Film and Society

Clint Eastwood’s Career Enters the Hereafter

October 18, 2010

Multiple Pages
Clint Eastwood’s Career Enters the Hereafter

Baseball statistician Bill James’s most sobering discovery is that players peak at such a young age (27 on average) that by the time they become nationally beloved stars, their best years are usually past. This is true in the arts as well: By the time you get around to noticing somebody, his prime is likely over.

Then there’s octogenarian Clint Eastwood, whose Hereafter rolls out nationally this Friday.

Seven years ago, Eastwood was a 73-year-old actor-director in the decline phase of a once impressive career. While he had enjoyed a heartwarming late peak with 1992’s Best Picture, Unforgiven, by mid-2003 the last five movies he’d directed earned only one Oscar nomination (for Sound Editing on Space Cowboys).

But from 2003’s Mystic River and 2004’s Million Dollar Baby onward, Eastwood enjoyed what is perhaps Hollywood history’s most unlikely resurgence of acclaim. He has directed eight annual movies in a span during which The Social Network’s David Fincher, a typical fortyish Type A-list director, has made only three. Eastwood’s recent movies have also been lavished with three Best Director nominations and nine acting nods. And his lone movie during that span without any Oscar love, Gran Torino, was massively profitable.

“By the time you get around to noticing somebody, his prime is likely over.”

For Transformers, producer Michael Bay hired Shia LeBeouf and Megan Fox to play the love interests so they wouldn’t distract from all the giant robots. In contrast, Eastwood’s no-drama method of making dramas assumes it’s less fuss to hire actors you find interesting, point the camera at them, and have them say their lines once or twice. Like a taller Woody Allen, Eastwood makes a movie on schedule, on budget, and then makes another one. Some inevitably fail, he assumes, but the more you make, the more likely you are to have some winners.

Eastwood’s late success has held out hope to aging baby boomers that experience, guile, and a sense of perspective will help them get by when they can no longer outwork the young bastards.

It’s a comforting myth. For example, I tell myself every week that I’ve written hundreds of movie reviews before and know all the tricks, so this time I won’t be sweating at dawn to think of something to say.

Hereafter, a sentimental drama about people trying to contact dead loved ones, raises a question about how much of Eastwood’s recent success is due to luck. Personally, I liked Hereafter, but objectively, it’s a lazy dud. Hereafter recounts a disjointed story involving a French tele-journalist who has a near-death experience when the 2004 Indonesian tsunami sweeps her away; a Cockney child whose identical-twin brother was run over by a lorry; and a depressed San Francisco psychic (Matt Damon) who really can speak to the dead but is trying to get out of the ghost-whispering business because there’s no end to others’ sorrows.

I’ve long had nightmares about tidal waves, I love movies about twins, and I was surprised by how credible Damon is. Still, I was progressively stultified by a story that starts out in a tsunami and ends up at a sales convention. Moreover, the editing pace loses momentum along with the plot. Eastwood saddles Hereafter with an insipid, maudlin score he composed. And he lets Ron Howard’s daughter, as the ingénue trying to win Damon’s love, indulge in an eyelash-batting frenzy.

Peter Morgan, the worldly and sometimes brilliant British writer of well-researched docudramas such as The Queen and Frost/Nixon, wrote the half-baked screenplay. Morgan was struck by Justine Picardie’s If the Spirit Moves You, a book about her attempts to get some kind of message from her dead sister. After doing a little Googling on spiritualism, Morgan whipped out a rough draft giving the impression that pop culture from 1975-2000 is all news to him. Do you know, his French newswoman insistently asks, that there’s a Swiss lady psychiatrist who discovered that people near death see a light, but some remain skeptical of her findings? (Yes, her name was Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, 1926-2004, and she was world-famous.)

Morgan originally tucked his script away in a drawer but then sent it to his agent after a friend died in a skiing accident. Steven Spielberg heard about the screenplay from M. Night Shyamalan (The Sixth Sense) and showed it to Eastwood. Morgan was working on incorporating Spielberg’s notes into a second draft when he learned to his astonishment that Eastwood, who doesn’t have all the time in the world left to wait around for writers, was already shooting his weak first draft.

Hereafter gives the impression that Eastwood wanted to make a movie about talking to the dead, but he also didn’t want to get sad people’s hopes up too much by making it a good movie about talking to the dead.

 

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