As the title of Sara Anson Vaux’s book seemed to suggest, readers are invited to share a fresh perspective on a selection of Eastwood’s projects. As with many followers and admirers of Eastwood’s work, fans have heard this before. Yet, this particular book seemed to promise something a little different… an original concept. After approaching the book, perhaps a little tentatively, it soon became apparent that Vaux’s observations were not only intelligently founded, but completely captivating to read.
In Vaux’s writing, it becomes rather clear that she is indeed a fan. It’s a characteristic that immediately draws us closer to the author, and a trait that of course does her little harm. Regardless of this, there is little doubt that her arguments are presented impartially and offer a variety of ambiguous interpretations. At times, her insights are quite miraculous, a testament to what must have amounted to some painstaking research. Not an easy task considering the subject matter. It is certainly a complex area of study and one in which many film commentators seem almost reluctant to examine.
Vaux’s opening chapter, The Angel of Death, is particularly interesting and focuses on Eastwood’s later day western avengers. In particular, The Outlaw Josey Wales, its racism, class conflicts, displaced characters, reconciliation and its status as a revisionist western, all make for fascinating reading. However, Vaux continues to dig deeper until we, the reader, arrive at an entirely new level of uncharted ground. The author mediates over the film’s relationship with earlier outings such as High Plains Drifter, and examines themes of moral justice through later films such as Unforgiven.
In Chapter 2, The Mysteries of Life, Vaux examines Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Changeling, and Bird. Themes of brutality and crimes raise stimulating questions about human nature, violence, and the meaning of life in the face of senseless death. In Chapter 3, Eternal War or Dawn of Peace, Eastwood takes on the suffering, sacrifice, danger, and destructiveness of war overseas and at home where the poor and the downtrodden are treated as enemies. Using Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, Gran Torino, and Invictus, Vaux constructs some provocative arguments. Finally, Vaux reserves a special section for Hereafter and images of the reconciling community.Above: Author Sara Anson Vaux
In analysing Eastwood’s films from the last forty years, Vaux discusses how they have become more sophisticated and nuanced in tone. She debates how Eastwood's moral agenda has resulted in his becoming an icon, a man of significance in intellectual as well as in film history.
I was however, a little surprised that the ‘moral ethics’ displayed during the controversial conclusion of Sudden Impact were not evaluated to any degree. Since seeing it upon its original release, it is an ending that leaves a slightly uncomfortable taste in the mouth. Regardless of whether it is right or wrong, Eastwood typically leaves us pondering over the question, should a sense of moral justification overshadow that of the law? It’s an interesting and (arguably) common enough area of debate, that I’m sure would have proven fascinating from Vaux’s perspective. Nevertheless, Sara Anson Vaux has provided an amazing account of an (until now) undiscovered element of Eastwood’s work. Ethical Vision ignites a unique sense of rejuvenated interest. One seems almost compelled to re-examine Eastwood’s back catalogue with a fresh and profound sense of sagacity. Whist presented in both an insightful and scholarly manner, Ethical Vision is a pleasure to read and easy to absorb. I certainly see this title blossoming, and (hopefully) rightfully regarded as essential Eastwood reading.
As an addition, here is Sara Anson Vaux’s view on Eastwood’s J. Edgar
Yesterday I went back to the local theatre to see J. Edgar again. Initially, I found Clint Eastwood’s newest movie a masterpiece of period, mood, and understatement, with brilliant performances by Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover and Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, his life partner.
The distaste of the critics did not surprise me, for with Changeling and Hereafter and even Gran Torino and Invictus brilliant explorations of the tragedies of life were sadly overlooked. How dare Eastwood (“Dirty Harry”) abandon the tough American hero template to focus on a woman, three damaged fools, a crazy old kook, and a mythologized political figure in a far distant land! And now: how dare he do a biopic on a reviled and shadowy “G-man” — who ruined our country — without painting him in the colours of pure evil!
At my second viewing, I was even more impressed with Eastwood’s storytelling. As my neighbour said recently, “I was drawn into the story from the very first moment and want to go back to see it.” Rather than starting with J. Edgar’s early life and marching straight toward his death at age 77, Eastwood begins as the powerful director of the untouchable FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) dictates his life story to a young FBI agent, who busily types away without comment. The spoken words quickly fade into images of a young, ambitious man determined to protect his country from anarchists like the ones who overthrew the Russian Czar and his government — or so the young man tells everyone. The rest of the movie follows the same pattern: the older Hoover dictates his memoirs to a series of young agents, and we see almost cartoon-like illustrations of the “facts” he has given to his transcriber.
As the movie progresses, though, every time the older Hoover appears in the present day, the cartoons begin to show not a great American hero (the dramatic G-man Hoover presented to the outside world) but, rather, a paranoid, power-hungry figure who terrifies presidents and attorneys general, disregards the Constitution, and spies on hundreds of thousands of American citizens.
Instead of increasing the glamour of the portrait, Eastwood lets the story begin to fall apart. Hoover’s own colleagues and confidents criticize him quietly through glances and body language or toward the end of the movie, quite openly. Hoover himself goes on an insane rampage with his campaigns against Martin Luther King Jr. and President Kennedy. Most tellingly, even his devoted secretary Helen, to whom he once proposed, and his inseparable friend Clyde, #2 at the Bureau and #1 in Hoover’s life, become horrified and disgusted at his lies and speak out.
Since he first began to make movies, Eastwood has repeatedly examined American political life with intelligence and understanding. J. Edgar is one of his most powerful explorations of justice and its conflicted, complex nature to date.
The real-life J. Edgar Hoover did irreparable damage to freedom of speech and assembly during his years as head of the FBI. My husband and I were among his many targets. As the historical record shows — and as Eastwood shows with clarity in this film — he justified any means (perjury; torture; spying; violence) to “protect our country,” even if he trampled over democracy itself in the process.
What’s more, after two viewings, I have concluded that this movie is much more than a simple biopic. It comments upon current events — the illegal war in Iraq with thousands of our own soldiers and Iraqi civilians dead; prejudice and even violence toward immigrants and anyone else whose religion and skin colour are different from our own; and assaults upon freedom of assembly. The search to define and deliver justice in our democracy continues, and Clint Eastwood is still on the case.