It took some courage to produce Diner, knowing that it would never attract a large audience. There isn't much action, but the characterizations are finely drawn and the acting superb.
From their high school years, the boys have congregated in the local diner (Baltimore) to reminisce about past escapades and plan new conquests with assorted girl friends. The years pass; it is now 1959; two of them marry, but even so they return regularly, spouseless, to the diner. Nothing has turned out as planned. "Before we got married, all we did was figure out where we could go to make out. After we were married, there wasn't that much to it any more. She was there for the taking any time. And we couldn't find five minutes' worth of things to talk about." And so they return to the diner, reminiscing about past events that didn't seem very extraordinary at the time, and wondering whether what they are experiencing now is all that life is ever going to offer them.
There are many funny moments, but the film is really very sad. Each person in his own way feels trapped, trying to hide it with gallows humor. What does the future hold for the less-talented working-class poor? the picture seems to ask. What is there worth going on for, when promised bliss has turned to ashes? Life cheats you, and then it just goes on. The film is remarkable for its total honesty. It is a kind of unadorned slice of life, but it rings so true as to shame most other films (including its model, American Graffiti) by comparison. The tawdriness of the background, the spiritual poverty, the desperate inchoate search for what is never found—these are delineated with such a sense for fine detail that in the end watching the film becomes a curiously moving experience.
Imagine that you are Clint Eastwood, a known champion of individual rights and liberty. You realize that most Americans know nothing about conditions inside the Soviet Union; they haven't read Solzhenitsyn's Gulag or John Barron's KGB or any of the numerous books written by Soviet defectors. The media are still blasting Nazi Germany, 35 years gone, meanwhile giving in to disinformation about the Soviet Union (see Robert Moss, Death Beam and The Spike). Most of Hollywood has a soft spot in its heart for any "people's republic"; anti-Soviet books are routinely rejected as material for films. So, how do you use the most powerful and pervasive of art media to get millions of viewers to see what life is like behind the Iron Curtain? You direct and star in a film—Firefox—in which, at long last, the Soviet Union is the target, knowing that it will be panned for that very reason.
You have reached the point in your career when you can afford to thumb your nose at the rest of the movie industry. Meanwhile, the critics respond as predicted. They pan it because it hs "no love interest" (that would have been an utter superfluity in this film). They pan it because Eastwood doesn't speak Russian very well (he doesn't) and because some of the dialogue is a bit hard to understand (true). They pan it because it doesn't have the eye-splitting special effects of Star Wars (it has special effects aplenty, but happily, it's not another Star Wars).
On the whole, this is an informative and exciting film. The air-chase scenes at the end are superbly done, but though these are what draw most viewers into the theater, they are not the most distinctive feature of the film: its main virtue is that it gives us the feel of what it is to live in a police state. There is just one brief scene of torture, as a hint; the rest is done by implication. There is the ever-present KGB, always tailing you, stopping you unpredictably, instilling fear and terror; there is the numbing sense of helplessness in the face of the omnipresent surveillance; and there are the people who knowingly give their lives for the success of the mission, fully aware of what rides on it. "Aren't you angry at the men who sealed your death in this operation?" Eastwood asks an elderly Jew in the underground. "You live in a free country," the man says, "it's hard for you to understand. I am not angry at those who planned this operation; my whole anger is reserved for those who made the mission necessary, the KGB." To date, no one in America or abroad has had the courage to make a film on this subject half as hard-hitting as this one.
John Hospers teaches philosophy at the University of Southern California. His recent books are Understanding the Arts and Human Conduct (2nd ed.).
This article originally appeared in print under the headline "Movies".