Monday, February 6, 2012

'Halftime in America’:
Clint Eastwood’s sudden impact

You have to watch it more than once to fully get it, to appreciate the deeper universalizing subtext, the nuances of language and image, and its perception of something almost beyond language, that warm crimp in your solar plexus that tells you when you’ve been moved. Or manipulated.

At halftime in Super Bowl XLVI, on Sunday, one of the ads we often watch instead of the game came on. We see a man walking in shadow, coming in our direction at the edge of the stadium, stretching his legs from watching the actual game himself. We hear the voice of Clint Eastwood talking about a generic halftime locker-room strategy.

And in the next ninety seconds, with a marriage of images and exactly 250 words, the actor-director — his face weathered and rough-hewn as a woodcut, his voice its own indelible cultural marker — speaks about “halftime in America,” and in the process, makes a bid to reframe the national debate, and to do so from his presumably conservative perspective.

It’s halftime. Both teams are in their locker room discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half.

It’s halftime in America, too. People are out of work and they’re hurting. And they’re all wondering what they’re going to do to make a comeback. And we’re all scared, because this isn’t a game.

The people of Detroit know a little something about this. They almost lost everything. But we all pulled together, now Motor City is fighting again. ...

All that matters now is what’s ahead. How do we come from behind? How do we come together? And, how do we win?

Detroit’s showing us it can be done. And what’s true about them is true about all of us.

This country can’t be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again and when we do the world is going to hear the roar of our engines.

Yeah, it’s halftime America. And, our second half is about to begin.

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The Chrysler ad has a certain “Rashomon” aspect, its script and visuals combined in a story that was oddly generic in its specificity — linking the United States of now with previous eras of discontent — but still able to be seen and interpreted through the multiple prisms of the public and the media, with equal validity. Although conservatives reviled the ad, it went over big at the White House.

The CAPS LOCK commentariat loved and hated it with equal fervor. More than a few of that crowd noted how Eastwood’s paean to the resurgent U.S. automobile industry in a Chrysler ad obliquely refers to that industry’s greatest triumph: the return of General Motors — Chrysler’s competitor — to the status of No. 1 carmaker in the world.

The ad stands out for reasons beyond any usual bottom-line-driven objective of selling something. Eastwood is in it, but what makes the ad work so well is the fact that there are only scarce appearances of any Chrysler. They’re in there, of course, but they’re where they belong in an ad of this emotional gravity, as bit players in this two-minute survey of the nation. This ad for a car company doesn’t sell cars. It doesn’t really sell anything. It advances an idea, and maybe the only idea that matters right now: that in this time of test, this period of crisis, enlightened self-interest calls us back to common sense.

With 250 words, Clint Eastwood seems to have offered us an emancipation proclamation wrapped in a pep talk — not a gesture meant to benefit or enable any single part of the American mosaic, but an anodyne statement of what we have in common, an avowal of national principles and pride, a muted but doggedly determined cri de Coeur that calls on us to be, simply, better than we’ve been in quite a while.

◊ ◊ ◊

Like anything else these days, the Eastwood Chrysler ad went under the political microscope. Conservatives went batshit almost immediately, with everyone from Bush #43 Prince of Darkness Karl Rove to former recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast Rush Limbaugh to the National Review piling on. The thrust of the message to Eastwood, a longtime conservative, was plain: You’re outta line, you’re not reading from the hymnal … blasphemer!

Rich Lowry called it “bad history” in National Review Online, describing it as “a propagandistic advertisement implicitly touting ... government bailout as what’s best about America ...”

Limbaugh went predictably nuts on his radio program, calling the ad “the Clint Eastman PSA.” But Rushbo landed a solid haymaker when he brought up an inconvenient fact: the Chrysler ad was actually filmed in New Orleans and Los Angeles. “Why do that?” he asks. “If you wanna show Detroit rebounding, go there.”

Point to Limbaugh. Really. To have filmed such a riveting expression of the 21st-century American psyche in some place other than the place it champions and depicts almost makes it fraudulent.

◊ ◊ ◊

In criticizing the Eastwood ad, Charles C.W. Cooke jumped in the game at NRO, focusing on his estimate that the ad cost $15 million to make — “The total costs of the commercial must be approaching 10 percent of the $183 million in profit that Chrysler made in 2011,” Cooke notes, revealing himself as someone with a firm grasp on the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

Or maybe not. Later, Cooke points to a curious inconsistency between the rallying-cry of Eastwood’s ad script and his own previous position on the bailout that made such an ad possible in the first place. Cooke quotes Eastwood from a November 2011 interview with the Los Angeles Times:

““I’m a big hawk on cutting the deficit,” Eastwood said. “I was against the stimulus thing too. We shouldn’t be bailing out the banks and car companies. If a CEO can’t figure out how to make his company profitable, then he shouldn’t be the CEO.”

◊ ◊ ◊

For all their shouting from the conservative side about Eastwood the Apostate, most in the punditburo failed to grasp a more fundamental point not about the advertisement, but about the reaction to it, and what that revealed about the stereotype personae of Democrats and Republicans.

Leave it to Joan Walsh, a senior editor at Salon, to break it down on MSNBC on Monday. Walsh refuted Karl Rove’s problems with the ad (aired on Fox News earlier in the day) with an observation of how the perceptual axes had shifted, and the old emotional party identifiers no longer apply:

“That was not a political ad,” she said. “Karl Rove had a hissy fit over nothing. … [T]hey’re starting to understand that they’ve destroyed their brand. Their brand, Ronald Reagan’s brand was optimism. They were the ones with faith in the country, they were the ones who believed our brightest days were ahead … we’ve really turned a kind of corner where the Republicans are the negative, nasty, pessimistic ones and the Democrats are the ones with the optimism.”

Whatever Clint Eastwood’s brand of conservatism might be today, the statement he made Sunday at halftime, with 110 million people watching, suggests his style of conservatism appears to be grounded in civic reality, a grasp of the need to set aside our seemingly intractable differences to do what’s in the nation’s best interest.

The fact that he was pilloried and ostracized by conservatives — “Unforgiven” by his own political kind — speaks sadly for itself.

Image credits: Eastwood, Chrysler logo: © 2012 Chrysler Group LLC.

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