Whither the grand American Empire in these turbulent times? Will Americans retain their socio-political eminence in the global chess game? Or be eclipsed by scrappy titans like China and Russia, both awash in new money and flexing their muscles? These questions, and others, are grappled with, unconsciously or otherwise, in director Anton Corbijn’s recent thriller The American, a lean, austere dramatis, based on English novelist Martin Booth’s A Very Private Gentleman and featuring uber-American hunk George Clooney as the country’s tarnished protagonist in search of an elusive redemption.
Clooney plays Jack, a professional assassin taking some R&R in Sweden, and predictably, when handed a new assignment, informs the contractor that he’s retiring. The choice of Jack as his monicker is an intriguing one, as it slyly evokes JFK, known colloquially as “Jack” Kennedy, who, before his untimely death, came to represent a unique blend of Jet Age postwar glamour and old-fashioned, if myopic, American idealism. Kennedy juggled several crises during his first and only term, including the notorious Bay of Pigs fiasco and the civil rights brouhaha, and his assassination remains shrouded in dense mysterios and controversies to this day, implying that maybe America’s youthful, fair-haired president was in over his head, as nefarious forces aligned against him.
Clooney’s “Jack”, his surname unknown to us, also seems to be caught in an unseen vortex, inexorably pulling him towards the chopping block. On another level, Clooney also starred in a successful redux of the most celebrated Rat Pack film, Ocean’s 11, and Sinatra’s band of high-living, tuxedoed playboys schmoozed and worshipped John Kennedy, enjoying easy access to him via the doomed Peter Lawford, who married into the dynasty. Appropriate then, to see Clooney on a recent Newsweek cover, looking distinguishly gray and presidential, surrounded by Sudanese youngsters, possibly orphans.
Following a thwarted attempt on his life, Jack decamps to provincial Italy, and Corbijn, noted for his prolific photographic and video work with superstar rock acts like U2 and Depeche Mode, presents a different Italy than Hollywood – if The American can be considered a distinctly “Hollywood” production — usually depicts. After introducing Jack in snowbound Scandinavia, Corbijn relocates him to some quaint Italian hill towns, chilly from winter’s embrace, but devoid of blanketing snow. There’s a wind-swept emptiness to these villages, the result of throngs of tourists departing with the climax of summer, but this serves as a metaphor for Jack’s isolation, and Corbijn employs wide-angle distant shots masterfully to suggest a faintly menacing landscape where narrow concrete alleyways are sinister traps where a killer may lurk, and finding safety in numbers is impossible.
Clooney, well into middle age, has transformed his physique into lean, taut sinew; indeed, he’s in better shape than many half his age, something one could never say about Albert Broccoli’s James Bond during the post-Connery, pre-Craig era. Jack does pushups, yoga, and sports a curious butterfly-shaped tattoo. Clooney, never a chameleonic actor, nonetheless excels here at using his somewhat puffy face to hint at dark shadings and the weight of tragic destiny.
It’s ironic that he’s become an ambassador of all-American Kennedyesque – Bobby, this time — liberal humanism, because he’s always had swarthy, Mediterranean looks, though I suspect he did some time on a tanning bed before The American went into principal photography. Rather sartorially, Jack takes a page from the Steve McQueen handbook: earth tones mostly, preferably of dark coloration. Truly, has any current male star aged more gracefully, more stylishly, than him?
Not surprisingly, then, like most aging Tinseltown male celebs, Clooney, who eschewed makeup for the project, gets to shag nubile young hotties, embodied by his Swedish lover Ingrid (Irina Bjorklund), and the attractive prostitute Clara (Violante Placido) who Jack becomes involved with during his Italian sojourn. Yes, I know that in real life, many sensual young beauties attach themselves to older men for myriad reasons, but phallocentric mainstream Hollywood cinema often takes this dynamic to extremes, most notoriously in the case of the lecherous Woody Allen. Yet here Clooney’s impressive appearance quells –for me at least – any gripes about cradle-robbing male privilege, and his workouts remind one of Richard Gere’s narcissistic stretching in American Gigolo.
Jack is given a new task – allegedly his final one – by his crater-faced boss Pavel (Johan Leysen), and told portentously, “Don’t make any friends, Jack”, one of many sharp and foreboding lines in Rowan Joffe’s tight script, though Corbijn wisely keeps dialogue to a minimum. The director also seems to favor a static camera, and he’s unafraid to hold a shot. Tony Scott he ain’t, and thank God for that.
Clooney produced this picture, and it seems he’s quite aware of the allegorical political content bubbling under its surface. Jack’s had a successful career as a cleaner, but the end is nigh, and perhaps he can’t evade the consequences – the blowback – that’s coming. Jack’s conscience arrives in the personage of an inquisitive, elderly priest, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonicelli, brimming with gravitas) that he befriends in Castelvecchio who tells him, ominously, “You’re American… you think you can escape history”. Indeed, isn’t that what the United States has, particularly over the past century and a half, been about? The remaking of identities, the washing away of bothersome ethnic tics, the flight from oppression and cruelty? The shining “City on a Hill” has provided a unique package of affluence for untold millions, but a price must be paid for all that.
Jack, seemingly in the dark as much as the audience, is hardly the prototypical “Ugly American”, but he is an “American”, with all that that signifies to the skeptical Left, of which Clooney is definitely one. In one scene, preceding a violent car chase, the jazz-pop standard “Americano” – performed so hilariously in The Talented Mr. Ripley — is heard on a café sound system, while a horrific clip from Sergio Leone’s – an acute reference to spaghetti Westerns – Once Upon A Time In The West unfurls on a nearby TV set: Henry Fonda’s wicked hired gunsel aims a loaded pistol at a freckle-faced pioneer boy and fires. Film historians will recognize that shot – and Joe Pesci’s similar one in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas – as inspired by one from the first screen Western, Edwin S. Porter’s 1903 The Great Train Robbery.
Of course, The American is arguably a Western, time machine-zapped to contemporary Europe, and films utilizing time-honored tropes from Hollywood oaters have become a prolific sub-genre, witness No Country For Old Men or Walter Hill’s hyper-violent Extreme Prejudice. In fact, in the documentary Journey To Redemption: The Making of The American, a producer on the film declares that it is “essentially a Western”, and Corbijn himself reveals that he’s always nursed an affection for the genre, particularly the sprawling morality plays of the late Leone.
In his trenchant essay “The America Endangered in The American: A Dark Allegory”, published on the Australia-based website Senses of Cinema, writer Joseph Natoli expounds on the theme of withering American hegemony with fierce Marxist rhetoric, stating that Jack’s “mastery (with weapons,sic) parallels the US’s own master role on the world stage. Techno-capitalism’s global supremacy has been most effectively chaperoned by Americans; it enables an American military supremacy”. When Clara, the proverbial whore with a heart of gold, observes Jack’s butterfly on Jack’s spine, she dubs him “Mr. Butterfly”, and at a later picnic, a wild butterfly that interrupts Jack and Clara’s Edenic reverie is said to be endangered. Natoli equates this gentle, presumably optimistic sprite of a creature with our ambitious and embattled current president, and tellingly, with a blissfully ignorant America in steep decline.
No one would argue, certainly, that President Obama’s personal history compares with Jack’s bloodletting-for-cash, which we can only speculate about, as Jack’s past is intangible, but Jack’s desire for a fresh start does seem to dovetail with Obama’s professed yearning for a new beginning, a more inclusive, economically just America, a dream that will likely fall by the wayside if Republican obstructionists – aided and abetted by the often noxious Tea Party – have their way.
The American is perhaps the first film I’ve seen where I recognized no one but the star. The film features a sort of pan-Continental casting which is generally the hallmark of lesser pictures, some of which head straight to DVD. I don’t know how Clooney and Corbijn’s casting process was organized, but it’s no secret that Clooney maintains an elegant villa on Italy’s tony Lake Como, and I imagine that some of the cast are well-respected stalwarts of European cinema who Clooney may have met during his extended Italian sojourns. It’s refreshing to see unfamiliar faces in a film that, despite its modest reported budget of about 20 million, nevertheless could hardly be seen as some scrappy NYU grad’s backyard indie.
Like too many Hollywood actioners, however, The American insists on romanticizing the travails of a man who spills blood and disrupts lives for a living, positing Jack as an existential Mr. Lonely. One could – and should – argue why do we care about the emotional state, or physical well-being of this reprehensible individual? I know we shouldn’t, but The American yanks our heartstrings more skillfully than most, since, despite a disturbing and confusing murder he commits in the first act, we learn nothing of his history. Has he only murdered those who were themselves killers? A naïve assumption, perhaps, but who knows? Don Corleone famously uttered, “It makes no difference to me how a man earns his living”. One wonders what old Vito would have made of “The Sopranos”, whose vengeful Tony Soprano(James Gandolfini) captivated American viewers through six stellar seasons.
Extras in this package are minimal; a shockingly brief (10 minutes!) making-of featurette which nonetheless imparts some incisive facts, deleted scenes, which I always make a point to ignore, and the inevitable feature commentary with the director. Annoyingly, the subtitles utilized for the patches of Italian dialogue are so miniscule I felt that I was enduring an eye exam at the optometrist’s.
It’s been said that the best action films have always been the best-written ones. In the era of Michael Bay, whose Transformers series has collected obscene oodles of cash around the globe, it’s easy to forget that not too long ago, both Hollywood and Europe crafted many superior procedurals, among them Fred Zinnemann’s The Day of The Jackal, John Boorman’s icy Point Blank, and Mike Hodges’ vicious Get Carter, which star Michael Caine once listed as the first “great British gangster film”.
I don’t know if The American stands head and shoulders with that lot, but it’s a thoughtful, deceptively spare work rife with political intrigues and Catholic redemptive themes. If, as Joseph Natoli suggests, the film operates as a dark, prophetic allegory for the dissolution of the American Dream, then my countrymen should feel dread. The American ultimately serves as a requiem for Mr. Butterfly, whoever or whatever that is.