It’s a shock at first to see the usually stoic Clint Eastwood sporting a scarf and a huge grin while calling people “Dear.” But this provocative and entertaining film, directed by and starring Eastwood, is all about risk. In his only partially successful efforts to master the flamboyant mannerisms and speech of director John Huston, a role he was not born to play, Eastwood is pushing against his limits, just as he did by directing the jazz film Bird. Breaking rules was also a Huston specialty. Peter Viertel, who collaborated without credit on the script for The African Queen — the 1951 Huston classic with Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn — wrote a novel in 1953 called White Hunter, Black Heart that fictionalized his hellish experiences working with Huston. It’s one of the most biting and revealing film books ever.
In the film, with a script by Viertel, James Bridges and Burt Kennedy, Eastwood doesn’t dwell on the shooting of The African Queen, though Marisa Berenson and Richard Vanstone contribute cameos aping Hepburn and Bogart, and Jeff Fahey does a solid job as the writer. It’s the obsessive in Huston (called John Wilson) that Eastwood relates to. He sees the madness in a director who pushes aside his film work for the ignoble task of hunting elephants, but he also sees the maverick spirit that made Huston great, a spirit quite rare in Hollywood today. The film is talky and often stilted. But Eastwood’s compassion for the character, warts and all, feels genuine. His performance, like the movie, is a high-wire act that remains fascinating even when it falters.