Defending an America That Once Was

My previous essay treated Clint Eastwood’s most famous public statement on law in America, Dirty Harry. The film shows us our need for manliness if justice is going to matter at all—if it is going to matter in hard times, when society seems to be collapsing in fear and crime. Now I’ll turn to Gran Torino, which is emphatically about private life in an America where the law has failed, and, perhaps, the need arises for a Christian sacrifice if there’s any chance to spare poor people the debasement of violence.

America and Eastwood both changed a lot between the two movies, 1972 to 2008, and his criticism of our society changed accordingly. His character, Walt Kowalski, is a Korean War veteran who worked for Ford all his career. Now in his late years, he looks upon that entire vision of America in disbelief, as his Detroit suburb is falling apart, and the city seems a ruin. Can the working class really rise to respectability? Can a man provide for a family on one income? Will the social institutions that educated Americans still be there? Why did it fall apart? He’s not worried about the character of the regime, the institutions, the elites—he’s worried about the character of the people, which is now in danger of succumbing to a generation of corruption.

And corruption has indeed taken its toll: Family used to count for something in America, and not just for the wealthy. Work’s rewards were not inimical to manliness, either, for all the suffering it caused or the obedience it required. Hence we can see the meaning of Walt’s beautiful Gran Torino, which gives the movie its title. It offers a vision of power, a mix of freedom and knowledge of mechanics, of daring to take to the road, and of property rights. It reminds us of Walt’s lost America where being an individual meant at least aspiring to be a man.


Like Harry Callahan in Dirty Harry, Gran Torino’s Walt is a widower, but old rather than young. There is no more moderation in a man’s life without his wife, and that provides a necessary condition for conflict and for drama—he sits on his porch and feels like he’s lost his country. His anger rises accordingly, and he wants to learn whether America was ever real. He believed in things by which he lived his life and now they’re gone.

Early in the movie, we see Walt sneer and growl at his sons and their children at his wife’s funeral. They don’t really care. They are guilty of the only fundamental injustice: ingratitude. They seem indifferent to life and death. Somehow, between Walt and his wife, they failed to make their children serious. America changed in the ‘60s and people found themselves unprepared for it, unable to educate their own children, estranged from what they loved. Their beliefs lost plausibility, they accordingly lost authority, and the chain of the generations was broken. Peace, prosperity, and the promise of freedom muted their concerns even as they engendered despair.

A terrible loneliness began. You can see it in the suffering and anger in Eastwood’s face and gestures, a more dignified version of the anger of the old conservative who watches FOX all day and occasionally screams at the TV, yet feels ever more helpless and hopeless for it. Stoic resignation to the carelessness of others, to their incompetence, too, is the best you can do. Fending people off is necessary, lest one become entangled in the undignified drama of disordered lives. Ugly truths answer to beautiful delusions and there is no common ground between the serious and the frivolous, the ones who worry about the future, planning accordingly, and the ones who neither plan nor care.

The hearts of middle-class Americans were broken in a way that has proven difficult to deal with, even to articulate. They divined somehow that they were part of a past that built a great nation. America offered relief from the horrors happening on other continents, some hope for the end of the terrible cruelties known even in the American past. America reassured its people that even its cruelties were part of a great work requiring sacrifices. The old America promised that providence would give children something better than their parents had.

Walt was a bad father, he admits. He wasn’t a great husband, although he tried. The education of the passions, the civilizing of America, didn’t quite take with him. Although Walt came to fear war, he was an excellent soldier. His work with Ford developed his other manly virtues. But he never mastered the gentler arts of peace, of leading a family well. So, he had little in common with children born to peace and prosperity, whose ambitions were higher, free of ugliness and destruction, but also much less serious, since they lacked any respect for manliness and justice.

The Education for Freedom

The breach between Walt and his family is sometimes embarrassing and painful to watch. He is alone at the moment he most needs his family to reconcile him to his mortality. It’s partly his fault, but the man’s evident nobility makes us admire him and despise his children, who seem only to want more stuff from him, an understated, but potent criticism of the inhumanity of materialism or greed.

Walt, a very angry curmudgeon in the beginning, becomes willing to teach, to help, and eventually to sacrifice himself. Powers of his soul unsuspected in his ugly grimace show up and flourish for one wonderful moment.

This makes Gran Torino about Walt looking for a new family, or rather becoming open to the possibility that there are people who believe in the America he believed in and worked for. This turns out to be a Hmong family living next door, where the distinction between the generations is far more serious than in any American family, separating the old world of slavery and aristocracy from the new world of democratic citizenship, but much less harsh at the same time. They seem foreign to us because they are less individualistic—the authority of the elders preserves the mutual benefits of communal life instead of each member, especially the young, being separated by his wishes or tastes from the family. The liberal view that immigrants are important to America and the conservative view that Americanization is what’s important are reconciled, and an all-American hope is held out for scrutiny and for admiration. Walt will help this family and receive their love in return.

Americans are oppressed by their sameness. Child imitates parent and the parent, because this flatters him, becomes his own enemy in trying to raise his child. Freedom makes for willfulness and quarrels; equality makes for confusion about what education and love require. Out of modesty, Gran Torino doesn’t insist on this unhappiness. But it offers a contrast to this in the Hmong family, where there is much more respect and more ceremony, more formality and more love, because there’s so much less competition and less of an expectation of receiving every good thing in life without helping others in turn.

Walt finds among these neighbors a boy willing, even eager to learn how to be a man, to protect his family and prove himself to men, and to become able to afford an education by working and preparing for a life of responsibility. He is willing to earn what others take for granted, and therefore squander. Much of the movie is all about whether this boy will become an adult—whether he can escape the poverty and violence visited on the poor when the government stops working.

But there is also a girl among the neighbors, as witty as the boy is shy. She’s defiant, because in the land of equality, chivalry is dead and girls, although in a sense spoiled by feminism, still know their fears or uncertainties and therefore try to fend for themselves. She is much better able to stand up to Walt and tame him; the suggestion is that a loving daughter or a niece is what it takes to reconcile an American man to his mortality.

Faith and Church

For these children, and for their family, Walt, a very angry curmudgeon in the beginning, becomes willing to teach, to help, and eventually to sacrifice himself. Powers of his soul unsuspected in his ugly grimace show up and flourish for one wonderful moment, before he faces death. America promises more than we can really achieve; living with disappointment is hard; yet we might do much better if we knew where to admire and imitate. This virtue showing up in old age is a testament to national character and to the powers Americans might summon from within.

Walt is not charitable or philanthropic—men seldom are, considering pity to be weakness. He was not a churchgoer, though his wife was. The God to which women pray, as well as the last few faithful liberals, doesn’t seem to take responsibility for war—is not the Lord of Hosts. But Walt is a veteran of the Korean War. God didn’t tell Walt—or the Chinese or North Koreans, for that matter—not to do the terrible things they did. Walt is unable to feel guilty, since he takes the serious demands of practical life seriously. Moreover, no one received thanks for saving South Korea, a betrayal of political responsibility. Walt was unable to reconcile himself to a softer America; he lived with secret nightmares. Liberals would want him to go to therapy. Conservatives, if they cared, might be more serious by encouraging him to turn to faith, if they could find a way to show that faith has something to offer men.

Accordingly, Walt confronts and eventually befriends a new priest in the parish, a fresh-faced fellow whom it is impossible to respect. He comforted Walt’s wife and he tries to help Walt grieve, perhaps worrying over his soul. Such boys cannot stand up before men, but there is something Walt doesn’t despise in the authority of Christianity, in this case Catholicism, with its antiquity and ceremonies, which dignify mankind.

Walt shows a similar unchurched faith in his sacrifice. As a man, he believes in justice and hopes for a divine improvement on our mortal failures. He is no longer a killer. He no longer looks to war to find himself, but to the possibility of preserving a decent peace for others. This is not unlike the ideals of medieval knights in that he accepts a political martyrdom, as Christian as it is democratic, to reveal to America the debasement of our injustice. It may help prepare for a change, if we are truly ashamed of letting the poor suffer violence. If poetry has any power over our souls, we might learn to do better by admiring this story and thinking about its moral-political criticism, an intelligent, if heartbroken patriotism we badly need.