Close-Reading the Clint Eastwood Super Bowl Ad

In the days leading up to the Super Bowl, we witnessed the usual chatter and previews of the high-dollar car ads for the big game: a Ferris Bueller-channeling Matthew Broderick for Honda, the return of Volkswagen’s Darth Vader kid, Audi’s teen vampire killer, etc. But the game’s most memorable — and thought-provoking — ad came at halftime, as an American movie icon fronted a Chrysler spot that was part car commercial, part pro-Detroit PR clip, and part political campaign ad. We’ll take a closer look at what it says (and doesn’t say) after the jump.

The spot, helmed by David Gordon Green (of George Washington, All the Real Girls, and, erm, Your Highness), begins with a figure in shadow, walking the stadium tunnel; he’s not seen in full light until well past the halfway mark of the two-minute spot, but when his distinctive, growling voice-over begins, we recognize that we’re looking at, and listening to, Clint Eastwood. “It’s halftime,” he purrs. “Both teams are in their locker room discussing what they can do to win this game in the second half.” The shot switches; it’s now a homey, wooden front porch, a pair of rocking chairs in the foreground, the sun rising behind. “It’s halftime in America, too,” Eastwood says. “People are out of work, and they’re hurting. And they’re all wondering what they’re gonna do to make a comeback. And we’re all scared because this isn’t a game.”

Wait a minute, I thought, the images of hardworking Americans reeling before me. Is Clint Eastwood running for president?

It’s not exactly a tremendous leap. Throughout the ad, which barely states the product being advertised (a few vehicles are seen on the periphery; the Chrysler brand logos roll up at the end), the language and iconography of the political TV ad are constantly evoked. It’s present from the moment the camera leaves Clint’s silhouette: “halftime in America” immediately calls up the memory of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 “morning in America” campaign:

The similarities — to this and subsequent campaign ads — don’t end with the tagline; the Chrysler spot is filled with uplifting music, a message of hope, black-and-white images of the faces of resilient Americans. Eastwood despairs of “the fog of division, discord, and blame” (over obliquely framed shots of shouting TV pundits and sign-toting protestors) but encourages us to “find a way through tough times” because “that’s what we do.” His words are illustrated with, by my count, six separate shots of the sun, burning ever bright in the American sky. The whole thing seems poised to wrap up with “I’m Clint Eastwood, and I approved this message.”

So what exactly is going on in this ad? The last time Eastwood appeared onscreen, it was in what he claims to be his final acting role: as Detroit resident Walt Kowalski, retired Ford auto plant worker, in his 2008 film Gran Torino. The Eastwood we’re seeing in the Chrysler ad almost feels like an extension of that guy — minus the copious anti-Asian slurs, of course. The presence of Eastwood himself has been the primary complication of the most common between the lines reading of the commercial: that it is a not-entirely-stealth call for Obama’s reelection.

To that end, “it’s halftime in America” seems an even more direct echo of “it’s morning again in America,” with the Obama presidency at its “halftime” mark, “discussing what they can do to win the second half.” If the people of Detroit “almost lost everything” before “we all pulled together,” much of that is because of the Obama administration’s intervention there, with roughly $85 billion in federal aid pumped into GM and Chrysler back in spring of 2009. Some of that has yet to be repaid, and the government will probably take a loss on the transaction. But with GM going from the verge of bankruptcy in 2009 to profitability in 2010 to top car company in the world in 2011, President Obama is positioning the auto bailout as one of his administration’s success stories — and a contrast to presumptive Republican candidate Mitt Romney, who argued to “let Detroit go bankrupt” in a 2008 New York Times op-ed, predicting that if the bailout were granted, “you can kiss the American automotive industry goodbye. It won’t go overnight, but its demise will be virtually guaranteed.”

The Chrysler spot almost feels like a direct rebuke to that op-ed, while its pleas to ignore division and discord in favor of a common sense centrism seems pulled directly from the Obama playbook. So what is Eastwood doing in it? A lifelong GOPer, he not only served as Republican mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California in the late 1980s, but supported John McCain in 2008. But Clint’s no tea partier. A self-described “Eisenhower Republican,” he supports environmental protection, abortion rights, and gay marriage (“I don’t give a fuck about who wants to get married to anybody else!” he memorably said in GQ last year. “Just give everybody the chance to have the life they want”). But, weirdly, he told the LA Times just last November that he was against the very bailout that the Chrysler ad implicitly trumpets. “I’m a big hawk on cutting the deficit,” he 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.”

So was what aired at halftime last night an Obama 2012 ad? It looked like one, and sounded like one, but it was fronted by a famed Republican who previously spoke out against the very government intervention that the spot seemed to endorse. So maybe it was just… pro-America? Hey, remember when that was a nonpartisan thing? “This country can’t be knocked out with one punch,” Eastwood growls at its conclusion. “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.”

Then again, maybe it’s just a car ad. There’s always that possibility.