You've made the first movie of the Obama generation!" exclaimed an audience member as he rushed up to Clint Eastwood after a recent screening of Gran Torino. "Well," the 78-year-old actor-director replied, without missing a beat, "I was actually born under Hoover." It was an ironic juxtaposition, given that Eastwood's Torino character, widowed Korean War vet and former Detroit autoworker Walt Kowalski, has earned comparisons to TV's Archie Bunker, both for his politically incorrect racial epithets and general hostility toward a modern world that seems to have left him—and his old-fashioned American values—out in the cold. "We could use a man like Herbert Hoover again," Bunker sang at the start of each All in the Family episode. But it's change, not nostalgia, that sets the tone in Gran Torino, as the belligerent Walt ventures first across the property line and then deeper into the lives of the Hmong immigrant family living next door.
The movie, Eastwood tells me the day after the Torino screening, appealed to his personal philosophy of "never stop learning. If you never stop learning, then you never stop growing as a person, you never stop taking in new information and changing. People ask me, 'Have you changed?' And I say, 'I hope so,' because over 10, 20, 30, 40 years, you're supposed to change all the time. You're supposed to expand."
That said, Gran Torino is hardly one of those rainbow-coalition lessons in tolerance that well-meaning but naïve American filmmakers tend to unleash at least once or twice a season. Eastwood would no sooner make such a pedantic film about our changing cultural makeup than he would directly address the effects of factory closures on once-prosperous labor meccas like Detroit—even though that too is very much a part of Gran Torino. But while America is undeniably Eastwood's great subject, as it was for his spiritual mentor, John Ford, he rarely tackles any American issue—social, economic or otherwise—head-on.
"I go for the sideline effects of it all rather than, 'OK, here we are in the factory that's shutting down,'" Eastwood explains. "The obvious stories, the Norma Rae kind of stories, those are hurdles, but they're kind of right out there in front. It's the hurdles that are inside that you have to deal with to make characters interesting, I think."
Interviewing Eastwood can offer a similar education in stealth maneuvers and rear-guard actions. Ask him directly about some seemingly recurring theme in his work—like the way many Eastwood films address the conflict between personal and societal morality—and, at best, you'll get a grudging, "I'm attracted to that, I guess."
After directing 29 feature films and acting in more than twice that many, he says there's no grander design to the way he works than simply reading a script and deciding, "OK, this fits with what I want to do next. This is a person I'd like to visit and watch him go through his life."
But Eastwood will allow that, more often that not, those people he chooses to visit are haunted figures with dark and even dangerous pasts, men who have done or witnessed things no man should do or see. He likens Walt Kowalski, traumatized by the atrocities he committed a half-century ago in Korea, to Sanford Clark, the teenage nephew and unwitting accomplice of convicted serial killer Gordon Northcott, whose 1920s killing spree inspired Eastwood's other 2008 release, Changeling.
"I looked at a picture of his gravestone—he died at 92—and it says, 'To a loving father and grandfather,'" Eastwood offers. "And you wonder, how the hell did this guy go on to be a loving father and grandfather? How did he bury all that crap? That's a whole story in itself—what his life must have been like, going back after that, having assisted in killing little children. You think, 'God, what could haunt a person any more than that?'"
All of us, Eastwood adds, "have to see a lot of crappy things in a lifetime and you have to deal with them, bury them. Sometimes you get assistance in that; sometimes you don't. The people in Flags of Our Fathers: I don't know what those people did. They just told them, 'OK, you're discharged now. The war's over. Go home. Get over it. Forget about it.'"
So, while Eastwood is glad that fans have been telling him how eagerly they're anticipating Gran Torino ever since the movie's poster, featuring a vindictive-looking Clint wielding an M-1, started circulating a couple of months ago, he hopes people drawn to the film by its promise of a return to Dirty Harry–style vigilantism realize that there's more to the movie than meets the eye. "I wonder if those people will be disappointed—the ones who just want the hard-ass stuff, the rifle in the face and the guns and stuff like that," he says. "You hope if that's what attracts an audience in, it isn't what they're left with. You hope the undercurrent will get to them as well."