by Aaron Peck
When 'Hereafter' hit theaters, I remember reading a post on Jim Emerson's Scanners blog (Emerson manages Roger Ebert's website), where he asked if one could truly pick a Clint Eastwood film out of a lineup. He acknowledged that he had no idea if Eastwood really had a significant visual or emotional style to his movies like say, Aronofsky or Lynch have. He went on to claim that certain filmmakers he knows consider Eastwood an amazing project manager, rather than an accomplished director. This got me to wondering, is Clint Eastwood overrated as a director?
Speaking for myself, I've had an affinity for Eastwood movies ever since 'Unforgiven'. When Eastwood’s name is attached, some sort of fanboy-itis inside of me takes over, like a 'Star Wars' nerd clamoring for any information from George Lucas. I don’t really know why that happens. Over the years, I’ve found that films directed by Eastwood move with a purpose and feeling that is hard to find in other movies. Even a mechanical plot like 'Absolute Power' feels slightly different under Eastwood’s directorial hand.
Truthfully though, I can’t think of anything visually that separates Eastwood from the pack. I can, however, think of the feeling I get when I watch something like 'Million Dollar Baby' or 'Changeling'. Eastwood is a lingerer. The camera stays with the characters, observing them, showing us their surroundings and how they interact with them. When so many directors out there are chopping their movies up into a blinding series of one and a half second shots, Eastwood lets the story play out methodically, often without cutting away. Remember in 'Absolute Power' when he ascends the stairs in the mansion as the camera follows him further and further up, never cutting away? Or as he watches Gene Hackman attack the young woman, unable to do anything to stop it? Those scenes are almost uncomfortably drawn out, clearly giving you the feeling that this is the work of a different kind of director.
In the 'Changeling,' Eastwood crafted one of the finest scenes I’ve witnessed in movies. Hyperbole, I know, but to this day I can’t get that moment out of my head. A child is discussing the horrors he endured and observed at a desolate farm where the man of the place was kidnapping local kids. The scene is terrifyingly real. Again, Eastwood lingers on the characters, letting us in on their fears, showing us the horror on their faces. Think back to 'Mystic River,' the same thing. The emotion seeps through the film. To me, that’s masterful direction and filmmaking. 'Hereafter' didn’t resonate all that well with some people. Most of the detractors claimed the film was too long and drawn-out. I would submit, however, that that is Eastwood’s signature style. He’s interested in his characters and their reactions, not just driving the plot along. He might not have a visual style that jumps out at you immediately, but I would argue that it is certainly there, and that what separates him from the pack is his attention to detail, the natural way his camera moves and observes, and the way he lets you truly peer into the shots to participate in the onscreen world he's created.
So, is Eastwood overrated as a director? I don’t think so. Not at all. By his name alone, he’s able to produce and direct films that would otherwise go unmade. You think anyone else out there could’ve gotten a movie like 'Hereafter' produced for a wide release, and gotten Matt Damon to star in it? Not a chance. Even though Eastwood doesn’t pull viewers in with some sort of showstopping visual style, he certainly imbues his films with real substance. Oh, and he’s a dynamite composer to boot.