“You’ve made the first movie of the Obama generation!” exclaimed an audience member, as he rushed up to Clint Eastwood after a recent screening of Gran Torino. “Well,” the 78-year-old actor-director replied, without missing a beat, “I was actually born under Hoover.” It was an ironic juxtaposition, given that Eastwood’s Torino character, widowed Korean War vet and former Detroit autoworker Walt Kowalski, has earned comparisons to TV’s Archie Bunker, for both his politically incorrect racial epithets and his general hostility toward a modern world that seems to have left him — and his old-fashioned American values — out in the cold. “We could use a man like Herbert Hoover again,” Bunker sings at the start of each All in the Family episode. But it’s change, not nostalgia, that sets the tone in Gran Torino, as the belligerent Walt ventures first across the property line and then deeper into the lives of the Hmong immigrant family living next door.

The movie, Eastwood tells me the day after the Torino screening, appealed to his own personal philosophy of “never stop learning. If you never stop learning, then you never stop growing as a person, you never stop taking in new information and changing. People ask me, ‘Have you changed?’ And I say, ‘I hope so,’ because over 10, 20, 30, 40 years, you’re supposed to change all the time. You’re supposed to expand.”

That said, Gran Torino is hardly one of those rainbow-coalition lessons in tolerance that well-meaning but naive American filmmakers tend to unleash at least once or twice a season — the ones about some randomly connected group of ethnically diverse strangers who take a trip to the Grand Canyon together, or a stuffy New York economist who goes native and starts playing the African drum. Eastwood would no sooner make such a pedantic film about our changing cultural makeup than he would directly address the effects of factory closures on once-prosperous labor meccas like Detroit — even though that too is very much a part of Gran Torino. As Manohla Dargis noted recently in The New York Times, “Few Americans make movies about this country anymore, other than Mr. Eastwood.” But while America is undeniably Eastwood’s great subject, as it was for his spiritual mentor, John Ford, he rarely tackles any American issue — social, economic or otherwise — head-on.

“I go for the sideline effects of it all rather than, ‘OK, here we are in the factory that’s shutting down,’” Eastwood explains. “The obvious stories, the Norma Rae kind of stories, those are hurdles, but they’re kind of right out there in front. It’s the hurdles that are inside that you have to deal with to make characters interesting, I think.”

Interviewing Eastwood can offer a similar education in stealth maneuvers and rear-guard actions. Ask him directly about some seemingly recurring theme in his work — like the way many Eastwood films address the conflict between personal and societal morality — and, at best, you’ll get a grudging “I’m attracted to that, I guess.”

After directing 29 feature films and acting in more than twice that many, he says there’s no grander design to the way he works than simply reading a script and deciding, “OK, this fits with what I want to do next. This is a person I’d like to visit and watch him go through his life.”

But Eastwood will allow that, more often than not, those people he chooses to visit are haunted figures with dark and even dangerous pasts, men who have done or witnessed things no man should do or see. He likens Walt Kowalski, traumatized by the atrocities he committed a half-century ago in Korea, to Sanford Clark, the teenage nephew and unwitting accomplice of convicted serial killer Gordon Northcott, whose 1920s killing spree inspired Eastwood’s other 2008 release, Changeling.

“I looked at a picture of his gravestone — he died at 92 — and it says, ‘To a loving father and grandfather,’” Eastwood offers. “And you wonder, how the hell did this guy go on to be a loving father and grandfather? How did he bury all that crap? That’s a whole story in itself — what his life must have been like, going back after that, having assisted in killing little children. You think, ‘God, what could haunt a person any more than that?’”

All of us, Eastwood adds, “have to see a lot of crappy things in a lifetime and you have to deal with them, bury them. Sometimes you get assistance in that; sometimes you don’t. The people in Flags of Our Fathers: I don’t know what those people did. They just told them, ‘OK, you’re discharged now. The war’s over. Go home. Get over it. Forget about it.’”

So, while Eastwood is glad that fans have been telling him how eagerly they’re anticipating Gran Torino ever since the movie’s poster, featuring a vindictive-looking Clint wielding an M-1, started circulating a couple of months ago, he hopes people drawn to the film by its promise of a return to Dirty Harry–style vigilantism realize that there’s more to the movie than meets the eye. “I wonder if those people will be disappointed — the ones who just want the hard-ass stuff, the rifle in the face and the guns and stuff like that,” he says. “You hope if that’s what attracts an audience in, it isn’t what they’re left with. You hope the undercurrent will get to them as well.”

It’s those undercurrents that have dominated the latter half of Eastwood’s filmmaking career, in which images of violence have rarely been offered up for mere titillation or visceral excitement. He points to the scene in the Oscar-winning Unforgiven in which the retired gunslinger William Munny (played by Eastwood) and his former partner Ned (Morgan Freeman) gun down a young man with a bounty on his head, who has violently assaulted a frontier-town prostitute. “Afterward, there’s that little moment of, ‘Jesus, I didn’t want to ever do this again,’” Eastwood says. “He had vowed to stay away from that life, but there he is, just because they figured they would go get a little ransom money, and they rationalize it by saying, ‘They deserve it anyway.’ And that’s the way life is.”

By way of real-life example, Eastwood mentions the recent incident in which an employee at a Long Island Wal-Mart was trampled to death by several hundred overly eager customers attending the store’s post-Thanksgiving sale. “Those people would probably say, ‘Well, the guy shouldn’t have been in our way,’ or, ‘The crowd was moving and I had to go with it.’ People can rationalize just about anything, but when you really come down to it, the behavior is appalling.”

One of Gran Torino’s most memorable sequences involves Kowalski giving advice on “how to be a man” to a shy, gang-victimized Hmong teenager (newcomer Bee Vang). It’s fitting, because in the 40 years since he first donned The Man With No Name’s desert poncho, Eastwood has defined a kind of squint-eyed, low-voiced, impermeable macho cool for several generations of moviegoers — and, even in today’s fickle youth culture, can still be found gracing the cover of men’s lifestyle magazines like Esquire. It’s a status that Eastwood, like Gran Torino itself, both embraces and gently mocks, fully aware of the anachronism of being a “man’s man” in our supposedly gender-neutral society.

“The idea that men and women are the same is crazy, because they’re not,” Eastwood says with a chuckle. “They’re equal under the eyes of the law and they’re equal in a lot of ways — in fact, women are superior in a lot of ways and men are superior in other ways. So the more we recognize that, the more we can use those superior aspects of the gender. But being a guy now is a strange thing, especially a Caucasian male. Who’s the biggest asshole? It’s the white guys. You can attack them without hurting anybody’s feelings, because they’re the buffoons of society at the present time. But I always figure: what the hell, they can take it.”

And true to form, Eastwood, who has four Oscars under his belt and is now well past the age at which almost any major star or director has still been actively working, isn’t going anywhere just yet. In the spring, he begins production in South Africa on The Human Factor, a sports drama set during the first year of Nelson Mandela’s presidency, starring his old friend Morgan Freeman as the celebrated leader.

“He’s just won the presidency when it starts, and it’s about how he unites the country,” Eastwood says. “The country is going every which way at that time. All these different groups are at each other’s throats. And he takes this really bad white rugby team and takes an interest in them. The blacks can’t figure it out: What is he doing with these guys? But then he talks them into winning the World Cup, and they win it. It’s sort of a fairy-tale story, but it’s one of those truth-is-stranger-than-fiction kind of things. And it shows how brilliant he was, in a way. He knew that if he could make this happen, blacks and whites would come together in genuine enthusiasm.”

Which sounds like the second movie of the Obama generation.

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