Chrysler Super Bowl commercial: Why Detroit loves Clint Eastwood

Clint Eastwood’s Chrysler Super Bowl commercial shouldn't be seen as political. Americans watched the ad and saw Detroit staring back at them – a proud industrial giant, clawing its way back. 

Chrysler Group LLC/AP
This advertisement provided by Chrysler Group LLC, shows actor Clint Eastwood, featured in an ad titled "It's Halftime In America," which aired during Super Bowl XVLI, Sunday.

Clint Eastwood’s Chrysler Super Bowl ad is still getting a lot of national attention, if you haven’t heard. Many Democrats think it’s an implicit Obama campaign ad, since it talks about “halftime in America” and the return of Detroit from the economic scrapyard. “Remember the auto bailout? Yeah, that was us.” That’s the Democrat’s new mantra.

Some Republicans are upset about that same thing. Former Bush White House political guru Karl Rove said he was “offended” by the ad. Now, Rove is a pretty smart guy, so he’s probably trying to get in the way of Obama wrapping himself in Chrysler’s flag. (Think they don’t have a flag? You’ve never been to Chrysler headquarters. GM and Ford have flags too.)

But it’s our view that this argument is easily overblown. As we’ve said, most of America did not view this ad, and think, “Oh, we’re so happy the White House provided financing for Chrysler to negotiate a quick managed bankruptcy and end up in the arms of an Italian automaker that used to be known for poor quality!”

No, they saw that ad, and they saw Detroit staring back at them – a flawed, proud industrial giant that’s trying to claw its way back. And it’s right that Clint Eastwood was the face of this. He was great in the role, for one. For another, he’s beloved in the Motor City.

We’re speaking here as a Detroit native, someone whose first job in journalism was a Detroit News paper route. We’ve got three Bill Freehan autographs. We could hear the Ford tractor plant from our house. Didn’t know that Ford used to actually make farm equipment in the Detroit area? Now you do.

Detroit’s a shadow of itself now. They talk about letting parts of the city go back to nature. But the city is angry, and proud, and both resentful and grateful to anyone in Washington who will give it a chance.

The headline on the News website this morning was not, “Was Eastwood ad political?” It was “Chrysler’s hourly employees to get bonuses early.” That’s what’s important in the Motor City.

The “political” argument over the Eastwood spot misses the point of the ad, argues News columnist Daniel Howes today. It’s really about how Detroit collapsed in its own mistakes, and how everyone has to come together to bring it back, and how much that costs – in lost jobs, shuttered dealers, broken dreams.

It’s also about whether Detroit’s experience “is a harbinger for the nation,” writes Mr. Howes. Look upon us, and see yourself. This is what we all have to do to recover.

And that brings us back to Eastwood. He’s a movie star, a Republican, a former mayor of Carmel, Calif. That’s pretty far from a Detroit experience.

But he’s in the ad because he’s a Motor City icon. It’s not because he smashed up lots of Detroit iron in the Dirty Harry flicks. It’s because of “Gran Torino,” Eastwood’s flick about a retired blue collar worker defending his beloved car and his racially changing neighborhood.

This attitude was best summarized by the city’s unofficial columnist laureate, Mitch Albom of the Detroit Free Press, in a famous piece for Sports Illustrated called, “The Courage of Detroit.”

We’ll skip through the parts of the book about the church that’s hanging on, and the unassuming sports stars. You should read the whole thing, though – it’s a great piece of work. Mr. Albom is much more than a guy who wrote some book about angels.

But at the end the author goes to see “Gran Torino” with a friend. The film was shot in Detroit, he notes, and Eastwood seemed to fit in fine during his time there. No one bothered him. He’d even visit the local hardware store for stuff.

The story is fairly predictable. But, Albom notes, the Michigan audience stayed in its seat, even after the movie ended. They stayed through the credits, and the closing music, until the very last scroll – a shot of cars driving down Detroit’s Jefferson Avenue.

“Three words appeared – MADE IN MICHIGAN”, Albom writes. “And the whole place clapped. Just stood up and clapped. To hell with Depression. We’re gonna have a good year.”

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