Clint' Eastwood's Gran Torino: its' meaning within the context of auto theft and identity

In the closing scenes of Clint Eastwood’s 2008 film “Grand Torino” the stories of one man’s personal redemption and another’s dream of achieving independent manhood come together in two life defining moments: one of self-sacrifice, and the other, a symbolic act of auto mobility. Confronting a gang that had terrorized his newly adopted family of immigrant Hmong neighbors, the cantankerous Polish-American autoworker and Korean war vet, Wait, goads the thugs into murdering him before witnesses, and thereby saves the community. By his death, Wait spares the life and innocence of Thao, the neighbor boy intent on exacting revenge for the rape of his sister by the gang. For Wait, the thought of the good he is doing may ease the haunting memory of his killing of an enemy prisoner in Korea. Thao is his last chance at redemption. Thao, whom Wait had guided in the previous months into self-respecting appreciation of hard work, independence of mind, and success with the ladies, is last seen driving Waits’ beloved Grand Torino toward what must be presumed to be a future life of dignified manhood. This story of tragic nobility takes place in the “motor city”—Detroit, Michigan. And the story all began with an attempted theft by Thao of Waits’ Grand Torino.
In today’s real world auto-theft is generally about money. However, the visual representation of auto-theft in film has more to do with what the car, the act of driving, and the act of stealing symbolize. In the early twentieth century the automobile and the act of driving became associated with many of the traditional qualities of American identity. The roots of that connection stretch back to the role that movement played in the continent's settlement. Indeed, the unrestrained capacity to move became equated early in the American cultural imagination with personal reinvention and self-determination. Over time, mobility became connected to a host of liberal-republican ideological expectations: egalitarianism, self-sufficiency, independence, and personal as well as social progress. Because these qualities were largely denied to any other than white males, the American vision of the mobile liberal individual was both raced and gendered. Consequently, the lack of mobility marked the African-American slaves and the women’s as unfit for individual liberty. Yet in the 20th century, the automobile would change all of that. In short, the capacity of movement was equated to sovereign selfhood.
By the early twentieth century, however, the realization of autonomous manhood was limited by a growing personal dependence on industrial production, corporate institutions, and mass consumption. Yet, it was precisely at this moment that the automobile replaced walking, the horse, railroad, and bicycle as the primary mode of personal transportation. As Cotten Seiler observed The Republic of Drivers, the mass produced automobile arrived “as a meliorative response to the crisis of legitimacy in turn of the century capitalism brought about by the Taylorist transformation of production.”[1]
Of course the “Model T Revolution” began a transformative process that unfolded with ever increasing social and psychological consequences as the 20th century progressed. In particular, in the years after World War II, automobility radically reshapedAmerican geography and society. And it was a primary engine of change in the world in which Wait lived. Here it played an equally expanding role in construction and maintenance of autonomous manhood and its association with labor and economic independence. This transition was subliminally captured in Waits’ fetishistic worship of a blue Ford Torino during his years working at the auto plant. Working with machines and to a degree like a machine, and as a small cog at the Ford Motor Company, the car became for Wait a substitute for his liberty. Indeed, the car was a representation of Waits’ manly independence. Driving, like the motif of movement more widely in American cultural history, served as an arch signifier of the autonomous self-determining subject—coded male—at the heart of American individualism. With this in mind then, auto-theft frequently can be read as the usurpation, disruption, and recovery of that lost ideal of masculine selfhood.
[1] Cotten Seiler, Republic of Drivers: A Cultural History of Automobility in America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), p. 41.


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