“Gran Torino” by Clint Eastwood


by Steve Young • I saw Clint Eastwood’s latest movie – Gran Torino – on its opening day just before I left Saint Paul for Thailand. There is a sizable minority population of Hmong in Thailand and Gran Torino is, superficially, about Hmong Americans. I know the Hmong, visited a Hmong village in Thailand in 1963 and help them find sanctuary in the United States as refugees.

The Fifth Column – Stephen B. Young, Global Executive Director of the Caux Round Table, is a lawyer and writer. He has served as Dean of the Hamline University School of Law and as an Assistant Dean at Harvard Law School.

The story filmed by Eastwood could have happened in St. Paul, or Brooklyn Park, or Minneapolis for that matter. Several of the actors – Hmong Americans – were recruited in Saint Paul and the movie’s cultural advisor on Hmong ways works for Concordia University in Saint Paul. In many ways this is a movie about us here in Minnesota and everyone should see it.

On the surface, Eastwood’s story is a sad but partially redemptive tale about good old-fashioned white privilege, personified in Eastwood’s character – Walt Kowalski (no relation to the family owning Kowalski’s markets here), and its now untenable posture in confrontation with a new, inner city America where the ethnic enclaves are no longer European in origin.

The story is a partly cheering one because, in coming to grips with the realities of his new Hmong neighbors, Walt turns from disgruntled, alienated, defender of white preference to a good friend and protector of Hmong immigrants as he confronts a new reality in his lower middle class world.

But under this surface, I saw a different level of story in this movie – a more powerful one. Gran Torino is a Vietnam War movie, a commentary on what America did to Vietnam and what Vietnam did to America expressed in allegory and metaphor. I thought this story telling was brilliantly done, even if subtle and indirect in its reflections.

Walt is not presented as a Vietnam War vet, though he could have been. I served with guys like Walt in Vietnam; young white Americans who fought and killed because that was what Americans did when called to war and they didn’t like “gooks” (Korean War vintage slur) or “slopes” (Vietnam War vintage slur) of any variety. Walt’s character, sometimes overdone by Eastwood, is not an uncommon American male type, the lone warrior who is only understood by other lonely warriors.

In Gran Torino, Walt is cleverly positioned as a Korean War veteran. So he is something of a cross between being a member of the Greatest Generation of World War II and a Vietnam Vet, those who fought a so-called “bad” war. Walt was a veteran of the cold war – a twilight struggle as Jack Kennedy famously called it. But he was not just any soldier; and by no means was he a REMF – “rear echelon m—- f—-“. Walt had killed in combat, maybe16 people, maybe more, and by such killing to defend his outpost one night in Korea earned a silver star for valor. Silver stars go to those who have really fought when watched over by Death just hovering and waiting to take them away.

But like most Vietnam vets, Walt has never talked to his sons or grandkids about the war or what he did. The sons – played as new and different kinds of well-to-do, suburban boomer American males with bratty kids of their own – just don’t “get” their stiff, edgy old man. There is a fictional breakdown between generations in Gran Torino; just as there really was one between the Greatest Generation and their sons who opposed the Vietnam War.

Walt’s sons are yuppies. They just outgrew him and created a world of different values for themselves and their spoiled kids. Walt is distant, judgmental, disappointed in them and is at a loss to understand what happened, why they can’t relate to him and his sense of mission and duty. He can’t even tell his oldest son over the phone about the medical report that he is dying. Walt just hangs up on his son with no meaningful engagement on either side. So sad and such a common American psycho-dynamic between father and son.

Then a Hmong family moves into the rundown house next door to Walt. Walt’s house and yard are spic and span; tidy and well-kept. The work ethic of the older generations of Americans is on full display in the way he keeps up his property. He is a fixer – has many tools neatly organized in his garage. But his neighborhood is heading downhill from the perspective of pride in work and craftsmanship. “Swamp rats” as Walt calls them are moving in; the previous owners, lower middle class white folk, are dying off and moving out. The past is no longer prologue to the future. Violence, not respect and good citizenship, is the new arbiter of social services.

Walt and his generation were brought up to do their duty; to “finish things” like World War II, Korea, and the Cold War. That’s the quality I admired in my Dad, one of the many second lieutenants of World War II who went on to be another New Frontiersman with JFK.

In Vietnam, the United States did not finish the job which needed to be done. After 1968 we took the “boomer” approach to life and applied it to our effort in Vietnam: once work becomes burdensome or messy, then dump it and move on to something more pleasurable.

So as the Americans tried to do in Vietnam – and later in Iraq – Walt tries to fix things for his Hmong neighbors. He wants to keep the violence away from them; he trains Thao, the neighbor’s teenage son, in fixing things up the old fashioned way. He beats up a vicious gang-banger who is terrorizing Thao, who lacks motivation and a sense of purpose but wants to avoid a life of gang subordination.

I read the gang – well acted, by the way, and very much like Hmong gang dynamics in Saint Paul – as Eastwood’s metaphor for the Communists in this morality play about America. Like the Vietnamese Communists were, the gang bangers portrayed in Gran Torino are power hungry and brutal and well armed.

The gang, of course, retaliates against those whom Walt is trying to protect and makes things worse – I shouldn’t spill the beans on this turn of events but let you have it hit you when you see the movie. Walt’s fight to protect the “good guys” having gone wrong, he then has to escalate in order to “finish” the ‘bad guys” for good.

His is a sacrifice for people whom he has come to like and care for but who are really not his kin in any way.

Which brought to my mind the episode when Arkansas Senator William Fulbright – no friend to “colored folk” as they used to say down south – tried to stop Lyndon Johnson from helping out South Vietnam.

Fulbright put his hand on Johnson’s knee when the two of them were alone in Johnson’s White House office, squeezed, and said, “But Lyn, they’re not our kind”.

Gran Torino gets us thinking about who is our kind? Cain and Abel; John Donne’s asking about for whom the bell tolls. As Americans, as just good people, to whom should we offer our offices of justice?

Originally published, 1/19/09