Twenty-two years after his directorial debut Play Misty for Me (1971), Clint Eastwood was for the first time nominated by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the category Best Director, and for the first time one of his films was nominated for Best Picture. His Western Unforgiven (1992) won both awards, and also those for Best Supporting Actor and Best Editing. In 2005, Eastwood repeated his success, with Million Dollar Baby (2004) winning in the categories Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress and Best Supporting Actor just one year after Mystic River (2003) had received the Academy Awards for Best Actor and Best Supporting Actor. All three films had nominations in a number of other categories.
Unforgiven is one of Eastwood’s most remarkable films, but there are others he made before that were not even taken into consideration by the Academy, perhaps because they did not fit the criteria for selection. However, Eastwood’s late recognition as a director stands in marked contrast to his absence from the main Academy Award nominations in the first two decades of his career. Despised by some critics and film theorists as right-wing after he starred in Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry (1971), Eastwood was celebrated by others such as Pierre Rissient and Bertrand Tavernier in France, who helped to bring Play Misty for Me into French cinemas. During the 1970s and 1980s, Eastwood’s reputation as an important director grew, and it was the success of Unforgiven at the Academy Awards in 1993 that boosted his reputation in the eyes of a wider audience.
However, since my doctoral thesis on his films in the early 1990s, I continually face the disdain of cinephiles and colleagues who consider Eastwood a minor director. He remains a controversial figure, but luckily this has not prevented him from making films – films that are by no means simplistic but subtle and multi-layered, all bearing unmistakably the hallmark of their director.
To see or not to see – that is the question. Unforgiven is a complex film about violence but also about image making. This Western deals with perception and with self-reflection. Its main character William Munny (Eastwood), struggling with his image as a ruthless gunfighter, can be seen as Eastwood’s alter ego, reminding us of the actor-director’s status in Hollywood as somebody who always tried to break free from the limitations of his star persona. He approaches the theme of vision in the sequence in which Munny, after having barely survived a brutal beating by the sheriff (Gene Hackman), admires for the first time in his life the beauty of the landscape. This topic of perception is also raised by two characters with poor eyesight, short-sightedness being symbolic of their attitude towards reality. The writer Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) follows his various idols blindly, all of them violent men who inspire the pulp biographies of American heroes that he intends to publish. However, Beauchamp, himself a coward, wears thick glasses, as if to indicate his troubled view of violence. “Schofield Kid” (Jaimz Woolvett), a young man who dreams of becoming a famous gunfighter, is another character who clings to illusion. Also short-sighted, he is going to use the reward for the killing he is eager to commit to buy a pair of glasses. Unlike Beauchamp, he is able to correct his view of Munny and, shocked after his first killing, he renounces the life of a gunfighter.
The topic of vision is at the very core of Letters from Iwo Jima (2006) and American Sniper (2014), both nominated for Best Picture (in 2007 and 2015, respectively). For Letters from Iwo Jima, Eastwood was one of the nominees in the category Best Director, and both films received awards, but only for their sound editing.
American Sniper could have been a mere hagiography, but instead explores the character of Navy Seal Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), one of the most successful snipers in American military history, in highly ambiguous terms as a traumatized soldier. Set during the Second Gulf War, the film gives no information on the political and economic background to the conflict. The sniper is depicted as a professional who does his duty, and the presence of Americans in the Middle East is not openly questioned. Nor is Kyle’s patriotism. However, despite being an expert in his lethal job, the film’s hero is a broken character who, unlike the heroes in classic Westerns, kills from a hidden position. Back home, Kyle is still haunted by the atrocities he has witnessed and participated in during his time in Iraq.
His main opponent, the Syrian Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), is a rather stereotypical figure who, in accordance with conventional representations of the hero’s evil antagonist, is dressed in black. However, he is not entirely devoid of character traits, having once been a successful sports star. Instead of serving a basis for ideological discourse, Mustafa embodies the enemy within, the obsessions and violent impulses Chris Kyle has to face and eventually to destroy. Just like Harry Callahan, Kyle needs his dark doppelgänger to justify his murderous actions.
In the final showdown between the two elite snipers, the field of vision is more and more blurred by a developing sandstorm. Shooting blind and from a great distance, Kyle depends on pure chance, his target being an indistinct shape that is no longer clearly human. This makes the justification of the killing easier, but it also suggests that Kyle himself is perhaps blinded by political decisions he accepts without thinking.
Before he made American Sniper, with its mixture of patriotism and a critical view of war and violence, Eastwood directed Letters from Iwo Jima, the second part of a diptych on the battle of Iwo Jima, which took place early in 1945. Flags of Our Fathers (2006), the first of the two films on the famous battle, depicts the events on the island of Iwo from the American viewpoint by emphasizing the construction of heroic legends. The second (Letters from Iwo Jima), filmed in Japanese and with an almost entirely Japanese cast lead by Ken Watanabe, shows the events from the Japanese perspective.
Tora! Tora! Tora! (USA/Japan, 1970), directed by the American Richard Fleischer and the Japanese Toshio Masuda and Kinji Fukasaku, was an ambitious project showing both sides during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Eastwood’s diptych goes a step further. The focus of an entire film is on the former enemy, now given a human face. Letters from Iwo Jima is a film about perception, about seeing the Japanese differently from many other American war films in which they were and still are presented as epitomizing evil or are anonymous figures who either killed or were killed.
In Flags of Our Fathers, the American soldiers speculate about the way a group of Japanese died in one of the caves from which they organized the defence of the island. The marines express clichéd opinions about the Japanese, seeing them as a homogenous group that blindly followed a suicide command. Letters from Iwo Jima corrects this mistaken view of the enemy by showing the true circumstances of their death. The Japanese soldiers express as many different attitudes to life and death as their American counterparts, and they are depicted as men with desires and ambitions, hopes and fears. Their view of the Americans is not always correct either, and Shimizu (Ryo Kase), suspected by his comrades of being a kenpeitai, a member of the military police arm of the Imperial Japanese Army, turns out to have been sent to Iwo Jima as punishment. Far from spying on his fellow soldiers, he is the one who tries to desert.
Since his directorial debut, Eastwood’s films have been marked by his interest in working with light and shadow and exploring the multiple shades of black. His early films could not use digital techniques to create these shades of black. However, more recent technical developments support his style perfectly, as Letters from Iwo Jima shows. The film’s extremely desaturated colour range sometimes gives the impression it was shot in black and white, and the many sequences in which human figures, objects and space are plunged into darkness create phantom-like shapes, reinforcing that the defenders of the island are doomed.
Letters from Iwo Jima shows that it is not easy to classify Eastwood – well illustrated by the fact that the film won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film and also received the Japan Academy Film Prize as Outstanding Foreign Language Film. It did not get the Academy Award for Best Film, but is nevertheless an outstanding achievement in the way it deals with images from the past that still linger today.