2008. Starring Clint Eastwood, Ahney Her, Bee Vang. Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Clint Eastwood has become of those actors whom you cannot pretend is a character not named Clint Eastwood. It happened to John Wayne and Cary Grant and Humphrey Bogart. But a good role can overcome that curse. As Walt Kowalski, the perfectly-named working-class bigot next door, Eastwood more or less succeeds in creating a believable character through his trademark squint and a variety of grunts.
Walt Kowalski lives in a modest house in a changing neighborhood that used to be his, having retired from an auto industry that used to be ours, and is shocked by a world full of people who didn’t exist in the good old days we used to know. Although he is annoyed and dismayed by the Hmong neighbors next door, his real disappointment is saved for his family. His sons are hapless suburban idiots, driving their spoiled kids around in a foreign-made minivan, who demonstrate their lack of respect by wearing football jerseys and revealing clothing to his wife’s funeral. His clueless grand-daughter makes an immediate appeal for his prized Gran Torino, sitting in the garage, if he should ever, um, kick the bucket.
Walt continues his lonely, disapproving life, drinking domestic beer from a cooler on his porch, his faithful dog at his feet. He sneers at the constant activity of the folks next door (he calls them all kinds of slurs I won’t repeat), but can’t help but notice the commitment to family and respect for the elders that these new Americans practice. When a Hmong gang shows up to enlist the family’s shy son Thao (Bee Vang), Walt chases them off with a shotgun. He might growl, “Get out of my yard,” but he’s protecting his neighborhood too, in spite of the racial distrust he feels for his neighbors. Like John Wayne in The Searchers, he is a very flawed hero who will likely have to face the enemy in himself.
The gang returns and forces Thao into a failed attempt to steal the Gran Torino. The Hmong neighbors, led by spunky daughter Sue (Ahney Her), begin repaying the insult with food and flowers, and forces Thao to work off the crime. Sue dismisses Walt’s slurs and insults, and invites him into their house. Walt responds by teaching Thao about shop tools and talking to girls, the American way of hard work and independent thinking. But the gang is persistent, and will force a showdown for what seems like control of the neighborhood and the fate of everyone in it.
I wasn’t so entranced by Gran Torino that I could overlook some of the awkward acting (and I’m not talking about the untrained actors here), but the point it makes is important enough to carry the whole movie: there’s more to being a good American and a good neighbor than a birth certificate and a common culture. Walt doesn’t respect the local priest, who hasn’t seen much of the pain and horror that makes up the world, but he respects the Hmong holy man who recognizes the lack of happiness in his life. He feels the responsibility of guiding his unlikely neighbor to the path an American would take, one of responsibility and confident assertiveness.
Walt seems irredeemable with his crude insults and his distrust, but he is clearly a symbol of the old America that tried, with varying degrees of success, to absorb every new group. At one point, Walt wonders, “What does everyone want with my Gran Torino?” The answer is, of course, that they want a remnant of the America that would create a muscle car with American steel and sell it for what it was worth. Honesty and integrity, and a little of that undefinable American dream. What everyone who lands on our shores hopes for, and finds to some extent.
The best Americans aren’t always born in America, just as the loudest flag-wavers aren’t the most patriotic. There are sixth- and seventh-generation Americans that will make you hang your head in shame. A pickup covered with bumper stickers and miniature flags will not redeem you if you aren’t worth a damn as a parent and as a citizen. Back in John Wayne’s days, you just looked at the hats to tell the good guys from the bad. For Walt Kowalski, and those like him who still think you could tell “us” from “them” by looking through suspicious, squinty eyes, the reality is that times change, and it’s about time we change as well.