In 1992 Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” won four Academy Awards and sent his career on an entirely new trajectory.
Yes, it was a Western and Eastwood had made plenty of those already but “Unforgiven” was different. It had some action but mostly it was a bleak character study and was regarded by many as “art.” Whether intending to or not Eastwood had become an auteur.
In the wake of this critical and artistic breakthrough, Warner Brothers — Eastwood’s exclusive distributor for his entire output as a director since his debut “Play Misty for Me” in 1971 — began to position not all but most of his future efforts as “Oscar bait.” Thirteen of Eastwood’s next 19 films came out in the fall — the highly-treasured time of year reserved for awards contenders. The six that were not released in autumn were low achievers such as “Absolute Power” and “Blood Work” and lightweight fluff like the senior citizen buddy comedy “Space Cowboys” and the bizarre misfire that was “Jersey Boys.”
Warner Brother’s long term Eastwood strategy paid off in spades. Since and including “Unforgiven,” Eastwood’s films have been nominated for 35 Oscars and have won 12 with Eastwood himself walking away with four as well as receiving the prestigious Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1994.
Less than a dozen people have won more Oscars than Eastwood and most of those were in technical categories. Not bad for a guy who used to co-star with monkeys.
Beginning in 2006 with “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters from Iwo Jima” (shot at the same time but released three months apart), Eastwood’s choice of material started to change. The political content began to increase (“J. Edgar,” “Invictus,” “Gran Torino”) and although not overt it confirmed what many had known for a while: Eastwood was a conservative. While a moderate on most social issues, Eastwood considers himself a “pragmatic Libertarian” who eschews political correctness and his output in the last dozen years has indicated that he’s an unabashed patriot.
While not a backer of most American Wars he’s a staunch and unwavering supporter of armed service personnel, a point made with unmistakable clarity in “American Sniper.” In addition to being the highest-grossing movie of 2014 and Eastwood’s career, this throttling and unflinching bio-drama about the late Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) lit a welcomed fire under red state Middle America. Eastwood pulled off a delicate balancing act by crafting an inspirational, crowd-pleasing film that didn’t pander while acknowledging the efforts of an American hero without addressing the war itself.
You would think that after that kind of box office performance and critical reception Warner Brothers would be clamoring for another Eastwood war hero movie and maybe they were at some point, but that position seems to have changed.
“The 15:17 to Paris” — the new movie about the three soldiers that thwarted the 2015 Thlys Train Attack — opens this Friday and it is the first Eastwood movie in at least 20 years that was not made available for advance press viewing.
Instead of hiring regular actors to portray the leads, Eastwood cast the actual soldiers who confronted the terrorist — a bold move indeed and one sure to appeal to fans of “American Sniper.”
Exactly why Warner Brothers is dumping “The 15:17 to Paris” in the black hole of February without the aid of press coverage doesn’t make commercial sense. Maybe the movie isn’t good. Maybe the professional soldiers turned thespians didn’t deliver the goods. Maybe the left-leaning studio big-wigs at Warner Brothers don’t want to appear to be behind their own pro-American film in the age of Trump and don’t mind tossing a “not like us” rainmaker they’ve backed for nearly a half-century under the bus.
The answers to these and other burning questions will be addressed in my next column after I see the film on Friday. Stay tuned.