I would say it was a wise decision by George Clooney to make his feature directorial debut with a small, personal picture instead of the more ambitiously minded movies of his later years. After all, this is the politically active, charmingly self-aware, charity-giving celebrity who directed Good Night, and Good Luck to its multiple Oscar nominations and is trying for Academy gold again this year with the star-studded cast of The Ides of March. It wouldn’t have been surprising at all if another cause-driven or morally minded film sparked his interest in behind-the-camera activity. Well, that didn’t happen exactly. However, his debut was anything but small-minded.
With a script by the then-unknown Charlie Kaufman and based on Chuck Barris’ hotly-contested memoir, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is as close to epic in scope as a story set completely in a man’s mind can be. The film works for those of us who are too young to be familiar with Barris’ work or for those old enough to have forgotten the burned-out producer. Chronicling Barris’ life from his formative teenage years to his marriage to Penny (not the name of any of his three real-life wives), Kaufman’s script sparks with intermittent energy usually stemming from its lead’s other profession.
You see, according to Barris’ novel of the same name, the television producer was also an operative for the Central Intelligence Agency. During the ‘60s and ‘70s, Barris would disappear for extended trips abroad. Called upon by a mustached man named Jim Byrd (played by Clooney) because he “fit the profile” of an assassin, Barris was trained thoroughly and deployed on a whim. Sometimes he was sought out. Other times he looked for the work himself. He says he was sent on lethal assignments. The CIA says otherwise. His colleagues simply don’t know.
So what was the truth? Well, no one really knows and the film doesn’t pretend to know, either. Herein lies the complex beauty of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. By taking the perspective of its main character, the film keeps the audience grounded in the only reality that matters: his. One minute, Barris is simply a horndog skirt-chaser just starting out in the television industry. The next he’s in West Berlin meeting a seductive informant (Julia Roberts) carrying documents to aid in his assassinations. What seems like an impossible double life is made plausible through the clever depiction of Barris’ character by Kaufman and Clooney’s smooth direction.
Kaufman has crafted Barris as a confused, aggressively ambitious narcissist who only wants to be loved. Every choice he makes and every action he takes stems from his active imagination. At first, it’s only used to come up with ways to get Barris laid. That leads him to becoming a successful moneymaker, which, in the ‘60s, leads him to the television industry. Then he starts aiming his thoughts towards show creation, and bam! He’s got himself a career.
Yet other character hitches haunt him during the journey. He’s terrified of commitment, but loves “in his own way”. He still gets in bar fights, and it’s shortly after one that he meets Mr. Byrd, a mysterious man with a job offer he can’t refuse. Barris then begins his double-life as a CIA hitman, and the film flows along with him as if nothing has happened. The tonal change is aided by Clooney’s surprisingly sure-handed direction, carefully choreographed cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel, and an indelible performance from Sam Rockwell.
Rockwell flourishes in his first Hollywood feature film headlining performance. Two of the Blu-ray disc’s many special features are devoted to the actor’s talents, including his screen tests for the film and a behind-the-scenes short where his costars gush over him like he was the second coming of Brando. They’re not far off. From the brief clips I’ve seen of the real Chuck Barris on air, Rockwell nailed his quirk-filled persona. More importantly for the film, though, he captured his off-camera demeanor with the convincing, commanding conduct of a man slowly losing his mind – whether it’s because of the traumas he endures or that he suspects they may be false.
Though Confessions never tries to make any kind of big-minded social or political points, it still comes across as much more than a biopic. It’s bigger than that. With its exotic locales, A-list cast (including the most necessary star cameos perhaps ever), complex script, and slick direction, the film is a landmark of its time period. It opens with the voice of Richard M. Nixon swearing in and works its way through the Vietnam years without ever making the national atmosphere central to the story. Instead, the era hangs over Barris’ tale like a dark cloud brought to life by very detailed work from the film’s production and costume designers, both of whom make appearances in the disc’s special features.
This is a movie that you want to know more about the second the credits roll. You’ll get it from the Blu-ray. Whether you want to know what the actors think really happened or how they pulled off those tricky one-shots featuring different sets, almost every question you can have is answered somewhere in the vast amount of bonus footage included. There are seven featurettes with interviews from the cast, crew, and the real Chuck Barris (who seems to have played a significant role in getting the film made), deleted scenes, Gong Show acts, and even feature commentary from Clooney and his cinematographer, Newton Thomas Sigel. The featurettes and Rockwell’s aforementioned screen tests are particularly compelling, even if (or perhaps because) the former clock in at no more than five minutes a pop.
Any brevity found in the bonus content is absent from the movie. If there’s one issue to be taken with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Clooney’s first directorial efforts, it’s his lack of conciseness. A few scenes feel repetitive and a few points about Barris are battered home. Still, it’s most likely Clooney’s fascination and love of the character that pushed him past his cutoffs. Plus, the film still clocks in under two hours, so by no means is this a dealbreaker. Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is an underseen gem both for its leading man and its helmer, whether the danger lies in Barris’ ability to kill or his demeaning television creations.