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Section from Andy Warhol's classic 1984 portrait of Clint Eastwood.
Section from Andy Warhol's classic 1984 portrait of Clint Eastwood.

From Dirty Harry to liberal icon

Film Once the vigilante star of action films such as Dirty Harry, the actor-turned-director Clint Eastwood now wrestles with subjects as controversial as war, redemption and euthanasia.

At an age when most filmmakers are well past their peak, Clint Eastwood continues to challenge himself and his audience. In May, on the eve of his 78th birthday, the veteran ­actor-director presented his latest Oscar contender at the Cannes film festival. Changeling continues Eastwood's remarkable autumnal run of contentious, critically acclaimed dramas about the troubled, often tragic truth behind American's ­bullish self-image.

In recent years, Eastwood has ­become something of a changeling himself. Rebranding his public image from right-wing poster boy to liberal elder statesman, he continues to undermine many of the all-American certainties of his past work. Early thrillers grounded in brute force and frontier justice have given way to ­Oscar-winning dramas exposing the chauvinism and bigotry behind flag-waving machismo. Female characters, once castrating harpies or needy stalkers, increasingly occupy the ­moral and dramatic high ground.

Changeling continues this trend. Set in 1920s Los Angeles, this harrowing true story stars Angelina ­Jolie as a young mother who refuses to believe the child returned to her after a horrific kidnap case is her real son. In the end, the city's ­crooked police department force Jolie's troublemaker heroine into a psychiatric institution. A murder mystery suddenly becomes an indictment of criminal injustice on both sides of the law.

"Every two or three decades in Los Angeles, the police department or some political structure has gone through a revolution where they have been caught in some sort of corrupt activities," Eastwood told reporters in Cannes. A living embodiment of the "American Dream", Eastwood was born to factory worker parents in 1930 at the height of the Depression. Raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, he was drafted into the army in 1950, but avoided service in Korea after surviving a dramatic plane crash.

During his long apprenticeship as an actor, appearing mostly in B-movie westerns and production-line TV shows like Rawhide, Eastwood paid the rent with a succession of manual jobs. These lean years helped shape his no-frills work ethic and famously cautious attitude to movie budgets. "I worked for every crust of bread I ever ate," he once claimed. Before he finally secured leading man fame in his late thirties, few would have bet on Eastwood's remarkable career longevity. Sergio Leone's spaghetti westerns made him into an iconic anti-hero in the mid 1960s, but he remained a cultish lightweight by Hollywood standards. He took control of his own destiny, forming his own production company, Malpaso, and moving into directing as he turned 40. But his big break only arrived by fateful accident when Frank Sinatra injured his hand, forcing him to drop out of the role that would make Eastwood a superstar: Dirty Harry. These five films, released as a new DVD box set last month, demonstrate just how far the star has travelled in three decades.

The cannon-toting San Francisco detective Harry Callahan arrived during Richard Nixon's presidency and bowed out with Ronald Reagan in 1988. Released in 1971, the first film in the series was fuelled by disgust with the late 1960s counter culture and student protests against the Vietnam War. But its main target was the 1963 Miranda Act, ­establishing the rights of criminals, which many conservatives saw as an insult to crime victims.

"When that picture was made, there weren't many pictures being made that concerned the victims of violent crimes," Eastwood said in Cannes. "We approached it first as an exciting detective story and eventually a lot of people drew a lot of connections to it, which was quietly intended, or maybe not intended at all. It was a fantasy role." Dirty Harry's enemies include not just criminals but wrong-headed liberals, carping feminists and politically correct bureaucrats. Callahan bypasses petty Town Hall rules by callously gunning down a psychotic killer and even, in a surprisingly topical twist, torturing him for information. This key scene helps explain New Yorker critic Pauline Kael's infamous attack on the film for its "fascist medievalism" and "single-minded attack on liberal values".

But in his audio commentary on the new DVD box set, the screenwriter John Milius remarks that the second chapter in the Dirty Harry ­series, Magnum Force, repudiates Kael's "fascist" claim. In the film, Callahan opposes a genuinely fascistic death squad inside his own police department. It can only be pure coincidence that a movie critic resembling Kael is savagely murdered in the last film of the series, The Dead Pool.

Of course, it is possible to read too much into a pulpy police thriller. The Dirty Harry films are essentially modern-day cousins of Eastwood's spaghetti westerns, guilty pleasures for liberals and conservatives alike. Consistently dismissing political interpretations, Eastwood likes to play the Man With No Subtext. All the same, hawkish Harry Callahan became highly controversial, with many assuming the star shared his reactionary worldview.

Eastwood's off-screen sympathies certainly lean towards the right of American politics. The first US president he voted for was Dwight "Ike" Eisenhower in 1952, a Republican war hero who nonetheless took a progressive line on welfare and Civil Rights legislation. At the height of anti-Vietnam protest, Eastwood helped raised funds for Nixon, talking him up as the "tough man" needed to tackle the war. He attended Nixon's inauguration ceremony, and the president rewarded him with a place on the National Council of the Arts. In the 1980s, Eastwood endorsed Ronald Reagan, who famously borrowed his fellow actor's Dirty Harry line "make my day" during a colourful standoff with the US Congress in 1983. But following his own brief stint as the non-partisan mayor of Carmel in the late 1980s, Eastwood's Republican loyalties appear to have waned in middle age. He was on friendly terms with the former Democratic governor of California, Gray Davis, who appointed the star to his state parks commission in 2001. The incoming Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, renewed this appointment in 2004. Eastwood supported both of Schwarzenegger's election campaigns, but the Governator dropped him from the commission in March this year. The older star's opposition to a proposed six-lane toll motorway seems to have triggered this snub. Ironically, Eastwood was terminated for his liberal stance. So far, Eastwood has remained non-committal towards the current US presidential race. Although he is a long time friend and supporter of the Republican candidate John McCain, he has also publicly praised the Democrat Hillary Clinton for sticking to her guns in tough times. Eastwood has certainly proved lukewarm towards the Bush regime, defying the current president with his liberal views on same-sex marriage and public doubts about invading Iraq. "Converting people to a democracy overnight or even in a 10-year period," he told the conservative TV network Fox News, "I just think that's a little bit naive." Speaking to The New York Times in 2005, Eastwood no longer seemed comfortable even identifying himself as Republican. "I'm not a loyalist to any party," he argued, "I'm only a loyalist to the country." In the Guardian newspaper last year, he expressed further disillusionment with party politics. "I think the difference in my country, the difference in the parties, is there's no difference," he said. "There are just a lot of people trying to keep their jobs." Like many on the right, Eastwood favours small government, fiscal prudence and self-reliant citizens. But he prefers to call himself a libertarian rather than a Republican. This live-and-let-live creed is arguably the only consistent thread between his early films and his recent work. "I don't see myself as conservative, but I'm not ultra-leftist," he told USA Weekend in 2004. "You build a philosophy of your own. I like the libertarian view, which is to leave everyone alone." Whatever his personal convictions, Eastwood's drift towards a more nuanced liberal worldview can be tracked in his filmmaking. Even during his Dirty Harry period, he #began making "revisionist" westerns that cast doubt on America's Old West creation myths. High Plains Drifter from 1973, Eastwood's first western as a director, even angered John Wayne with its caustic depiction of frontier cowardice and sadistic retribution. Three years later, The Outlaw Josey Wales, set at the end of the Civil War, served as a transparent allegory for an America traumatised by defeat in Vietnam. "I guess we all died a little in that damn war," Eastwood growls in the final scene. With #darkly comic irony, the book on which this pacifist epic was based turned out to have been written by Asa Earl #Carter, a former Ku Klux Klan member and white supremacist. But it was another western, the 1992 Oscar-winner Unforgiven, which finally marked the tipping point in Eastwood's reputation. This melancholy, regret-filled masterpiece was widely seen as an "apology" for the star's violent screen past. Emphatically putting the might-makes-right machismo of Dirty Harry behind him, Eastwood began to earn serious respect from liberal commentators - and increasing hostility from conservatives. Almost every film that Eastwood has made since Unforgiven has cast a critical eye towards violence, patriotism and male authority figures. In Mystic River, a whole community becomes complicit as a former victim of underage sexual abuse is brutalised again in adult life. In Million Dollar Baby, an aspiring female boxer receives cruel payback for pursuing the elusive "American Dream". In an ironic echo of the Dirty Harry controversy, vociferous right-wing Christian commentators in the US attacked Million Dollar Baby as a "neo Nazi" propaganda film due to its apparent endorsement of euthanasia. Humbug, of course, but Eastwood's refusal to deliver a sentimental happy ending clearly proved hard for some to swallow. The director undermined more conservative taboos with his twin Second World War epics, Flags of Our #Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, an even-handed account of courage and duplicity on both sides. Parallels with Iraq were hard to ignore. In a 2006 Newsweek interview, Eastwood likened the Pentagon-hyped heroes in Flags of our Fathers to the controversial case of US Army private Jessica Lynch, who was rescued from an Iraqi hospital in April 2003. It is testament to Eastwood's egalitarian principles that he inspires admiration in his collaborators, even left-leaning liberals like Mystic River star Tim Robbins. "I thought I was going to meet Dirty Harry but he's a sweet, gentle, decent person," Robbins tells me. "Look at his crew: there are people that have been with him for years and years. He's a loyal, honourable man." Angelina Jolie agrees. "I've never seen a director command so much respect," she said in Cannes. "Every single member of the crew, he respects them and gives them his time. Every single person feels valued. Everyone brings their best." Still prolific as his 80th birthday looms, Eastwood is already busy with his next raft of film projects. One is The Human Factor, starring Morgan Freeman as Nelson Mandela. But he rules out making a sixth Dirty Harry film - not for political reasons, just sheer implausibility. "There are certain things you have to be realistic about," Eastwood admitted in Cannes. "Dirty Harry wouldn't be on a police department at my age." Jolie immediately offered to fill his shoes in the long-running cop franchise. "Dirty Harriet!" she said. Eastwood nodded, with a dry smile.

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