Eastwood and Moral Theology
The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood
By Sara Anson Vaux. Eerdmans. Pp. 277. $24
Review by Ken Ross
If the flinty gaze and violent oeuvre of Clint Eastwood have long been your guilty pleasure, rejoice. Sara Anson Vaux has redeemed your little secret. Dirty Harry, it turns out, had an ethical vision. That .44 Magnum was just a trope, a means by which Eastwood could remind us of the wages of sin and the bloody consequences of lex talionis.
As Vaux says in her preface: “Seen along a forty-year continuum, Eastwood’s movies reveal stages in an unfolding moral ontology — a sense of being in the world.” Eastwood, it seems, is interested in the narrative exploration of “justice, confession, war and peace.” So it is time for all of his closeted fans — you know who you are — to come out and enter into conversation with this irascible, iconic and gifted filmmaker.
Of course Eastwood’s oeuvre is more than Dirty Harry or the avenging angel characters of his many westerns. His work consists of an astonishing number and variety of films: J. Edgar, Invictus, Gran Torino, Letters from Iwo Jima, Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, The Bridges of Madison County, and a host of other projects many of us have never seen. Whatever your view of Eastwood, he is more, much more, than you might suppose. He has directed 31 films to date. His filmography, as listed on IMDb, includes 605 entries, an amazing body of work. Eastwood has been as prolific as he has been influential. And as Vaux makes clear, his artistic and moral vision has constantly evolved, while the themes that interest him have remained remarkably consistent.
This book examines the range of Eastwood’s films in four principal sections: “The Angel of Death,” “The Mysteries of Life,” “Eternal War,” and “Hereafter.” Vaux reads into this body of work a theological undercurrent “steeped in religious symbols, religious ritual, and the promise of reconciliation.” Eastwood is portrayed as someone who presents a counter-narrative, standing against our prevailing cultural mythologies. In his westerns, for example, Vaux examines how Eastwood’s angel of death characters “breached the boundaries of the genre” by undermining the predominant myth of the American superhero. Eastwood’s work, in its various genres, is interested in narratives that are either explicitly or implicitly subversive of the simple and formulaic stories typical of Hollywood.
Vaux argues that Eastwood’s films are to “be read rather than watched.” And Vaux is a capable guide, ably pointing out ways in which we can read his work. Within the four principal sections, she annotates key films and draws out inner meanings, points out symbolism, makes theological connections, and explains the filmmaker’s craft. These observations make explicit why Eastwood’s work is so durable. For many of us, the elements of his work have been enjoyed but not necessarily understood. The strength of the appeal of Eastwood’s work may have been based on intuition more than a conscious appreciation of his subtext. Vaux deserves great credit for explicating the symbolism and moral discourse that undergirds Eastwood’s work.
Vaux’s insights will motivate many readers to revisit Eastwood’s films. Her passion for Eastwood is contagious. So, if you thought that you would never see Clint Eastwood’s name and the phrase moral ontology in the same sentence, you will no longer be surprised after reading this book. Eastwood’s portrayal of the American hero, whose utterance of “Make my day” has become synonymous with the hyper-virile, revenge-minded protagonist, has in the end become the agent of its own deconstruction. The violence of an Eastwood film is neither gratuitous nor simple, and neither is Eastwood. He is a musically inclined, jazz-loving, history-reading, philosophically nuanced actor-director whose work should be of interest to us all, from cinephiles to theologians.
Ken Ross works in the mineral exploration industry in the United States and West Africa and is a member of the Living Church Foundation.