Clint Eastwood has never been known as a man who had trouble making his meaning clear. So for many of those who were watching Sunday, the crusty, no-guff actor's Super Bowl ad delivered a plain message: America is staging a comeback, just like one of its big carmakers, Chrysler.
It's anyone's guess whether the ad's soaring rhetoric and American-grit imagery will sell more Chrysler 300s or Town & Country minivans. But the two-minute spot immediately accomplished another, unintended goal — again forcing into high relief the nation's sharp political divide. Republicans attacked the ad as a defense of President Obama's bailout of U.S. carmakers. Democrats and some neutral ad experts defended it as a simple reflection of fact — that Chrysler has regained its footing and become a viable manufacturer again.
As many as 110 million people watched the game, and presumably most saw the ambitious "It's Halftime in America." Nearly 5 million had watched the video by the end of the day Tuesday on YouTube, with 15 times more people "liking" it than disliking it.
Still, political consultant Karl Rove and other Republicans smelled something rotten in the elaborate production and its lofty talk of a resilient U.S.A. Rove accused Chrysler of making the ad to pay off a debt it owed the Obama administration for bailing out carmakers with billions of dollars in loans. On Twitter, conservative pundit Michelle Malkin fumed, "Did I just see Clint Eastwood fronting an auto bailout ad?"
Chrysler's chief executive denied the company had any intention of playing politics during the most-watched advertising moment on the calendar. Obama's spokesman said the administration had no role in the ad. And Eastwood seemed flummoxed. Long known as determinedly apolitical, but leaning Republican when pressed, the actor issued two statements Monday denying any political motive.
He had nothing more to say Tuesday about the whole kerfuffle. "He hopes the discussion goes back to the original intention of the ad, which was to inspire people to take pride in their country," said an Eastwood associate, who asked to remain anonymous while conveying what had been a private conversation. "He felt like the story took on a life of its own and he doesn't want to perpetuate that."
The acclaimed Wieden + Kennedy ad agency produced the spot, following the "Imported From Detroit" theme that it launched a year ago. In the 2011 Super Bowl, the firm's Chrysler ad featured hip-hop artist Eminem driving around Detroit as a voice-over intones about the resilience of the city and the carmaker. "The hottest fires," it asserts, "make the hardest steel."
Eastwood's 2012 message essentially reiterated the comeback theme, with unassailable images of feel-good Americana — a steel foundry, assembly line workers, firefighters on the job and parents with their children. "I've seen a lot of tough eras, a lot of downturns in my life, times when we didn't understand each other," the actor-director rasps. "It seems that we've lost our heart at times — the fog of division, discord and blame made it hard to see what lies ahead. But after those trials, we all rallied around what was right and acted as one."
The Detroit comeback will come true for the entire country, the ad suggests. "This country can't be knocked out with one punch. We get right back up again. And when we do, the world is going to hear the roar of our engines," the monologue concludes. "Yeah, it's halftime, America. And our second half is about to begin."
Eastwood would seem an unlikely candidate to carry water for President Obama. The 81-year-old actor has said in interviews that he can't recall ever voting for a Democrat for president. He supported Republican John McCain in 2008. But he prefers to not stake out any particular ideology, and his movies intentionally have eschewed a sharp political tilt, including the recent "J. Edgar," on the controversial FBI director.
The Treasury Department delivered $12.5 billion to Chrysler in 2009 to help save the auto giant from spiraling debt. Italian automaker Fiat purchased the government's 6% stake in the company last year. All in all, the U.S. lost $1.3 billion on its investment.
Eastwood made it clear in an interview with The Times last year that he doesn't cotton to such government intervention. "I'm a big hawk on cutting the deficit," he said. "I was against the stimulus thing too. We shouldn't be bailing out the banks and car companies."
George Belch, a professor of marketing at San Diego State University, said it didn't make much sense that an iconoclastic star would suddenly make an ad to prop up one political candidate or ideology. And for Chrysler to do so would risk alienating a good chunk of its potential customer base.
"I don't think Chrysler and their ad agency sat back and said, 'Let's create an ad that will create some controversy,' " Belch said. "My guess is they are shocked by the reaction."
He added: "The essence of this ad is to buy an American car and to support the heart of the industry, in the Rust Belt, instead of a foreign import."
Ironically, a much more overtly political ad that aired in part of the country Sunday received much less attention. Mayors Michael R. Bloomberg of New York and Thomas M. Menino of Boston joined in that 30-second spot to call for stricter federal gun control rules. The ad aired in the Northeast. By Tuesday, it had a little more than 70,000 views on YouTube.
James Oliphant in the Washington bureau and Times staff writer Steve Zeitchik contributed to this report.