Gran Torino or Clint Eastwood is my Savior

Posted: September 9, 2009 in next evangelicalism
Tags: , , , , , , , ,


In the past year, I’ve presented on the topic of the Next Evangelicalism and the changing face of Christianity and of American society in various settings. In almost every setting, I’ve been asked whether I’ve seen the movie, Gran Torino. Either this was the greatest movie ever made or there was something in this movie that applied directly to The Next Evangelicalism. So about a month ago I finally capitulated and watched the movie on DVD. I’m assuming that most have already seen this movie, so if I reveal major plot points, you’ve had more than enough time to see this movie.

The story takes place in Detroit, but it could be extrapolated to any Midwestern city or any post-industrial city in the United States: Detroit, Buffalo, Paterson, NJ, or Minneapolis-St. Paul (particularly with its prominent Hmong population). One of the people who strongly recommended the movie to me stated in no uncertain terms that the movie took place in Minneapolis, MN. The story focuses on Clint Eastwood as a curmudgeon war veteran (is there any other kind?) and retired auto worker (hence, the Detroit locale and the movie title) who is adjusting to life in a rapidly changing neighborhood. His neighborhood is being overrun with street gangs and immigrants, like his immediate neighbors (a Hmong family), who practice strange customs like having lots of friends and family over for dinner parties. Eastwood, of course, doesn’t like what’s happening to his old neighborhood and tries to keep his distance from the Hmong family next door – particularly the teenage brother and sister in the family.

Because this is a Hollywood movie, the Hmong teenage boy and his sister gradually win over the crusty old man. He develops a nice rapport with the kids and eventually when the dangers of the neighborhood threaten his new friends, he intervenes. The climax of the movie comes when Eastwood’s character decides to take matters into his own hands. It appears that Eastwood is ready for a shoot ‘em up with the local gang. However, it turns out that he is unarmed when he confronts the gang and he is gunned down on the street, dying with his arms in an outstretched position as if he were on a cross.

The movie had some interesting and unexpected moments; namely, the acknowledgement of an increasingly multi-cultural and diverse urban dynamic. It is interesting how the cross-cultural relationship is with a Hmong family, not a Mexican family or an African-American family. The movie recognizes the complex cultural mosaic that is now America. The relationship that develops between the Eastwood character and the Hmong family was certainly a feel good aspect of the movie — showing that cultural barriers could be overcome when the white person opens his heart to the strangers living next door. And it is genuinely moving that the Eastwood character gives up his life for his newfound friends.

Which actually provides the most problematic element of the movie as well. As Eastwood dies, he stretches out his arms as if on a cross in what was a pretty obvious attempt at portraying the Eastwood character as a Christ figure. He sacrifices his life in order to save the Hmong teenagers. So what’s the problem?

Hmong Eastwood

I try to interpret this movie from the lens of my experience in urban ministry. I greatly appreciate the concept of relocation that is espoused by many who move to urban neighborhoods from places of privilege and affluence. I think a great sacrifice is being made by those who are urban relocaters. However, I worry a bit that this idea of relocation is misunderstood by whites (and others of privilege and wealth) who may have the best of intentions, but end up ultimately harming the community they hope to reach. I found it uncomfortable, that once again, the white male is portrayed as the Savior in Gran Torino — that the immigrant community needs a white Messiah to rescue them. Our Savior is a Jewish Messiah, who ultimately empties himself of the heavenly places in order to save us. However, no human can play that role nor should one aspire to that role. Is Gran Torino glorifying a white Messiah to save those needing help? Instead, could a downtrodden, marginalized community rise up from within? Could the Hmong teenagers figure out a way to work within the community to bring about transformation and renewal? Maybe Eastwood’s character could have worked with them towards that goal rather than doing all the work for them (again, a Messianic reference)? Would it be more powerful if instead of Eastwood being a Christ figure / Messiah for the immigrant community, Eastwood walked Hmong them (okay, now I’m pushing it). But that wouldn’t make for a good Hollywood movie.

  1. About a third of the way into Gran Torino I thought it was turning into a predictable “white person saves the day” film. I can see why you were less than impressed with the idea of Eastwood as the Messiah figure who sacrificed himself in order to save his Hmong neighbors.

    By the end of the film- despite its flaws (some flat acting on Eastwood’s part and a few predictable stereotypes)- I was actually pleasantly surprised. I interpreted the Eastwood character not as the source of salvation for his Hmong neighbors but the person in need of salvation. As I’ve thought about Gran Torino, the Eastwood character has become a metaphor for the type radical change that is possible in a person of privilege when he is “saved” through genuine relationships with those he previously despised. It’s true that Eastwood takes dramatic action at the end of the film, thus ensuring a measure of safety for his neighbors. However, this was only possible because of his neighbors’ persistent, grace-filled (Christ-like) conversations and actions. More than simply winning him over, Eastwood’s neighbors were doing the work of Christ in a way that the priest in the film was unable or unwilling to do.

    I’m likely reading too much into the film. Thanks for writing about it. It would be interesting to watch this film with a diverse group of folks and look for ways that different ones of us interpret its intent.

  2. profrah says:


    I really like your interpretation as well. I do so the redemptive role that the Hmong community plays in Eastwood’s “salvation”. In some sense, Eastwood laying down his life is his ultimate redemption (not Christological but interesting nonetheless).


  3. JMorrow says:

    Hey Soong-Chan,

    Nice review. I watched the film and although it started slow, I found the moral implications more intriguing as it went on. I think the reason why the ending to Gran Torino puts the Hmong teenagers in the passive position is because Eastwood isn’t really telling their story so much as Walt’s own redemptive journey story. Though as you say, it would be interesting to see this portrayed as more a Hmong story.

    Maybe Eastwood just chose to tell the story he knew best, a prudently humble move I’d say. But from an American filmmaking perspective, its harder, though not impossible to tell ethnic stories without majority American- type leads who make exploring ethnic identity safe (see Dances with Wolves, Codetalkers, Dangerous Minds, even Glory).

    The redemptive pattern you hit upon is from my view, more akin to Paul than to Jesus. Like Paul, Eastwood’s character moves from violence against those who were once a threat, to defending them in a non-violent, sacrificial manner. It’s more a conversion story, with the Hmong Walt befriends eliciting his conversion.

  4. […] morning Dr Rah posted some thoughtful critique about the recent Clint Eastwood film, Gran Torino.  His interpretation of some of the film’s […]

  5. Wayne Park says:

    “Our Savior is a Jewish Messiah, who ultimately empties himself of the heavenly places in order to save us.”

    Conversely he was also the Jewish man lifted up into the God-head, the other side of incarnation. Sometimes missional theology is too incarnation heavy and misses the other side: the ascension of man into the Godhead. There’s social implications there, I think.

  6. JP Paulus says:

    I give little slack for the Messiah complex, because they also emphasized that CLint Eastwood’s character is old. It criticizes the white culture tendency to put our elderly into nursing homes and then fade away.

    It would have been nice if the ending were like Disney’s Up…but it IS Clint Eastwood. Can he really be separated from guns? 😉

    Blood Diamond has more of the White Messiah complex…and the marketing totally ignored the REAL story: a man whose love for his son is so deep that he can reach past even brainwashing to bring his son back from the edge and became the man he can be. Instead,they focused on Leonardo DiCaprio (who was good in the movie…but again,i personally don’t think should have been the main focus, but rather shared focus)

    Prof. Rah is probably sick of me bringing this up (again)…but there ARE non-Western shows & movies that CAN tell good stories, without the white man saving the day. Korean Historical Dramas, such as Dae Jang Geum, have reached the hearts of people all over the world, including Muslims in Iran & Malaysia, Japanese, Chinese, Europeans and non-Koreans in America (though somehow missing 2nd Generation Koreans). If we could only get some cable network, even the Soap Opera channel or History Channel, to show a good one… i think we can open up eyes

    In a small way, dance shows like So You Think You Can Dance and America’s Best Dance Crew, have added Bollywood to their mix, with i think some good results…slowly our world is changing

    • profrah says:

      Hey JP,

      Good insights. Do a guest blog post here about Korean dramas. Would love to hear your insights on this growing phenomenon.

      Prof. Rah

  7. John says:

    Mr. Rah,

    I happened upon your blog and it immediately caught my attention, because the issues of race that you address are the same ones that I have been thinking about. On a less serious note, I, too, watched the movie, Gran Torino. I appreciate what you are saying, but I had a different take on the movie. If Eastwood’s character is a savior-figure, then this is a great point. Isn’t one of the problems with the church that not all people are like Christ, outdoing one another in love? I suspect your issue is that the other characters were not savior-figures. But even here, there is some wiggle room.

    My basic point is simple – what else would you have Eastwood’s character do? By extension, what would you have those in power in the church to do, if not imitate the dynamic of Christ’s sacrifice?

    On another note, I just ordered your book and I eagerly wait to read it. Thank you for bringing up such an important topic.

  8. […] Soong-Chan Rah expands on this point better than I could: I try to interpret this movie from the lens of my experience in urban ministry. I greatly appreciate the concept of relocation that is espoused by many who move to urban neighborhoods from places of privilege and affluence. I think a great sacrifice is being made by those who are urban relocaters. However, I worry a bit that this idea of relocation is misunderstood by whites (and others of privilege and wealth) who may have the best of intentions, but end up ultimately harming the community they hope to reach. […]

  9. Gavin Dluehosh says:

    Hey Dr. Rah–

    I think that, because the main character in this film is a white man, then it is seen through the white man’s lens. While I certainly agree with the corrective comments regarding Christ’s sacrifice, rather than Clint’s, I saw the film a little differently. I didn’t see it as a white man saving the day–there is a little of that–but rather a white man finally recognizing the changing world and giving up his life so that the new neighbors could have a bit of a better life. Theological problems aside, there is much here that is rich for application, considering your persuasive arguments in the The Next Evangelicalism. White folks have to die to themselves and give up their privilege and their monochrome perspectives of the world if there is to be real change in society. This dying to self should be seen as following Jesus’ way of the cross, not a saving sacrifice in itself. The next evangelicalism is coming, and is now here, whether you like it or not. The way forward, for white folks, is to embrace the changes and give up those things we’ve had that resist those changes.

    I do acknowledge, however, that it would have been great to see the Hmong folks work together to bring change. But it is their befriending of Clint makes him changed, and he does what he can to help them.

    Thanks for the review.

    Gavin Dluehosh

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