It’s often a good thing when a director settles into his own style, when he reaches a degree of comfort with his voice as a storyteller. It means he can spend less time obsessing over style choices and more time considering what lies at the center of the stories he’s chosen to tell. Not so George Clooney. In Leatherheads and Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney revealed a proclivity towards the atmosphere of Old Hollywood–Old America even. He also showed a modicum of nuance in the way he presented it. Unfortunately, The Monuments Men finds him exploring this inclination more single-mindedly and fruitlessly than ever before.
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If you were to name the five chief motivations for making a film, it seems inevitable that “showing people the formerly unseen” would be in the mix. And with the profusion of new technology in film, this desire to create from imagination tends to result in pure fantasy; characters and places that are, for all intents and purposes, impossible. Not that I’m complaining. This trend has led to a golden era of fantasy film, and a collection of worlds most of us would give a kidney to visit. What have been neglected are the films intent on revealing not just the astonishing, but the astonishingly real. Gravity is one. It endeavors to show us a world that exists a hundred miles straight up, where you and I will never go. A world where our textbook understanding means little, and death and beauty are braided together, indistinguishably linked.
In the film’s opening narration, Matt King (George Clooney) bemoans the view taken by most “mainlanders,” that to live in Hawaii is to spend your days drinking Mai Tais and waxing a surfboard, free from the troubles of the world. According to Matt this is absurd, as pain follows us wherever we are. Beautiful Hawaii may be, but it is not a vacuum or a charmed oasis. And yet, much of The Descendants is devoted to the astonishing splendor of the Hawaiian countryside; a choice wholly at odds with the protagonist’s initial frustration. This is an apt disconnect when considering the similar disparity between the film’s subject matter and its tone. Though Alexander Payne’s latest journey film is devoted to an exploration of grief’s gauntlet, it seems to spend just as much time trying to charm us. A choice that, ultimately, hurts more than it helps.
Maybe cynicism comes with age. As the world reveals its endless potential for deception and betrayal, it becomes harder and harder to maintain idealism. This must be true with regard to political cynicism or apathy, as the perpetual cycle of that world is masterful deceit and earth-shattering revelation, and anyone paying even the slightest bit of attention seems to understand that politicians simply cannot be trusted. Running for political office means maintaining a pretense of white teeth and talking points; ostensibly being whatever voters want you to be. Unfortunately, this facade is easily shattered and nearly impossible to regain, an idea taken to its deepest depths in George Clooney’s latest direction, The Ides of March.
There’s something poetic about The American opening next to Machete, Robert Rodriguez’s latest explosion of cheeky violence. And Machete is certainly not the only case of superfluous violence in recent memory. The Expendables, Piranha 3D, The A-Team, even Kick-Ass way back in April. Film this summer hasn’t had much interest in subtlety or consequences. Meanwhile Anton Corbijn‘s The American is quietly released, it’s trailer ambiguous and cerebral, it’s only apparent draw for the average movie-goer a shirtless George Clooney. After an assault of films who hope to stay unrelentingly in your face for a full two hours, The American gently hopes only to do the next best thing: stay in your mind.
Inevitably, people will walk out of this movie shaking their heads at the depressing state of affairs in which our main character, Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) finds himself. Coming out on the other side of perhaps his most important personal discovery he is at once, like so many of the individuals he is brought in to let go, lacking direction and uncertain of his formerly clear future. At a glance, this seems neglectful to the character; a harsh and irresolute ending for a guy we’ve actually come to like, if only for his smarm. But this distinction isn’t made lightly and it’s what keeps you both anxious and interested. Continue reading