The Clint Eastwood Directorial Retrospective – The 2010s (and a ranking of all of Eastwood’s work)

(Scroll to the bottom of this page for the ranking!)

So, we are very nearly caught up to date with this investigation of the films of Clint Eastwood. There are just seven films left, the majority of which are fascinating, so without rambling, let’s get straight into it and see how he continues to evolve as a director, somehow always managing to keep up with the youngest, most ambitious directors around at any given point. 

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It’s time for a big one, everyone. Hereafter, released in 2010 and starring Matt Damon in the leading role, is Eastwood’s weirdest film to date without a doubt. That’s right, not even a voodoo focused crime comedy period drama has anything on this. Hereafter follows three main characters, an American man (Matt Damon), a French journalist (Cecile de France) and a young English boy (George McLaren), but this triptych focus isn’t even the strangest thing about it (though, it is absolutely worth reflecting on the fact that Eastwood has evidently taken inspiration from Alejandro Gonzales Inarritu, which is fascinating to me as they’re two of the directors I think I would be easy likely to ever associate with one another), what is stranger is the focus of the film on the afterlife. I had never pictured Clint Eastwood as a very spiritual person, given his films and his typical hardass character, his general attitudes and even because of his age it seemed unlikely or unexpected, but Hereafter is a stunningly tender, mind-warpingly beautiful film looking at death and the ramifications of death on these different characters, all of whom have direct contact with it within the film, specifically Matt Damon, who can see the spirits surrounding someone as a psychic, these spirits giving him information about themselves, with these visions occurring any time he so much as touches the skin of another person. It does sound ludicrous, absolutely, but it is handled in such a stirring, poignant way where the contrasting between life and death is so touching, and it is a story told with such conviction that it has to be admired. The performances are fantastic, especially from Matt Damon and Bryce Dallas Howard (who is mostly involved in Damon’s storyline), and the observations of how death or loss directly affects each and every one of us is one of the most interesting presentations of such a topic that there has been in quite some time. This is one of Eastwood’s least popular films, but not only is it one of his most fascinating from a directorial perspective, it is one of his best and most touching films, if not the best. You’d be hard pressed to find better representations of death in cinema.

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The year after, J. Edgar came out, a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio as – you guessed it! – J. Edgar Hoover. I personally don’t think too much of this one, but it is very interesting in so far as its presentation of such a respected American figure. Many have called Eastwood racially insensitive and/or too heavily focused on warping his films into American propaganda, but here it becomes clear that he is doing anything but. In J. Edgar, Eastwood presents the story as the characters involved would have seen it as opposed to how Eastwood sees it, or how the audience would see it if the story was told truthfully. It’s a bizarre film too, with shoddy make-up that is really quite distracting, but also slightly endearing for one reason or another. It’s difficult to pin down, as there are so many different things going on here and in spite of all of that, the film still feels really quite stagnant and slowly moving at times, with not enough interest in the character as so much is told so quickly, and what is actually withheld comes as very little surprise later on down the line. It has to be said, though, that DiCaprio is a force of nature in his performance here, and Armie Hammer does a terrific job too, not that good performances from either of those should come as any kind of a shock. It’s an interesting film as far as looking at Eastwood’s politics in his films goes, but other than that I must say this is one of his less remarkable films, probably not one that everyone could enjoy. 

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After a three year break, Eastwood returned in 2014 with Jersey Boys and American Sniper. For the sake of continuing to keep the chronological focus in check, we’ll look at Jersey Boys first. I personally would never have expected Eastwood to direct an adaptation of a musical, but here we are. And it just so happens that he is damn good at it. Focusing on the turbulence typical to the biopic genre, the film documents the rise and fall of The Four Seasons, a group of musicians made consistently of, you guessed it, four boys from Jersey. As someone who hadn’t even heard of the band before seeing the film, it is admittedly very difficult for me to speak of the authenticity of Eastwood’s portrayal of the group and of their lives, however, fans seem to agree that the film is really quite accurate and intricate. What is astounding to an outsider, however, is the control Eastwood has in assisting his audience to look directly, and deeply, into the hearts of these characters, who start off as teenagers looking to have some fun, make some money and impress women aplenty and end as calloused men who have seen both the positive and the negative aspects of the oh-so-alluring world of show business. Delicately capturing the nuanced pain of each and every character, the film plays as a surprisingly straight-laced and well controlled look into the actual characters, rather than making the cliched mistake of playing the best songs by the musicians the film is about whilst the character act out the tiniest of melodramas in the background to the soundtrack (usually for the sake of selling some CDs). Each and every one of the main four feel alive, especially Frankie Valli, the group’s frontman, who acts as the protagonist of the film and is played brilliantly by John Lloyd Young. It isn’t a particularly revealing film in terms of its director – Eastwood, as is typical of the films of his that he doesn’t find himself starring in, takes a step back and allows the story to speak for itself – but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t illuminating of his style and his passion towards the music the film looks at. It’s also generally quite interesting to me that the film does look so in-depth at the behind-the-scenes of the band, focusing more on their daily lives than their stardom in a way that seems to suggest that maybe Eastwood wishes people could see his daily life more. I may be reaching, but the level of focus on the mundanity of celebrity life is fascinating.

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As I already said, American Sniper also came out in the same year. Starring Bradley Cooper as U.S. Navy Seal Chris Kyle, the film focuses primarily on his time spent as a Sniper in his four tours of Iraq and the rippling effect that this has on his home life when he is there. This is one that seems to really divide an audience, which is simultaneously quite surprisingly given that the film is so powerful in its storytelling and so interesting in terms of the points it starts to make about America and their attitude towards war (something Eastwood would double down on with 15:17 to Paris, to even more scorn than before), but also understandable in so far as the real Chris Kyle was kind of a prick and so many people have an instinctual reaction to cringe at the thought of the Iraq war. It’s a shame, as there is certainly an outstanding film in here once you can get past some of the more obtuse parts of it, such as the often-cited in memes prop baby and some of the lines that take quite nuanced conflicts and turns them into overly simplified one line debates between family members to be subsequently forgotten about. 

The most interesting point made here is the looking into American Imperialism as something terrifying even to those from America. It looks at imperialism as something that ends badly for literally all involved, from the deaths of children in Iraq to the never-ending aftermath that comes from imperialism. Kyle, at least within the content of the film, is a victim of circumstance – a man bred to being a terminator, an emotionless killing machine to serve his country – someone programmed from birth for one specific purpose by everything surrounding him, and then used, squeezed until there is nothing left but an empty sack of the person who once was Chris Kyle, and thrown back into a society with the expectation to remain just as emotionless as he has been psychologically programmed to be from birth. His emotion is seen as weakness, so he hides it. His fear is weak, his difficulty and hesitance to make rough decisions is a weakness, and these weaknesses must all be lost because with them he cannot serve America to the best of his potential ability. Let’s not forget, Kyle joins the war because of what he sees in America and nowhere else, and that America made the issues with Iraq out to be smooch worse than they really were to the point that so many people were pro-invasion.

Spoilers incoming too, but the ending really places the hard emphasis on how this Imperialism is destructive to everybody. The death of Kyle is much more symbolic than it seems, and can easily be applied to just about any single American soldier during the Iraq war (or facing its rough aftermath). The American flag teeters past sheepishly, proving the death of a servant to America, and yet beyond the inclusion of the flag, America doesn’t care. They bred Chris Kyle and led him directly to his death, as Imperialism has done to so many other men. 

It’s certainly one of Eastwood’s sharpest films, and the way that the focus on the Iraq war is played from the American point-of-view to this degree definitely makes the entire film a much harder pill to swallow than it really needed to be, with Eastwood’s direction sometimes threatening to slip into being proud of America for the war effort when it is trying to make the audience sympathise with Kyle for being cultivated by all of this media surrounding him for the entirety of his life.

Personally, I think that in the case of the film a lot of people are too fast to ignore the way that Kyle, and most soldiers for that matter, are manipulated into their beliefs by the powers that be, and that they really have very little control over finding these beliefs simply because of where they live. The film doesn’t frame Kyle as the only victim of the war, it doesn’t make him any more important than any of the numerous people whom he kills throughout his four tours, it simply makes him yet another victim of these ruthless American ideals, a victim of his circumstances in the very same way that the people in Iraq were. It’s a terrifying and truly devastating film, one that is often quite difficult to watch and one that deserves so much more praise that it has received up to this point – I can only hope that with time more come to realise the true intentions of the film and are able to see what it was that Eastwood was really trying to illuminate with the film, but only time will tell.

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After two more years, Eastwood returned with Sully, another true story of recent American heroism. This time following Tom Hanks as Captain ‘Sully’ Sullenberger known for the ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ in January 2009, in which he landed a damaged plane on the Hudson River saving the lives of every single passenger of the 155 on board the plane, the film is mainly focused on what occurred after this unpredictable miracle moment, looking specifically at how Sully was actually maligned for his actions, with his superiors claiming that they were unsafe and that he may have to go to jail for choosing to land the plane in the way that he did despite the fact that he had saved the lives of over one hundred and fifty people. It’s a very carefully controlled film, one that takes its story at a surprisingly leisurely pace and is much more focused on the discomfort of the world at large when the right thing turns out to be the opposite (or is made to look that way by others). Hanks is great, and the culminating courtroom scene is priceless in terms of just how satisfying it is to see Sully tackle the arguments thrown his way. It is interesting particularly in how it contrasts the rules of certain organisations against the ‘rules’ of instinct – the rules of the airline that Sully flies for evidently don’t have humanity in their eyesight, only following rules and regulations. Sully, for being humanist and acting on the instinct to simply save himself and the others on board, is punished severely for abiding by the wrong set of rules, according to some anyway. It isn’t an absolute must-see, but it is a startlingly strong film by itself. 

In 2018, Eastwood did yet another pair of films within the same year. Somehow, even at the age of 88, he puts out more films than most directors. 

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The first of these two films was the aforementioned 15:17 to Paris, a film that follows the lives of three American men who, in August 2015 stopped a terrorist on a train in France who was carrying enough ammunition to kill over five hundred people. To contrast Sully quite effectively, this one shifts focus and looks at what leads up to this heroic act and, furthermore, it uses the real people involved in the ordeal as the actors to add to the authenticity of what we see. It’s an absolutely fascinating film, far from perfect but so inexplicably interesting that it’s hard to really care very much about the visible flaws and issues at the centre of the film. Viewing the boys as children and then seeing how their differing life experiences end up bringing them together is interesting by itself, but when paired with Eastwood’s distinct Americanism and his focus on the way that violence is seen in contemporary America, it starts to fold out into something all the more entrancing. As I said, it is FAR from perfect, and this deserves to be emphasises, but it’s a film testing out a kind of gimmick so ballsy that I can’t help but admire this one deeply, especially coming from a director as seasoned as Eastwood is. It was Tarantino who once claimed that directing is a young man’s game, but evidently that is just another thing that he is wrong about – Eastwood is living proof that, if anything, some directors can only improve with age.

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Finally, or at least finally for now, is the Mule. Eastwood’s second film released in 2018 (or early 2019 in the U.K.), a more than suitable swan song for Eastwood’s career. It’s a strange film, going from looking at Eastwood’s politically outdatedness in a comical light to looking at the various downfalls of protagonist Earl Stone who has too often left his family behind in trying to focus on his business… sounds familiar, doesn’t it? For such a self-reflexive film, it is surprising that Eastwood does go quite as deeply as he does here – don’t get me wrong, this is no All That Jazz, but it is shockingly probing for something from someone who comes across as jaded as Eastwood does more often than not. It’s not personal to any kind of alienating degree either, but just enough so that we can understand and empathise even if we see exactly why Stone lands in the situations that he does. It’s certainly a touching film, one that evidently speaks volumes about how Eastwood feels about himself and about his focus on his work and lack thereof on his family, and it just seems to fit perfectly into the puzzle of his filmography as an ending. However, he has already started working on another film, set to release this year or next, so it won’t be his last!

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So, that brings us to the end of Eastwood’s work, for now at least. It’s certainly a mixed body of work, one that ebbs and flows in a pretty blatantly rampant way, but it’s coming from one of the truly defining film stars, which adds a great deal of significance as this filmography acts as a kind of emblem to modern mainstream Hollywood, or more so the changes that have occurred not only within Eastwood as a director but Hollywood as a whole. The same can definitely be said for his career as an actor, but it may take a bit longer to wade through all 150 of his starring roles. Anyway, enough rambling – I’m looking forward to seeing what comes next from Eastwood, and curious to see how it contributes to the shape of his overall filmography. 

And just for fun, here is a ranking of his films. I know that throughout this piece I’ve called many of his films some of his best, but consider that this has been written over three months and that the ranking has changed greatly during that time! Without further ado:

  1. Letters From Iwo Jima
  2. Honkytonk Man
  3. Absolute Power
  4. Mystic River
  5. Million Dollar Baby
  6. Unforgiven
  7. American Sniper
  8. The Bridges of Madison County
  9. High Plains Drifter
  10. Hereafter
  11. The 15:17 To Paris
  12. Play Misty For Me
  13. The Outlaw Josey Wales
  14. Changeling
  15. Gran Torino
  16. A Perfect World
  17. White Hunter, Black Heart
  18. Breezy
  19. Flags of Our Fathers
  20. Sully
  21. The Mule
  22. The Rookie
  23. Sudden Impact
  24. Jersey Boys
  25. Blood Work
  26. The Eiger Sanction
  27. J. Edgar
  28. The Gauntlet
  29. True Crime
  30. Pale Rider
  31. Heartbreak Ridge
  32. Piano Blues
  33. Space Cowboys
  34. Bird
  35. Bronco Billy
  36. Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil
  37. Invictus
  38. Firefox

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