Saturday, March 07, 2009

‘Gran Torino’

If “The Dark Knight” is now one of the biggest Oscar snubs of all time, then “Gran Torino” is right there nipping at Batman’s cape.

Clint Eastwood’s new masterpiece is exactly the kind of story I love: It presents a situation and characters that appear to be a certain way, then spends its time turning those preconceptions inside out. It presents a complicated issue—in this case, immigration and its inherent racial relations/tensions—fairly and accurately, offering both the bad (Hollywood’s stock and trade) and the good (rare).

The trailer for “Gran Torino” was a bit deceiving, as it makes the film out to be a “Dirty Harry” for the geriatric crowd. Eastwood’s retired Korean War veteran certainly can handle himself, and, yes, there are a few scenes of violence, but that is far from the main point of the film. At its heart, “Gran Torino” is an examination of what makes America the greatest melting pot in the world, as well as what causes that melting pot to shatter.

As one of the few native-born Americans on my street, I can attest to the film’s veracity. Like Eastwood’s Walt Kowalski, what I’m really looking for in others—be they family, friends, coworkers, or just neighbors—are people who will work hard and respect one another. The two neighbors on either side of me are both immigrant families. One plays their stereo so loud it shakes my floors; the other I rarely hear a peep from, unless it’s from their two kids wanting to pet my cat. Guess which family we get along with better? Guess which family Walt wouldn’t like?

Walt’s not perfect, either, which is another reason to love this film—he’s not above the fray, he’s got things to learn, too. He utters innumerable Asian-related racial epithets, but that’s another strength of the script; Walt is presented as the stereotypical old white racist, but that perspective changes as you get to know him, much like his perspective on his new Asian neighbors changes as he gets to know them.

There are more issues packed into this film than just racial relations, too, all handled deftly and with fairness. Eastwood engages in a much deeper and more meaningful conversation about God and forgiveness than he did four years ago in his Oscar-winning “Million Dollar Baby.” Once again he has a long-running verbal battle with a priest, but this time the man of the cloth is a deeper character, not a proverbial punching bag like in the other film.

There’s also a lot of great stuff here about what it means to be a man, and how to take responsibility for yourself and your actions. Some of the film’s best—and funniest—scenes involve Walt teaching the young Asian boy next door how to talk, act, and fix things like a man. It’s heartwarming and charming without ever even glancing in the direction of melodrama or sap.

But, more than anything, this movie is about Eastwood, who, about to turn 80 in a few weeks, gives undoubtedly one of the best performances of his career. Walt is like an old, retired combination of all the tough guys Eastwood’s ever played, only little by little the curtain gets pulled back on what really makes him tick. He certainly has some tremendous scenes of bravado—Walt confronting three young black hoodlums on a street corner is an all-timer, including an iconic “You feelin’ lucky, punk?”-type line that I won’t spoil here (hint: It’s not “Get off my lawn!”). But those don’t come as often as you’d think from the trailer; just as compelling are the quieter, gentler, funnier moments, such as Walt’s first trip to his neighbors’ house for a barbecue.

If you want an accurate, and sad, picture of how Hollywood’s elite view America, then simply compare “Gran Torino”—completely shut out from this year’s Academy Awards—to 2005’s “Crash,” which didn’t just get nominated for Best Picture, it won the whole thing. As I wrote nearly three years ago, “Crash” does nothing but reinforce paranoid stereotypes and prop up a one-sided portrayal of racial tensions in this country. “Gran Torino,” on the other hand, takes the issue head-on. It’s not afraid to show, in equal measure, minority thugs acting like, well, thugs, as well as hard-working immigrants who want the same thing Walt does (or me, for that manner): respect and decency from their neighbors. Unlike “Crash,” the fully realized characters in “Gran Torino” are able to find common ground, which, from my own experience, is dead-on accurate. Eastwood is certainly no coward.

I’ve seen “Slumdog Millionaire.” It was a nice movie. I enjoyed it. I strongly recommend it, for that opening chase scene if nothing else. But it was just that—really good. I don’t feel an overwhelming desire to see it again, nor did it inspire enough in me to even feel a need to write about it. Faced with the other options on Oscar night, I’m glad it won, but it certainly was not the best film I saw last year.

“Gran Torino,” on the other hand, is a great movie. Not only is it better than “Slumdog” and “Crash,” it’s better than “Million Dollar Baby,” which also wasn’t just nominated, but won Best Picture in 2005.

So ask yourself this question: What does it say about Hollywood that this film, along with “The Dark Knight,” couldn’t even get nominated?

Grade: A

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