For a man of few words, with a persona known for shooting first and asking questions later, Clint Eastwood is a powerful vox populi.
Eastwood, who made his name playing the man with no name, has proven to be a keen analyst of the mood of the American public.
More than 30 years ago, in the early 1970s, Eastwood saw that Americans had grown disaffected with and disconnected from the nation's laws and institutions. Government was talked about as the problem, not the solution. The violence and crime in the streets and the civic government's seeming inability to address big problems and make things work alienated both right and left. President Richard M. Nixon was heralding his law and order efforts but in foreign policy and domestic affairs, from Vietnam to what became Watergate, the system seemed bankrupt.
In response to the public distress, like an overarching national id, police Lt. Harry Callahan appeared with the release of Dirty Harry in 1971. As played by Eastwood, Callahan is one cop who will do what it takes to catch the bad guy -- even if it means breaking the law. Another film had already used the baiting line, Make my day, when a cop dares a thug to make a move -- but Eastwood turned the sentiment into a national catchphrase. Callahan is a tough guy who can achieve justice and get things done because he lives by the true law -- a code of honor.
With Gran Torino, Eastwood is now following a different code -- 180 degrees different. But it is winning the same public success -- the movie opened wide to No. 1 this weekend.
In this movie Eastwood plays Walt Kowalski, a tough, relentless ex-Marine who, when faced with grave injustice, looks to the rule of law to save the day.
Once again, Eastwood has crystallized the nation's mood.
The American public seems to have little taste for frontier justice right now -- and little interest in people taking the law into their own hands. This is the sort of thing that led to a quagmire in Iraq and financial meltdown on Wall Street. It led to the White House approving rendition and torture -- now called "enhanced interrogation techniques" -- and warrantless wiretaps. It led to banks lending recklessly and fiscal leveraging cantilevered out over the abyss. It led to an executive branch that insists it holds all government power and a vice presidential office that is somehow apart from any government regulations. The rule of law has been sadly absent as Washington stomped on allies abroad and sloughed off regulation at home.
But the country clearly seems fed up with this. For most of last year, polls showed that 79 percent of the nation just wanted the Bush administration gone. Consider, a constitutional law professor was elected president.
Confronting an economic crisis that bears all too many similarities to the Great Depression, the nation is now looking to both the government and the rule of law to help them over some very rough ground. The problem, it turns out, was not too much government but not enough.
This is a paradigm shift for America. And, since a movie generally takes about nine months to make -- even at the most accelerated production schedule -- Eastwood clearly read this stunning change even as public opinion was forming.
The Bush administration, as events rolled out over the last eight years, has regularly said, "Who could have seen this coming?" Well, for one, Clint Eastwood did.