Clint Eastwood is 89 years old (turning 90 next May) but he keeps making movies. Unlike, say, Woody Allen, whom I gave up on at a certain age, Eastwood’s name is another that always grabs my interest when he releases a new film. Being a little disconnected from modern marketing efforts, I was unaware that Eastwood had produced, directed, and starred in a 2017 film called The Mule. One I was made aware, I figured it was odds-on to be a good one.
The Mule is a dramatization of an actual story. In 2011 one Leo Sharp, then 87-years-old, was arrested with 200 kg of cocaine in the back of his pickup. His arrest was filmed by dash cam and his unlikely story was written up as a feature for the New York Times Magazine. By the time of his arrest, Sharp had been moving drugs and money for a Mexican cartel for a decade. His late-in-life entry into the drug-trafficking business followed some financial difficulties in his life’s vocation, raising and breeding flowers. Sharp was known among horticulturists for several popular varieties of Day Lilly. He was also a Second World War veteran, having fought in the Italian Campaign where he received a Bronze Star for his service.
Eastwood’s version of Sharp’s story takes considerable liberties with the facts. Eastwood plays Earl Stone, similar enough to Sharp but also a good part Walt Kowalski (Gran Torino). This is no spaghetti western; the film is slow and deliberate. It is also very good. Eastwood’s portrayal is excellent as is work of the rest of the cast.
There is a larger social commentary that doesn’t beat you over the head but, given this is Eastwood, I have to think it is deliberate. Obviously, Eastwood’s Earl Stone is the flawed hero. This makes both the Mexican drug lords and the DEA agents his antagonists. At the same time Earl is being used by the cartel to transact millions up millions in illegal trade, the DEA has threatened and turned an accountant inside the cartel operation. This creates a clear parallel. In both cases, it is clear that the organization (cartel or agency) doesn’t care a whit about the well-being of their “employee.” The cartel at least has decent pay and much better perks; the DEA informant only occasionally warrants a free latte versus Stone’s pool-party threesome.
So who are the good guys and who are the bad guys? We like to know this when we watch movies. Is there even a “good guy” here. In the end, the government racks up a big “win” putting 89-year-old Earl in jail, but even the arresting agents seem to know that this is something short of justice. The cartel loses a few henchmen and a really effective “mule,” along with a paltry few million dollars of product, but something tells me they’re built to handle this as a cost of doing business. Even Earl knows he bears responsibility. He is helping out some very bad people (if we weren’t clear, the cartel very nearly murders him) and, at best, is supplying illicit drugs to a market which does not exactly enhance our society and culture.
Can anyone, ever, win at the war on drugs? I think Eastwood just says no.