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The Films Of Clint Eastwood, Director: A Retrospective

by The Playlist Staff
October 22, 2010 6:38 AM
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"The Bridges Of Madison County" (1995)
Surely the chick-flickiest entry in Eastwood’s directorial canon, ‘Madison County’ is essentially a “Brief Encounter” retread: a story of decent, honorable people struggling with dishonorable urges but ultimately choosing the not-terribly-fulfilling rewards of Doing the Right Thing over Following Your Passion. Based on the literary phenomenon that was the novel of the same name (though ‘novel’ is a misleading word, as the average National Enquirer probably takes longer to read), the film, aside from some wooden supporting performances (particularly from the grown up children who, in painfully didactic manner, Learn A Little Something About Life from reading their mother’s journals) has actually weathered the passage of time rather well, mainly because at its heart is the utterly convincing relationship between Eastwood’s photojournalist and Meryl Streep’s Italian-born Iowa housewife. Really the film is a two-hander, with everything outside of the two of them talking themselves into and out of their love affair feeling, well, totally extraneous. Streep, especially, is sublime -- in her hands small nuances, like covering her mouth when she laughs, suggest whole interior worlds of unrealized dreams and thwarted desires. Of course, the star cross’d lovers theme has been done to death, and no particularly new ground is covered here, but this is a film that plays to Eastwood’s strengths: he may have become famous as the laconic embodiment of the tough-guy-who-takes-no-prisoners, but as a director he is far more preoccupied and adept with talky, interpersonal relationships, drawn with an keen, humanist eye. And, also to his credit as a director and a co-star, he recognizes when he’s on to a good thing in someone else’s performance and graciously stays the hell out of the way. [B]

"Absolute Power" (1997)
Based on one of the most successful airport novels of the post-Grisham 1990s, "Absolute Power" has a truly ludicrous logline: a successful jewel thief (Clint Eastwood) accidentally witnesses a drunken tussle between a powerful man and his mistress, which ends in his bodyguards shooting and killing the woman. The powerful man being, of course, the President of the United States (Gene Hackman). Despite its best intentions, the film never quite overcomes the ridiculousness of its central plot. The cast, save a somewhat-on-autopilot Eastwood, are strong, with hall-of-fame character actors like Laura Linney, Ed Harris, Scott Glenn, Judy Davis, Melora Hardin, Richard Jenkins and even E.G. Marshall (in his final screen role) turning up, and there are a handful of decent set pieces. But even the great William Goldman, who wrote in his must-read memoir "Which Lie Did I Tell" that the script was the hardest job of his career, can't make the plot work, and it doesn't help that Eastwood's typically languid pacing doesn't suit this kind of "24"-style potboiler. You'll have worse times if it turns up past midnight on HBO, and it's still better than either "True Crime" or "Blood Work" in the "mediocre Eastwood crime pic" trilogy, but a very, very minor effort all the same. [C]

"Midnight In The Garden Of Good and Evil" (1997)
Eastwood took on his third best-seller in a row with "Midnight In The Garden Of Good and Evil," but, true to form, it saw a major left turn for the filmmaker, abandoning the housewives' romance and the airport thriller for a full-on slice of Southern Gothic. Based on John Berendt's true crime book, which followed the four (!) trials of Savannah antiques dealer Jim Williams for the murder of his rent-boy lover, the adaptation (which saw Eastwood reunited with "A Perfect World" writer John Lee Hancock, a full decade before the latter took Sandra Bullock to an Oscar with "The Blind Side") condenses the trial down to one, and adds a reporter character, played by John Cusack, who's our eyes into the bizarre Georgian world of the book. Kevin Spacey, as Wiliams, gives one of his last great performances before his post-Oscar slump, and Jude Law makes a strong impression in a relatively early role. But Cusack's given next-to-nothing to do, and Eastwood's daughter Alison, as Cusack's love interest, is a piece of nepotistic miscasting that Francis Ford Coppola would be proud of. Most importantly, Eastwood never penetrates the surface of Savannah, Georgia: even the real-life residents, like drag queen Lady Chablis, playing herself, never come across as anything other than window dressing. A missed opportunity, to be sure, but not an uninteresting one. [C+]

"Space Cowboys" (2000)
"Old coots in space" seems like a logline cooked up by a bored executive on a lazy afternoon. But, in Eastwood's more-than-capable hands, it turns into something that is actually quite entertaining and bristles with moments of pure popcorn excitement despite its marathon-like 130-minute running time. The old coots (played by Eastwood, Donald Sutherland, James Garner, and Tommy Lee Jones - with an assist by James Cromwell) have to go into space to repair an ailing satellite left over from the space race that is so out-of-date, they're the only ones with the knowledge to fix it. So the concept is somewhat sound. But the real fun of the film is watching the fogies get back into NASA-approved shape, with each actor comically exaggerating their old timer-ness to an almost cartoonish degree. (But hey, that's okay.) Once the mission gets underway, Eastwood surprisingly handles the stronger action beats (which border on sci-fi - a genre he's never had much use for) with flair, thanks in large part to the heroic visual effects by Industrial Light & Magic. Sadly, as the film reaches its conclusion, "fun" is swapped out for "achy melodrama" and the energy sustained for so long throughout slips away. It's a movie that, if it's on cable, you might stay and linger on while flipping through channels, but you wouldn't ever want to watch it all the way through again. [B-]

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  • RNL | June 21, 2014 1:25 PMReply

    That Changeling writeup is very silly, guys. Has the writer never seen a solemn film about serious issues before? Bergman, Dreyer, Bresson, etc? Not exactly a laced with comic relief, were they?

  • Marrz | February 22, 2014 9:06 PMReply

    You guys don't know what Eastwood's cinema is all about.

  • functional | October 24, 2010 12:59 PMReply

    GREAT retrospective, everyone! I love these articles so much. Don't agree 110% on all of the grades, but it made me add a bunch of unseen jawns to my Netflix list.

  • TheoC | October 24, 2010 5:45 AMReply

    Great read, now I really want to see The Gauntlet. I do have a soft spot for the absolute stupidity of absolute power though.

  • KitCon | October 24, 2010 1:11 AMReply

    While Changeling should have ended earlier, I thought it was a much better movie overall than Gran Torino. I also like Letters from Iwo Jima and thought it was original and insightful.

  • MishuPishu | October 23, 2010 6:08 AMReply

    Thank goodness someone recognized the wonderful nature of "A Perfect World". Loved that movie when it came out but it got such bad press that I began to question my perspective on film.

  • Brett | October 23, 2010 2:49 AMReply

    Knocking Changeling for not providing humor? Jeez, I could say the same thing about Schindler's List I guess.

  • cirkusfolk | October 23, 2010 2:48 AMReply

    I think the grades for The Changeling and Gran Torino should be switched. Torino was dreadfully cheesy and since when should a movie about a child serial killer be humorous?

  • Rashad | October 23, 2010 1:53 AMReply

    Changeling a D?

    Oh my word

  • John Bury | October 22, 2010 10:40 AMReply

    Eastwood is a master craftsman. Even when cliched and unsubstantial, his films are almost always totally watchable. He knows how to tell a story, which I think is worth more than it's given credit for these days. The arthouse too often overlooks it, and Hollywood by and large seems not even to grasp the concept. He may not be a Frank Gehry, but Eastwood builds sturdy, comfortable houses for the average moviegoer to live in for a couple hours.

    And while I agree with you that Unforgiven is his peak, I'm with Ryan that "Letters" deserves much better.

  • Ryan M., Atlanta Movies Examiner | October 22, 2010 10:03 AMReply

    First, full credit for recognizing "A Perfect World" as Eastwood's second masterpiece behind "Unforgiven."

    Second, "Letters from Iwo Jima" is easily one of the best war films ever made, and its "C-" rating here is less believable that Jeff Daniels' serial killer in "Blood Work."

    Finally, though I probably would have had the same rating for "White Hunter, Black Heart" after my first viewing, subsequent viewing have moved it up considerably in my estimation, and I now consider it a great film to stand along Eastwood's best.

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