Greenwood Press recently published Clint Eastwood: A Biography by Northwestern University professor Sara Vaux. The book is Vaux's second on Eastwood, following 2011's The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood (Eerdmans), and it expertly balances the iconic actor/director's life story with extended analyses of his major films. I recently spoke to her about the book and the controversies swirling around Eastwood's Republican National Convention appearance in 2012 and his latest film American Sniper.
MGS: Clint Eastwood: A Biography is your second book on Eastwood. How does it differ from The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood and which would you recommend readers pick up first?
SV: The biography, although it does include analyses of some of my favorite among Eastwood's iconic films, principally addresses his artistic identity and its origins. Ethical Vision lays out the worldview within which his personal films unfold: care for the men, women, and children whom the American Dream has left behind. I would recommend readers begin with the biography, which tackles myth making itself and encourages viewers to look closely at the particulars of Clint's movies themselves rather than getting carried away by easy assumptions about his political intentions, personal life, or image lifted from the Spaghetti Westerns or The Dirty Harry movies. Ethical Vision assumes an alert reader of film texts who approaches each movie with an eye toward narrative, rhythm, music, and the like. I love both books!
MGS: Can you explain your unique take on Eastwood's controversial appearance at the 2012 Republican National Convention?
SV: I analyze the appearance in detail at the beginning of the biography, as a performance best seen through the lens of medieval studies: it allows multiple readings as you peel away the layers and attempt to locate its innermost "meanings." Compare its reception with the current controversy over American Sniper, which angers left and right alike. Eastwood's strength as a director lies in part with his ambiguities, nuancing of characters, and multiple narrative lines. Look. Clint spoke against a backdrop shot from The Outlaw Josey Wales, celebrated by gun lovers as a revenge movie. Rather, the film shows the ghastly price of endless violence. As Nelson Mandela said (played in Eastwood's Invictus by Morgan Freeman), "Violence is not the way."
MGS: American Sniper has made a lot of money and racked up Oscar nominations but Eastwood has also been attacked by left-wing critics for making a "jingoistic" film that is supposedly tailored to conservative viewers. How do you respond to these critics?
SV: Take a closer look at what actually happens in the movie. Every character, every action underscores the incalculable damage that war does to its soldiers. Eastwood explores that damage — Kyle's suffering from PTSD, so feelingly explored in earlier Eastwood movies like Josey Wales, Flags of our Fathers, and Gran Torino. Further, Kyle belongs to the hundreds of thousands of men and women we have sent off to be maimed and killed in ill-planned and falsely marketed wars.