There are moments in life when you just know you’ve encountered something great; something so above and beyond the norm that you are awed by it. This is particularly so when you realize you’ve come across something real; something other than the façade which 24-hour news outlets or political campaigns have created for gain. These moments tend to leave you in silence; the kind of silence that fills the movie theater while the credits roll at the end of Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino.
In this film, Eastwood plays the part of Walt Kowalski, an unchanging, elderly Korean War veteran who worked for Ford Motor Company for 50 years, only to find that his grandchildren don’t know where (or what) Korea is and one of his fortyish-year-old sons drives a Toyota.
Kowalski lives in a Michigan suburb that had once been populated solely by white people who worked at the Ford plant. But in the movie, which is set in 2009, the only white people remaining in the neighborhood are Kowalski and an elderly lady across the street. Most of the people in the suburb are Hmong, from Southeast Asia, and thus remind Kowalski more of those at whom he shot during the war than those with whom he served.
Amid this social mix, Kowalski’s home is easy to spot: it is the only one with the perfectly manicured lawn, the clean, fresh paint, and the American flag flying in the wind.
Eastwood’s character is bitter over the fact that his once proud neighborhood is now inhabited by “gooks,” “swamp-rats,” and “zipper-heads” — fellow humans whom he confronts with phrases beginning with “you people,” then peppers with four-letter words and ending with “stay off my lawn.”
One of the first things that grabs you and refuses to let go during this movie is the fact that these “racist” comments do not offend the theatergoer’s post-modern sensibilities. For, as the story unfolds, the viewers realize they are seeing something they have not seen in a long time: Kowalski’s character is as stereotypically cast (and viewed) as any in the film.
Moreover, sensibilities are not offended in this film because it takes the audience beyond pettiness, niceties, and the false world of political correctness and transports them to a place where words mean something, while placing the audience in the midst of a tension that is palpable.
This tension grows throughout the film as Kowalski chooses to vent his frustration particularly toward a teenage neighbor boy named Thao. Kowalski sees weakness in Thao, and he is even less tolerant of weakness than he is of the Hmong people in general.
The movie turns on this recognition of weakness by reminding the viewer that there are ideals to which men of all races aspire — ideals which lead to pride or shame depending on how well one adheres to them. Ironically, Kolwaski sees his own weakness, his own estrangement from these ideals through his interaction with Thao and Thao’s older sister, Sue.
Kowalski’s once blue-collar neighborhood is also overrun with the violence that arises when Asian gangs and black gangs clash. As gang activity proliferates, Kowalski goes from hating his neighbors to relating to them and finally protecting them. In this way, Gran Torino is actually a story of redemption. Not simply the redemption of the “old man,” as Thao calls Eastwood’s character, or of “those people” who live next door to Kowalski, but of the ideals of the melting pot culture that once made possible the co-existence of different races and ethnicities in this country.
By his own admission, Kowalski is “old school.” And his way of handling situations includes not only calling things as he sees them but also putting his gun in an attackers’ face and recounting his Korean War experiences as a way to assure the assailant that he has no qualms about pulling the trigger.
This approach often leads to comical yet substantive exchanges between Kowalski and his late wife’s 27 year-old priest; a priest who promised Kowalski’s dying wife that he would visit and watch over her husband once she passed away. Good to his word, the young priest is ubiquitous throughout the movie as he tries to persuade Eastwood’s character to come to the church for confession and to call the police once in a while instead of handling things with his rifle, as if he were still in Korea at war.
After witnessing Kowalski’s approach, many of the Hmong call him a “hero,” but his neighbor Sue calls him “American.”
It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a theater with only a handful of seats empty when the movie starts. Of course, it’s also been a long time since I’ve come across something great — something that speaks to ideals of heroism, sacrifice, and honor in a way that is so real it moves you to believe, to recall, and to wish it were true.
By the way, there is a green 1972 Ford Gran Torino in Kowalski’s garage that I almost forgot to mention. It is in mint condition. I think it slipped my mind because I was lost in the lesson that people mean more than things. This is the lesson that Eastwood’s character will re-teach everyone who takes the time to watch this excellent movie.