Clint Eastwood Still Riding High

Feb. 8, 2007 — -- He may be 76 years old, but he behaves as if he's still one of the young Turks of Hollywood.

Hot on the heels of winning the best director and best picture Oscars for "Million Dollar Baby," Clint Eastwood didn't rest on his laurels.

In 2006, he released two epic films about World War II -- one from the American perspective, one from the Japanese -- and though the double project has long generated industry buzz, it's the latter that has proved surprisingly strong.

"Letters From Iwo Jima" earned Eastwood his fourth double nomination for best picture and director, but this one certainly seems the most unlikely: "Letters From Iwo Jima" is not only a Japanese-language film about a former U.S. enemy, but it was shot in half the time and with a fifth the budget of its sister film, "Flags of Our Fathers."

Both movies shatter conventional thinking and challenge our beliefs about violence and war. In "Flags," Eastwood digs hard into the glorification of our heroes; in "Letters," Eastwood probes the heart of the enemy.

The films, Eastwood says, are not anti-American, but anti-war.

"War is not mankind's most noble effort, and we should try to cure it," he said.

The films mark the latest move in Eastwood's extraordinary arc from one of film's most violent vigilantes to an eloquent advocate for peace.

An Icon Evolves

Eastwood started out as the tough guy's tough guy, starring in the "Rawhide" television series and "spaghetti Westerns."

But he earned his immortality more than 20 years ago as "Dirty Harry" Callahan with just five words: "Go ahead. Make my day."

The line from 1983's "Sudden Impact" is No. 6 on the American Film Institute's list of the greatest movie quotes of all time. It even became the defiant cry of conservative president Ronald Reagan, as a challenge to opponents who wanted to raise taxes.

For many, Eastwood's Dirty Harry character is one that still resonates. But Eastwood's wife, Dina, once said that Eastwood in real life was actually closer to Robert Kinkade, the sensitive photographer he played opposite Meryl Streep in "The Bridges of Madison County."

This transition is clearest in his work as a director, where Eastwood has become an outspoken but not unsubtle critic of violence.

"Flags of Our Fathers," the story behind the iconic image of the flag raising at the battle of Iwo Jima, questions the way the United States uses -- and abuses -- its heroes.

"Letters From Iwo Jima" looks at the famous World War II battle from the Japanese point of view.

Both films, like "Unforgiven" and "Million Dollar Baby" before them, deal explicitly with the impact violence has not only on its victims but on those who practice it.

"At this stage in my life, I just look at things differently, which is probably normal for the aging process," he said. "I'm not at a stage in life where I can go back and do those kind of films. … I wouldn't really want to, because I've done that. Been there, done that."

The current films are not without violence, though. Far from it.

"Flags of Our Fathers" depicts horrific battle scenes reminiscent of "Saving Private Ryan." And the Japanese commit war crimes, consistent with most Americans' perception of the war in the Pacific. But in "Letters From Iwo Jima," it's the Americans who commit war crimes that are just as horrific. A daring move for any American director, perhaps, but Eastwood maintains, simply, that the film is accurate.

"I think [in] every war, no side is completely immune from atrocity," Eastwood said. "I've talked to many [veterans of the Battle of Iwo Jima.] … I said, 'How many prisoners did you take?' And they'd say, 'We didn't take any.' And I went, 'Oh, OK.' It was kind of left unsaid."

Message Film

In a time of war, it is hard not to leave the films with a sense that they reference current events, and Eastwood doesn't deny that the films are critical of American policy.

He said it was clear that the United States should extricate itself from the war in Iraq.

"The big question is how and when," he said. "It seems like the predicament we're in now is it's a bad situation regardless of which side you favor."

Though Eastwood says he doesn't know if President Bush has screened his two films, he suggests the films' message might be relevant -- and might resonate. "They should look at it," he said.

It has been more than 60 years since the Battle of Iwo Jima, and Eastwood said that the passing of that time might have been necessary for American audiences to accept what are often unflattering depictions.

As for the current conflict, he says he's sure there are terrific stories to be told about the United States' opponents, but audiences may not be ready for them.

"Some moviemaker 50 years from now will probably come up with some great stories -- or maybe even sooner," he said. "But I don't know if I'll be that guy."

The Little Film That Could

Eastwood says that not as many people have seen "Flags of Our Fathers" as he had hoped. "My job is just to make the best film I can and whatever life it has, it has," he said.

When "Letters" -- which only took five weeks to make and only cost $19 million -- turned out to be a surprise hit in Japan, Eastwood asked Warner Bros. to change plans and release it in the United States in time for Oscar consideration.

He denies the suggestion in a New York Times article that he "changed sides in the war," in order to have a better shot at an Oscar.

"In reality, I'm not sure that was our motivation," he said. "I think we just wanted to keep the films together, and we were hoping that they would find an audience somewhere."

Awards and Accolades

With "Letters From Iwo Jima," Eastwood has now earned the combined best picture-best director nominations four times, and twice won both awards in the same year -- for "Unforgiven" in 1992, and "Million Dollar Baby" in 2005.

He was nominated for both awards for "Mystic River" in 2003.

The National Board of Review of Motion Pictures says that "Letters From Iwo Jima" is "the best film of 2006," and calls it Eastwood's "masterpiece."

The director won't say whether he agrees, but says the film is "as good as I know how to make it."

"I don't know what I'd do different if I was going back and redoing it now," he said. "It was certainly a humble little project. It went together very fast, but sometimes things that happen quickly have a spontaneity about them that works well."