LOS ANGELES — The plot seemed familiar: A hotshot Hollywood filmmaker shills for a bailed-out car industry, yet another limousine liberal going to bat for big government.
Except the star of Chrysler's "It's Halftime in America" Super Bowl spot was Clint Eastwood, who has made a habit out of confounding expectations in his work and his politics. He's a tough guy who makes anti-violence films, a fiscal conservative who takes left-leaning stands on social issues.
Eastwood also is an opponent of government bailouts who just happened to appear in a commercial for a company that benefitted from government support.
He's said that politics had nothing to do with his turn as pitchman for job growth and American resilience. But the ad has turned up the spotlight on the Academy Award-winning director who, at 81, shuns complacency and retirement (next up: directing Beyonce in a remake of "A Star is Born).
"It's a cliche, but he is an American icon and he's often been ahead of the culture in the movie choices he's made, the acting choices he's made," said Democratic ad-maker Bill Carrick. "He's a wonderful, unique voice, and this spot was a gutsy call."
The cinematic Super Bowl commercial, two minutes of Eastwood exhorting the nation to reclaim its spirit and economic glory, was the star at his best. His acting trademarks — the determined squint, the quiet, life-roughened voice — were even more effective amid an ad circus of talking babies and dieting dogs.
"This country can't be knocked out with one punch," Eastwood murmurs, urgently. "We get right back up again and when we do, the world's gonna hear the roar of our engines."
There are Oscar best-picture nominees out now with less dramatic punch. Eastwood, who's already given pop culture his fair share of hallmark moments (as police detective Dirty Harry, with gun trained on a robber: "You've got to ask yourself one question: 'Do I feel lucky?' Well, do ya, punk?"), helped create one that went beyond fiction and into the nation's economic struggle.
All that, and it threw the right and left into a tizzy — no big deal for a guy who's used to upending expectations.
In movies, Eastwood has often played the unyielding tough guy who could turn vicious if pushed too far. As a filmmaker, he's poetically shown the anguish of conflict in works including the Western "Unforgiven," World War II companion films "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima," and the urban drama "Gran Torino."
His portrait of J. Edgar Hoover in last year's "J. Edgar" took a measured view of the long-entrenched FBI chief, portraying him as an innovative crimefighter who became a dangerously powerful, emotionally confused zealot who abused his position.
Eastwood's nuanced work hasn't stopped politicians from making use of his film image, including Harry's snappy, criminal-taunting lines. Colorado, which has a "Make My Day" law that allows homeowners to shoot intruders, is weighing a measure named "Make My Day Better" that would extend the legal protection to business owners.
But toeing any party line is not his style. He's a penny-pinching conservative who vigorously backs gay marriage and environmental protections. He supported GOP presidential contender John McCain in 2008 and can't recall voting to put a Democrat in the White House, but expressed admiration for California's Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown.
Then came the buzzed-about commercial, which drew millions of hits online after it aired for a record TV audience of 111-plus million viewers.
There was a quick reaction in political circles, with GOP strategist Karl Rove saying he was "offended" by the ad he called tantamount to spending tax dollars on corporate advertising, and White House senior adviser David Axelrod calling it "powerful."
"I think you have to be almost troublingly obsessed with politics to see it through that lens," said Republican strategist Mike Murphy. "It's not a political ad. It's the trivia we're talking about today because nothing else happened."
The ad and the tempest it created may have a limited shelf life. Eastwood, back at work starring in a movie with Amy Adams and Justin Timberlake, clearly has other business to think about — and we'll hear what he has to say, like it or not.
EDITOR'S NOTE — Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at lelber(at)ap.org.