It’s easy to like or even love a movie like Spotlight. The protagonists are on the side of a cause that no sane person would be against and their hard work pays tremendous dividends by the end of it all. Their work is portrayed as exciting and righteous; their personal lives are not perfect but sustainable and even enjoyable for the most part. When we are faced with the ghastly, perverse crimes of the Boston Archdiocese, there’s a convincing depiction of the psychological traumas that come from molestation and betrayal at that level but there’s no ugliness beyond their accounts. For all its insinuations and descriptions of horror, there’s no tension to the film, no moment of genuine confrontation with how little the Boston Globe piece swayed public opinion about the church.
The sadness, the sourness of being what the public may very well consider a hero is never brought up in movies like Spotlight or The Imitation Game, which gets by with playing up the victimization of a proven, canonized genius. In contrast, it makes up the crucial pulp of Clint Eastwood’s dramas, whether they be war films, neo-Westerns, biopics, or crime sagas. The hurt of doing the right thing is Eastwood’s bread and butter, and it’s almost certainly what has caused contingencies of critics and audiences to latch onto petty inaccuracies rather than actually discuss what his movies are saying. For a formidable group of viewers, American Sniper is notable for a fake baby, a general disinterest with Chris Kyle’s history of bigotry, and little more. Never mind the fact that American Sniper is inarguably one of the most perceptive films about being a good soldier that’s ever been made, marked by a near-unbearable loneliness, familial strife, and a staggering talent for an act that is, in itself, a crime against humanity.
Eastwood’s treatment of Kyle gave the left a rash, most memorably encapsulated by Seth Rogen comparing the film to Nazi propaganda films and Michael Moore calling out snipers as cowards. Moore’s comments are about as blithely, broadly ignorant as they come, but Rogen’s tweet is exemplary of what people so often get wrong about Eastwood’s perspective. American Sniper is not celebratory or triumphant in its depiction of Kyle – he barely sees his family, his closest brothers-in-arms are all killed unceremoniously, and the work involves decisions that would simply pull most people apart mentally. Nor, for that matter, does the film fawn over the idea of America, the military, or conservative politics – Eastwood shows little interest in Kyle’s family values, the military is seen as a long-distance facilitator, and American occupancy in Afghanistan is viewed as a long line of impossible decisions, each one of which has a sizable body count attached to it.
What’s left is the man and his experiences, and that’s where Eastwood always starts. His best films catch political figures, soldiers, musicians, athletes, spiritualists, and a variety of other characters at once in immense creative streaks and troubling, intimate personal situations, caught between expressing one’s self and the drugs, violence, and moral compromises required to maintain a sterling public persona. As Eastwood has apparently cared less and less about his public perception – he talked publicly to an empty chair and supports Donald Trump – his films have increasingly taken on challenging political ideas and matters of complex identity, but that’s not to say that he hasn’t been making some of the best big-studio dramas of the last three or four decades. Here are five you should see as soon as possible.