Clint Eastwood is many things. The star of a classic TV show, Rawhide. A cast member in more than 50 films. The originator of the phrase “Go ahead, make my day.” The former mayor of Carmel, California. The recipient of five Academy Awards. A commander in France’s Légion d’Honneur. An American movie icon.
One thing Clint Eastwood is not, however, is a great director.
Lately we seem to be confused about this. Here, for example, are some words that some critics have written about Eastwood in recent years:
“Directors grow great by subtracting, not adding, and Eastwood does nothing for show, everything for effect.” — Roger Ebert
“He’s got a lot on his mind—mortality, moral decisions, living with mistakes and what one makes of one’s short time on earth—and he continues to hone his filmmaking style in a way so highly refined it approaches the abstract.” — Todd McCarthy
“His filmmaking has become the cinematic equivalent of Hemingway’s spare though precise prose.” — Kirk Honeycutt
“Clint Eastwood is among the very few Americans admired and respected at home and abroad, without qualification or irony.” — David Thomson
And so on.
The problem is that if you actually think about what makes a great director great—and then go back and watch Eastwood’s movies, as I did this week—it’s obvious that Clint isn’t one of them. In fact, he’s probably the most overrated director in Hollywood today.
Eastwood’s latest film, Jersey Boys, should be sufficient to clear up the confusion. It isn’t a terrible picture; few of Eastwood’s are. But it is doggedly, almost deliberately mediocre in every way. Jersey Boys was a massive hit on Broadway because it blended the sunny songs of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons with the shadowy story of how they got famous. It was part mafia movie and part jukebox musical—and who doesn’t love both of those things? But in translating the show for the screen, Eastwood hasn’t really done his job as director. Some crucial things (the thrill of the music) are lost; other less cinematic things (characters directly addressing the audience) are retained. The result is a misshapen, slapdash slog that never really connects—a rock biopic that isn’t even as good as Walk the Line (and doesn’t come close to, say, the truly great 24 Hour Party People).
My goal here isn’t to dismantle a legend. Eastwood is a singular screen presence, and he can be electrifying in the right role. I also respect how dedicated he is to old-school filmmaking at a moment when most of Hollywood is childishly obsessed with comic-book reboots—and how vibrant he remains at 84. But elevating Eastwood to the top tier of directors diminishes the directors who actually belong there: John Ford, Howard Hawks, David Lean, et al. It also suggests that we’re lowering our expectations—that we’re accepting a tasteful facsimile of virtuous filmmaking—right when we should be expecting more. An Eastwood movie is better than The Avengers Part 16, we seem to be telling ourselves. At least it feels like a Serious Film.
But ultimately that’s not enough. The first requirement of a great director is to make great movies. How many has Eastwood made? I count one: Unforgiven. His second-best film, The Outlaw Josey Wales, is very good, but it’s not quite top-notch. The same goes for A Perfect World. Beyond that, what’s left? Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby were both highly praised—the latter won Best Picture and Best Director—but neither is nearly as impressive as everyone seemed to think at the time. (Especially Million Dollar Baby: the critic Charles Taylor once described it—correctly—as “a compendium of every cliché from every bad boxing melodrama ever made [that] tries to transcend its cornball overfamiliarity with the qualities that have long characterized Eastwood’s direction — it’s solemn, inflated, and dull.”) Eastwood’s Charlie Parker biopic Bird is interesting, if flawed. Gran Torino is better, but it’s hardly a masterpiece.
The rest of Eastwood’s oeuvre—that’s the word we use with auteurs, right?—resembles a VHS giveaway pile: Breezy, The Eiger Sanction, Firefox, The Rookie, True Crime, The Bridges of Madison County, Space Cowboys, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Blood Work, Changeling, Invictus, Hereafter, and the ridiculous J. Edgar. Eastwood has a decent on-base percentage, but compare his home run total to Martin Scorsese’s. Mean Streets, Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas, Casino, The Departed, Hugo, The Wolf of Wall Street... it’s not even close.
The second requirement of a great director is that he somehow enriches the material he’s working with. Think of Preston Sturges’ rapid wit, or Steven Spielberg’s ravishing populism, or Alfred Hitchcock’s devilish precision. Not every movie these directors made was great, but every movie they made was better because they made it.
With Eastwood, that rarely seems to be the case. His style is largely procedural. As Esquire’s Tom Junod has written, “the Clint Movie is itself defined by what he won’t do. He won’t go over budget. He won’t go over schedule. He won’t storyboard. He won’t produce a shot list. He won’t rehearse. He doesn’t say “Action” … and he doesn’t say “Cut.” He won’t, in the words of his friend Morgan Freeman, “shoot a foot of film until the script is done,” and once the script is done, he won’t change it. He doesn’t heed the notes supplied by studio executives...He won’t accept the judgment of test screenings...He is well-known for his first takes—for expecting his actors and crew to be prepared for them and for moving on if he gets what he wants.”
This is interesting because it indicates what the Clint Movie is not defined by: Clint’s own vision or ideas. Because Eastwood is Eastwood, he can latch onto excellent material (Dennis Lehane’s Mystic River, Broadway’s Jersey Boys) and attract outstanding actors to his projects. But he’s so worried about overthinking his movies that he often winds up underthinking them instead. “I’ve gotten so lucky relying on my animal instincts, I’d rather keep a little bit of the animal alive,” he once said. “To me, it’s all been extemporaneous.”
Exhibit A? Million Dollar Baby. A better director would have sought to subvert or complicate the clichés in Paul Haggis’ screenplay. Eastwood simply amplified them. As Charles Taylor put it in his Salon piece, Eastwood “thinks that he can turn hokeyness into tragedy by pretending that the material isn’t hokey, by dragging it out and drabbing it down.” I understand that Eastwood’s thrift, speed, and loyalty—he works with the same crew on every project—is refreshing. But here’s the thing: Eastwood’s thrift often distracts from the drama, as with Jersey Boys' chintzy sets. His speed often hampers the performances, as with Mystic River’s rampant overacting. And his loyalty almost always mars the look of his films, as with every underlit Eastwood picture ever. A filmmaker’s idiosyncrasies should make his movies better, not worse.
The final requirement of a great director is that he has something worthwhile to say. His point doesn’t have to be political, per se, but his movies can’t be pointless. Once upon a time, Eastwood had a message to deliver: His two best works, Unforgiven and Josey Wales, are both revisionist Westerns that upended the conventions of the genre to criticize our established notions of violence and American individualism. This was a subject that Eastwood, second only to John Wayne among Western screen heroes, knew well. But lately Clint has transformed himself. In such recent films as Letters from Iwo Jima, Changeling, Gran Torino, and Invictus, he has, to quote The New Yorker’s David Denby, begun to see “his own prized values embodied in people he had essentially ignored before.” And so Eastwood has used his lofty perch to come out against social ills such as discrimination, child abuse, gender inequality, gang violence, and apartheid. The problem, of course, is that everyone is already against these things. Weighing in on issues that have been decided for decades is the equivalent of saying nothing at all.
Again, I don’t hate Clint Eastwood. In a lot of ways, I admire him. As an actor in training at Universal, he “roamed all over the lot, asking questions about different aspects of filmmaking, and, during his Rawhide years, he made several requests, without success, to direct an episode.” He always knew he wanted to be a director, and he has become much better at the job than almost any other actor in Hollywood history.
He just isn’t one of the greats. If you don’t believe me, go watch Jersey Boys. Watch the stiff musical numbers, the cursory character development, and the saggy second half, when everything goes wrong for Valli & Co. Then imagine what Martin Scorsese could have done with the material. Imagine live performances that feel like The Last Waltz and mob scenes that feel like Goodfellas. Imagine mean streets instead of studio sets; wolves instead of sheep; sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll instead of Playbill prestige. That’s the difference between a good director and a great one.