If Minnesotan screenwriter Nick Schenk needed any validation that his insightful screenplay for Gran Torino hits home with his fellow statesmen, I hope he happened to catch the comments about the film on a local radio show the other morning. I listen to an extremely conservative morning show on my 10 minute drive to work most days. It wakes me up for the day ahead - gets my blood pumping and my voice warm as I talk back to the outrageous commentary coming out of my car speakers. It's a one-sided debate, and I always win.
Anyway, this station was one of the promotional sponsors for Tuesday's night advance screening of Gran Torino, one of the best films of 2008. If you've seen the movie you know why a Fox News affiliate would be promoting it, and if you know Minnesota you'd know why Gran Torino is so comfortably set here (I'm ignoring the Michigan debacle for now). Chatting about the screening and describing his "knee-slapping", hootin' and hollerin' laughing spells during the movie, the morning show host boasted, "He reminds me of me....yeah, his character is me. So what? I'm proud of it."
He was talking about Walt Kowalski, of course, the racist, mean-spirited, ignorant, war-traumatized, hard-drinking, violent xenophobe whose vocabulary consists of grunts, growls, and unprintable epithets. Welcome to Minnesota, where hometown audiences haven't laughed this hard at a character's antics since the wood-chipper scene in Fargo.
The pitch black, George Carlin-inspired humor in Gran Torino wouldn't be so disturbing if it weren't so obviously grounded in reality, as evidenced by the warm embrace from the audience. This is how we are here, and "if you don't like it, go back to where you came from." It takes one to know one, and Minnesotans know Walt Kowalski well (look up the last name "Kowalski" in a Twin Cities phone book and you'll literally have pages of names to sift through). In fact if Clint Eastwood had given his character the appropriate accent, he could have slipped unnoticed into many a Minnesotan neighborhood.
Which is why it's so sad that tax rebates sent the production to Michigan, where the story feels familiar but yet out of place, like seeing Kevin Garnett wear a Boston Celtics jersey. Minnesotans were still heavily involved in the production of Gran Torino, however, including a number of local Hmong who took advantage of the opportunity of a lifetime last summer during the film's open casting call in St. Paul. Among the many eventual cast and crew were Bee Vang (who plays a main character, Thao), Sonny Vue (who plays Thao's gangster cousin, Spider),and Dyane Hang Garvey, the Hmong nonprofit director who served as the chief technical adviser for the film. Her role was to simply supervise Hmong cultural traditions, and the fact that she was involved at all means Gran Torino will introduce the Hmong to the rest of the country with at least some measure of accuracy (the killing of chickens is a tenuous local stereotype).
Beyond a penetrating introduction and indictment of these Minnesotan cultures - the "Walts" and the Hmong - Gran Torino also delivers provocative commentaries on religion, family, and war, no doubt a byproduct of Schenk's influences in writing the story. Although Walt's disillusionment with the Catholicism adhered to so faithfully by his wife is amplified by a pestering young priest, it's obvious that he has issues with organized religion in general (a wisecrack about Lutherans will fall flat outside of the Midwest). The symbolism of sacrifice at the film's end is a little overcooked (not only because a white male is once again the savior figure), but the conversations Walt has with the priest throughout the film are nonetheless poignant and probing.
At a deeper level, so are the discussions and implicit inferences about the cost of war. Both Walt and Thao have scars in their past, even though Thao may not have experienced military combat firsthand. His war experience is happening around him in his neighborhood, but his natural reflex is to retreat inside his shell, not reach for a gun and a six-pack of PBR, as Walt does with ritualistic discipline. Both actions have their consequences, but Walt's is the one that haunts me more. Considering over a million Americans have served, and possibly been traumatized, in Iraq and Afghanistan over the last several years, I'm concerned that many of them will go on to be the Walts of the 21st century.
I've only examined a few of the many social issues present in Gran Torino, and I have to say I'm proud that this movie was born and bred in Minnesota (it should be required viewing for everyone here). It's not a perfect film, but if you can tolerate non-actors acting and you're willing to look a little deeper than you may be used to, I think Gran Torino truly has the potential to enrich your outlook on the world.
What did you take home?