Now I understand why Clint Eastwood took over the directorial reins for Changeling from Ron Howard. (Howard dropped Changeling in order to make Frost/Nixon, instead.)
Eastwood did an excellent job on Changeling, with a genuine feel for the dark subject matter, and guided Angelina Jolie to one of the best performances of her career, to date, significantly expanding her dramatic range.
The film that Eastwood really wanted to make this year, GRAN TORINO, was greenlit by that other deal. This is crucial, since all of the Hmong cast are first-time actors, who were hand picked by Eastwood from cold auditions. Any film with a cast of unknowns can be a tough sell in Hollywood, even with Eastwood helming and starring. (The list of award winning Eastwood films that almost didn't get made is long and very distinguished.) In casting, Eastwood didn't want "thespians." He wanted an honest exactness of performance.
While I really like and respect Changeling, I found GT to be far more satisfying. GT is probably *not* the best film of this year, but it is one damn fine entertainment and it fully holds its own in this rich season of films that are up for awards contention.
GT is an humorous and compelling meditation on the themes of ubiquitous bigotry, culture clash, political refugee immigration/resettlement (and, by way of that, US foreign policy) and Old School, Doing the Right Thing (vs today's more commonplace "situational" ethics). All of this rolled into two, parallel, coming of age stories, served on platters heaping with very real slices of life. The messages crack like jabs, with the sting of truth, and are never too preachy. (Eastwood is one of the few directors who respects the intelligence of his audience. He surprises film goers, always, without ever talking down.)
One coming of age story involves a neighbor kid, Tao Vang Lor (played by Bee Vang), a dirt-poor son of divorced Hmong immigrants (Vietnam war political refugees).
Tao lives with his mother, sister and grandmother, next door to Walt Kowalski (Eastwood). Walt insists upon calling Tao, "Toad" (initially, with some good reason). Tao's sister, Sue, (a scene stealing Ahney Her), is spontaneously outgoing and engaging with Walt, and confides to Walt that Tao is growing up without any proper male role models in his life. In fact, Tao is in the midst of confronting the grim prospects of either being recruited into his bad-seed cousin's gang or becoming a permanent victim of said 'bangers.
The less obvious coming of age story revolves around Walt Kowalski, a recently widowed Korean War veteran. Walt's Polish ancestry seems to serve no purpose other than to establish him as "ethnic" white, living in a dog-eared neighborhood of ongoing immigration stories. Walt is a curmudgeon, who lacks basic "people skills" with even his own family, let alone the world around him. But he has managed his way though life, fine enough, up to the opening of the film's story.
Just about every review I've read about GT describes Eastwood's Kowalski as a "racist Korean War veteran," which misses one of the major points raised in the film -- that bigotry in the US is deeply ingrained in every niche of society. None of us is innocent or absolved of anything in this regard and the film is very frank about this point. Initially, this serves as nothing more than a source for shock humor, but Eastwood finds a way to subvert this into a message of tough-love hope.
The gang life incursions into the story are very true to life. Gangs are always either recruiting new cannon fodder or marking new victims. If parents seeing this film had no clue about this, they ought to start finding ways to open up ongoing lines of discussion with their kids about what's really happening, day-to-day, at school, in the playground and elsewhere. Most of the time, kids like Tao, just internalize all of these pressures, hoping that they won't be picked on, and otherwise feeling powerless. None of us should ever kid ourselves about *all* kids, not just some kids, being "at risk."
(As for the non-white, poly-ethnicity of Kowalski's part of town, the disbelievers of the authenticity of that have only been exposed to the rarefied 'hoods of mainstream Hollywood. I can name any number of mid-to-small cities/towns where the exact mix and flavors in GT are very real. You don't have to live in a 'hood to pass through and/or stake out an occasional corner on which to hang. The Latino and black "presence" in the film never implied that they lived in that neighborhood, although they were obviously trolling for victims. Perps who don't intend to be caught *rarely* hunt in their own backyards.)
Walt knows that he's dead set in his ways, not all of them "bad," but not most of them "good." Beyond the confines of his own property line, Walt may be a little more effective than Tao, out in the real world, but, he too is, in many ways, powerless to change the way most things are. Nevertheless, in getting to know Tao, Sue and the extended Hmong community to which the Lors belong, Walt discovers that his Fort Apache ways don't work anymore. Walt realizes that he has yet to finally come of age, too. (Some will call this "atonement." I call it "growing up, again, at 78." Both are spot on.)
This film will make you laugh. It may even make you cry. But it might also make you think about some stuff you thought you were long ago done with thinking about.
People at the screening I attended were so startled at the end that there was a significant moment of silence before applause finally broke out.
GT is another lovely present from Clint Eastwood. Don't miss it.
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