throughout.
Aim for the Heart: The Films of Clint Eastwood by Howard Hughes
Howard Hughes’ publication is a less ambitious affair altogether, swelling as it does the already considerable ranks of books dealing individually with the 50-plus films in which Eastwood has starred or has directed. From A Fistful of Dollars (Sergio Leone, 1964) to Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), it allots an average of four pages to each film, with briefer appraisals of Changeling and Gran Torino (both 2008) included in an epilogue. Hughes eschews a straight chronological structure in favour of grouping films by genre: the westerns, the cops, the war movies, and so forth. Almost inevitably, a few titles are shoehorned into strange places, such as A Perfect World which is classed under “the cops” – an instance of focus upon a relatively minor supporting character which sends a clear signal of the greater weight given to Eastwood’s on-camera performances than to his work as a director.
More descriptive than analytical, each film appraisal typically includes a brief plot summary, the quotation of several “best” lines of dialogue, a few items of information concerning the production (such as key locations and the number of shooting days), names of actors and selected films in which they had previously appeared, a couple of lines about the score, the production budget and US box office gross, the UK and US release certificates, any scenes customarily cut for television broadcast, the existence of a novelisation and/or video game tie-in, a short selection of contemporary critical responses and the author’s own evaluation of the film’s overall worth.
If one seeks an Eastwood film encyclopedia more given to trivia than analysis, then Aim for the Heart may well prove adequate to one’s needs. Yet it is hard to imagine that even a reader making such low demands would not find the work livelier had it engaged in just a slightly more challenging way with some of the cultural and scholarly debates surrounding Eastwood’s work and star persona. For example, Hughes pays lip service to the controversies surrounding the politics associated with Dirty Harry (Don Siegel, 1971) but makes no stand and offers no analysis. The outright avoidance of such issues is indeed quite jaw-dropping; for such an interesting film to be rendered so banal is a striking achievement in itself. Characterised by a level of incisiveness unlikely to stretch the average high school student, wherever this book is aimed it is certainly not at the head.
Clint Eastwood: Evolution of a Filmmaker by John H. Foote
Whilst employing an approach that is in some ways not dissimilar from Hughes’, John Foote’s book deals only with the films that Eastwood has directed. Arranged chronologically and allotting a similar amount of space to each film, it makes for similarly easy reading and covers some common territory. A key area of difference, though, is the inclusion of a lesser amount of production information and, instead, a slightly greater degree of context and critical evaluation. Rather than focusing on the key canonical titles moreover, his emphasis (in terms of passion if not space) lies in several ardent pleas for the re-evaluation of films that he considers to have been widely ignored or misunderstood, such as A Perfect World and Flags of Our Fathers (2006). Though laudable to some degree, his belief that such films as these have not received the appreciation they deserve points to his reliance on popular rather than scholarly discourses as reference points. Though fitting with the overall style of his book, this is also emblematic of the limitations of both the secondary research undertaken and analytical depth of his writing.
In endeavouring to offer some context for the films he discusses, Foote makes reference not only to other works of Eastwood’s oeuvre but also to other films of the era or genre at hand. This does indeed prove useful in places. At the same time, his style of critical evaluation, which is sometimes productive and which can make for sporadically entertaining reading, is often less helpful however. Always highly opinionated, Foote’s personal tastes are rarely measured against other critical reactions, be they similar or contrasting. For instance, he waxes lyrical about Bird (1988) and indulges in hyperbolic praise for the acting skills of Meryl Streep and Sean Penn, whilst being absolutely brutal in his responses to The Gauntlet (1977) – “a very poor film” (p. 37), “one of the worst films of his career” (p.35) – and to its star, Sondra Locke, in general. Whilst there are many instances in which it is difficult to disagree with his positions – one can hardly fault him for calling The Rookie (1990) “a bad movie” for example (p. 83) – at other times the exercise of a little more restraint and the application of a degree of critical balance would be of benefit in helping the reader appreciate the ways in which these films work on anything other than a superficial level. A typical statement compares Sudden Impact (1983) to another rape-revenge film of the era, I Spit on Your Grave (Meir Zarchi, 1978): “The only major difference between the films is that Eastwood brought good taste to his project. Although Eastwood’s film was at times violent and brutal it was not as exploitative as that other work of trash” (p. 56.). A proclamation such as this does little to enhance one’s understanding or appreciation of either film, even if one does agree with his somewhat contentious assertions. Given that the book has many admirable qualities, it is a shame that it is marred by such ill-considered comments which have the unfortunate effect of closing down readings rather than opening them up.
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Any readers possessing a casual interest in the films of Clint Eastwood and who have not yet dipped into any previous book-length appraisals of his work could certainly do worse than to indulge in a bit of light reading courtesy of Foote or Hughes. Since neither book adds a great deal to the existing pile however, besides bringing his filmography a little further up to date, those fans who have already engaged in any reasonably substantial investigation of Eastwood’s body of work would be better advised to skip past them and head instead for Cornell’s more advanced and incisive study. While possibly a poor starter text for those lacking a degree of scholarly dedication and a penchant for critical theory, dedicated Eastwood buffs and the academically minded are likely to find the perusal of her contribution time well invested.
Clint Eastwood and Issues of American Masculinity, by Drucilla Cornell, Fordham University Press, New York, 2009.
Aim for the Heart: The Films of Clint Eastwood, by Howard Hughes, I. B. Tauris, London and New York, 2009.
Clint Eastwood: Evolution of a Filmmaker, by John H. Foote, Praeger, Westport, CT, 2009.