Dirty Harry, Politics, and the Guy at the End of the Table

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The noise of our beloved punditocracy's most recent yowls and hand-wringing over Clint Eastwood's recent, and somewhat startling appearance at the Republican National Convention reminds me of a "Behind the Scenes" movie moment in which I found myself a few years back.

It was the studio screening of the movie SPACE COWBOYS, which I co-wrote. And I should give you a little backdrop; studio screenings are generally fairly tense affairs. It's a week or so before the national release, a huge amount of money and time has been invested in the film, and truly, nobody ever really knows how these things will go in the marketplace.

To add to the tension that day, in the case of Cowboys, no studio executive had seen one frame of this film, nor had they even been to the set. Mr. Eastwood has never barred anyone that I know of, but it's an unwritten rule that if you're not explicitly invited, you don't just wander onto one of Dirty Harry's sets. Even if you're a studio executive- actually, especially if you are a studio executive.

Clint doesn't show rough cuts, he doesn't do focus groups or test screenings, and he certainly doesn't attend studio screenings. He wasn't at this one, anyway. The man speaks his mind in the films he makes, hands them in on time and on-budget. And then, like his Spaghetti Western heroes of old, he rides away... until it's time to ride in and do it again.

So back to the screening. The lights come up at the end of the film, and the silence is both deafening and predictable; you see, the new head of the studio is sitting in the center of the back row, surrounded by his court of vice presidents and various other executives on the studio's ladder. One other critical point; this movie was green-lit by the previous regime. And Lord help any of these corporate climbers surrounding the new chief who'd dare venture an opinion that might be different from his. All of us waited tensely for his blessing.

"It's a dog," the chief declared, not quite under his breath. "Nobody's gonna buy a 70 year old flying the space shuttle, even if he is Clint Eastwood." The court of executives nodded in somber agreement with the Boss, and followed him out, leaving the screenwriters to ponder their One-and-done-ness.

Truthfully, we knew the movie's premise was slightly absurd. Pretty much only one guy could pull this off, and we had Clint in mind all the way while writing it. Still, the chief's verdict was a gut shot in its authority and finality. I mean, who would know better than the head of the studio?

Apparently, Clint.

Because, whether people bought that a 70-year-old retired pilot could actually con his way onto the space shuttle and fly it, it didn't matter. It was Rowdy Yates. The Man with No Name. Dirty Harry.

It was Clint Eastwood.

And the people came. The movie did nearly $100 million of business in its domestic run, and twelve years later, is still selling DVD's and running on cable TV. Not bad for a "dog". And a cautionary tale, I believe, for those beloved pundits and Twitter Jockeys delivering a similar judgment to that of the studio chief on Mr. Eastwood's convention speech.

No, I'm not going to argue for the performance or his obvious lack (and need) of a "shooting script" as he rambled through those ten minutes. It reminded any of us with an elderly dad or uncle of that pit-of-the-stomach anxiety as he rises at the head of a holiday table with "something to say" to the assembled mix of philosophies, creeds and politics. We sweat through every syllable, praying to God it doesn't all go south like in an Eastwood western, in a hail of flying food and long-repressed verbal missiles. As an ex-colleague and lifetime admirer of Clint Eastwood's, I confess to that very gnawing fear and dread as the empty chair routine went on... and on. I'll even admit I was as baffled by that performance as most of us were.

Till I thought about it for a few days.

Is it possible, to cite an earlier speech that evening... that like the studio chief, the yowlers, tweeters and pundits just didn't get it?
First off, Clint Eastwood is our generation's John Wayne. He is an icon who occupies a permanent space in our culture, and more than a few of his cinematic words are now part of the American lexicon.

Secondly, like most of his characters, Clint is a man of few words. And with the exception of his mayoral days in Carmel, he has largely steered clear of politics. I can't remember a single time he so prominently and publicly endorsed a candidate. Even his friend Ronald Reagan may have gotten the use of his famous "Make my Day" clip, but he never got ten minutes of Dirty Harry endorsing him in front of the whole world, rambling or not. Whether Clint lavished praise on Mr. Romney didn't matter, his presence there spoke volumes.
And who did those volumes speak to, primarily?

His generation. The Greatest Generation. The AARP Crowd. The Space Cowboys and Cowgirls out there, and yes, those people "in the middle"; who, right or left- leaning, represent this country's most powerful voting bloc. Whether his speech rambled or made sense in the moment or not, the man is 82 years old. He's America's unpredictable dad down at the end of that table- he's one of us.

And in print, his words, uncomfortable and pit-of-the-stomach tickling that they were, were brief, strong, and to the point.

It really didn't matter that he rambled. I'm not sure that wasn't partially intentional- he meant every word, I'm certain, but a showbusiness pro knows the tee-up man doesn't out-shine the star of the night with his own soaring rhetoric. Lest we forget how close showbusiness and politics really are- the same rules apply. Clint Eastwood made his point by showing up, then let the number one guy do the real talking.

Now all of these would have been more than enough for me to agree with my old boss that he had indeed "accomplished the mission". Good or bad, everybody in America it seemed, was talking about the speech and him- with emotion.

Then last weekend, during a nationally televised college football game, I saw the trailer for Clint's latest film, opening next weekend. And I laughed out loud.

As we say in the screenwriting game. it was the "Aha" moment. I'll be danged if the old guy at the end of the table didn't just run the table on all of us- again.

Oh don't get me wrong. I believe he was passionate and sincere in his views, and sufficiently moved to travel across the country, and endure the media firestorm he had to know was coming in speaking out as he did. But the fact that the convention so closely coincided with another national release of a film with our generation's John Wayne?

Could that be a bad thing?

I don't know whether that speech helped or hurt Mr. Romney, and none of us can really predict what will happen this November. But the guy at the end of the table said what he had to say, and rode away.

And I got fifty bucks that says the most talked about man in America's next movie opening will be anything but a dog.


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