May 7, 2018
Dear Clint Eastwood: Please retire
Dear Mr. Eastwood:
I saw the trailer for your new movie coming out in 2018, The 15:17 to Paris, and it’s… well…
Okay, there’s a lot to unpack here. I could go on at article length about the trailer alone. But that wouldn’t give the full sense of just how cracked-up this movie is.
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The film’s premise isn’t new, and the fact that you’re making it isn’t a surprise. The modern incarnation of the Hero Movie is largely your doing, and to your credit, you have yet to cast Mark Walhberg in one. Having the actual heroes (Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos, and Spencer Stone) playing themselves in a movie about their heroism is weird, but not exactly unprecedented: Hollywood’s been doing it since making Audie Murphy relive his own malaria-ridden PTSD story. More recently, the makers of the fictional Act of Valor cast active-duty Navy SEALs in principal roles; American heroes so bald-eagle-humpingly bad-ass that the movie couldn’t credit them, lest some terrorist watch the movie and say, “hey, that guy was in front of me at Starbucks yesterday! I recognize the name from his cup!”
No, what gets me scratching my head is the follow-up research. Every story I read about this film brings a revelation more baffling than the last. For instance, you originally picked three actual actors to play the American heroes and announced your choice without telling them. You also picked Judy Greer to play Spencer Stone’s mom; she’s primarily a comedic actor, and not particularly mom-ish, and also remarkably young to be playing the mother of a grown man (Wikipedia says she’s 18 years older than Stone, so I’ll give you a grudging pass on that). The “let’s cast a comedian in my incredibly stuffy and humorless movie” theme continues with Tony Hale, a man known for playing pathetic nebbishes on Arrested Development and Veep. He’s playing the boys’ teacher. Also, Thomas Lennon, best known for playing a goofy gay cop on Reno 911!, is playing the boys’ principal. Then again, Lennon might just be honing his biopic chops for when he’s inevitably picked to play Bashar al-Assad in a movie.
But let’s just circle back to your choice to have the main heroes play themselves. I don’t really have a problem, in principle, with non-performers in performing roles. I’ll gladly sit and chuckle through, say, Wayne Gretzky on SNL or Julian Assange on The Simpsons. It feels different, though, when soldiers or other American Heroes™ play themselves in their own story. It feels exploitative. It makes a movie tricky to critique, because you don’t want to appear personally disparaging. It preemptively and effectively neuters the ability of a movie to address any number of things you want a movie like this to at least try to address. And it doesn’t help that Spencer Stone apparently sucks as an actor. Like, so bad, Clint. You’ve directed multiple Oscar-nominated performances, including your own; you had to know this. Not that he has much room to shine with the script he’s been given, with lines like this straight out of the Corn Baller: “I dunno, man, you ever feel like life is just pushing you towards something? Some greater purpose?” Jesus God, I need a shower on that writer’s behalf.
Which brings me to another point. Your last movie was also a Hero Movie: the Tom Hanks plane-rescue picture Sully. Now, I understand why you wanted to make this movie. Captain Chelsey “Kooky Guido Nickname” Sullenberger sure feels like the kind of character you’d be enamored with. The problem is that a headline isn’t enough to hang a movie on. What did Sully’s story amount to, really? A dude who was good at flying planes was flying a plane that started to land bad, so he flew good and made the plane land good. What’s there, Clint? Where’s the conflict? You didn’t seem to know, so you invented an entirely fictitious conflict with the NTSB, who in your movie are convinced that Sullenberger made the plane crash through incompetence. Nothing of the kind happened in real life.
I have a sinking feeling that The 15:17 to Paris is going to shake out in a similar fashion. All my background research into the Thalys train attack paints the same picture: a group of well-adjusted, obedient, helpful, devoutly religious kids grew up, entered the armed forces, distinguished themselves with their service and character, went on vacation together, ran into a terrorist, and reacted exactly as you would expect people like that to react. I can’t help but feel that the story’s a little meatless. What will you have to invent to stretch it out? A drug addiction? Problems with the law? Ninja dinosaurs? Who knows?
I’m just concerned, Clint… can I call you Clint? I’ll call you Clint, because I’m a student of your work. A couple of years ago, I spent some time unemployed. I went flat broke. My internet was shut off. With vast gulfs of time at my disposal, and crushing waves of anxiety and hopelessness to keep at bay, I tackled a couple of box sets of your movies which I’d acquired at some point. In a three-week period I saw ten of your movies, not including the Man with No Name trilogy and three of the Dirty Harries. I got to know you pretty well then, Clint, as an actor and a director. Your directing career is the main focus of this fake letter, but it’s sometimes difficult to tease the two apart, because you sure do love to appear in your own movies. I haven’t counted it out, but you’ve surely directed yourself in over ten, maybe twenty, of your own movies. If a director cast another actor in that many of his films, I’d just assume they were sleeping together.
Your career is a lot like Woody Allen’s. You’re both old as shit. You’re both incredibly prolific. You both love to direct yourself. In your old age, you’re both granted nearly unlimited lines of critical credit merely for not being terrible. You both have troubling attitudes toward women, sex, and relationships, and don’t even start with the “but I never molested a kid”; you’re not exactly a saint. I read the Personal Life section on your Wikipedia page.
Here’s the difference: Woody Allen may be a reprehensible pervert, but his career has followed a definable trajectory, and he still occasionally makes amazing work like Blue Jasmine and the criminally underrated Cassandra’s Dream. What have you done lately? Your last great movie was Mystic River, and since then your movies have rarely been any better than “alright”. Million Dollar Baby? Hilary Swank’s hillbilly family were fun to hate. Gran Torino? My Lao sister-in-law appreciates it. Flags of Our Fathers? Should’ve left it to Mel Gibson. Changeling? Do you even remember what that was about?
You’re making increasingly questionable choices, and everybody’s just deciding it’s okay. And it’s not like baffling choices are a new thing from you. It’s one of the things I used to appreciate about you. In The Eiger Sanction, you directed yourself as an art professor who was also a handsomely paid assassin who was also an expert mountaineer, and you got sent up on a mountaineering expedition to kill one of your group, but you never figured out who it was because they all died on the mountain. That whole premise is bananas, but you plowed through it with a bullish “why the hell not?” kind of confidence, and I admire that. In Firefox, you played a pilot enlisted to steal a secret Russian prototype aircraft that was piloted through a telepathic interface (they needed you to do it because, as a Russian immigrant, you could “think in Russian”). In Absolute Power, you directed yourself as a jewel thief who blackmailed the President of the United States after seeing him murder somebody. I wouldn’t even know where to begin there.
But at some point, your bad decisions stopped being entertaining, and as a filmmaker, that’s really your only job. What maggot was chewing on your brain when you made Jersey Boys? A screenplay adapted from a stage show about that one band that wrote some songs my parents like? You’re the last director, nay, the last human being, I would expect to be interested in telling that story. And it showed: Jersey Boys was a tepid story that really only worked on the stage, and you stripped away everything that made it work in that medium.
Equally baffling was Hereafter. From the ad campaign, it sounded like a supernatural thriller where psychic Matt Damon saves people from a tsunami or whatever. But the reality was three vague, gauzy, almost independent stories about coping with death, overlaid with tonally chaotic supernatural elements. Again, why were you the person to tell this story? How does this fit into your body of work?
As far as American Sniper goes, congratulations on lionizing an Islamophobic savage. Gives me real high hopes for 15:17, but I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt for now so this article doesn’t turn “political”. Which brings me to Invictus. There was nothing wrong with it, per se. It was just a boilerplate inspirational sports movie. Any dolt could have made it. Why did Invictus have to be yours? What did you bring to it that no one else could have?
I guess I’m having trouble seeing the benefit of keepin’ on at this point. You’re 87 years old. You’ve been playing the Old Guy in every movie you’ve acted in since before I was born. You don’t have to cement your legacy. You’ve been an American movie icon for over fifty years. That’s the reason Hollywood still indulges you. That, and your movies still make money, which they will continue to do as long as the world still contains boring dads. There’s no shame in resting on your laurels. Take it easy. Compose some music. Bang some more restaurant hostesses. Grumble at some more empty chairs. I’ll remember you more fondly for it, and so will the world.