The American was never going to be a success, not critically or financially.
It was too abstract to make money – too disappointing, too deep for the Entertainment Tonight crowd, who thought this was supposed to be just another movie where Clooney looked good and said things well. It was too slow for the critics – the ones who liked it, and there were certainly some, were the ones who spent time with it. They were the patient ones.
Rotten Tomatoes called it a “divisive spy thriller” – “beautifully shot” and “emotionally restrained,” they wrote, and they’re right-on. It’s not the greatest movie ever, but I don’t think it needs to be. I don’t think it’s trying to be.
I don’t need my movies to be quick. I don’t need someone to die every five minutes. I don’t need explosions or Tarantino dialogue. I just need my movies to fit: if you’re going to be methodical, do it well. The American does it well. And Clooney does it very well. In a career defined by roles that played off his cufflinks and casual crew cut, we’ve probably done the dude’s acting chops a disservice.
In The American, he’s cold and sad and lonely and careful. This isn’t the kinda guy you admire or envy while pitying – you just pity him.
He’s some assassin at the end of his life, so desperate that he’s forced to trust a man who’s quite obviously betraying him from the film’s first minute. It’s almost like his would-be killer – who he meets and professionally befriends very early on – is trying to give him the chance to run, or to make a connection. She’s not cruel, and he’s not cruel. We’re not even sure if the man who’s after Clooney is cruel, or if the priest is cruel. We know the prostitute’s not cruel – funny, in a film littered with hitmen and hitwomen and priests and a beautiful Italian countryside, it’s the hooker in an obviously religious town who’s the purest one there. She’s who she appears to be. Her job is a job, and she’s good at it. There’s no shame there, not the kind of shame everyone else – yes, even the priest – carries around.
It’s normally the naked person who’s got nothing to hide, anyway.
Italy shines, too, in a dusty and grey kind of way. We’re not in Rome or Florence or Cinque Terre, although we do get some nice shots of those wonderfully Sixties-ish European train stations, and a couple scenes in empty white cafes with the cheap coffees and ready-made gelato. But this time, we’re taken to Italy’s Pescara province, in the Abruzzo region, to a few tiny towns that start with Casteli. They’re up in the mountains, there are highways running through them, and the day’s as quiet – and foggy – as the night. This is the Swiss section of Italy, geography-wise. It’s no wonder these people are so Catholic… there’s not much else there to lean on, and they’re close to the clouds.
This is almost probably one of the Cloonester’s best performances. Certainly, his most subtle and sure.
There’s little placing his work in The American below his Oscar-winning trip with Syriana. His performance, I’d imagine, might actually make viewers uncomfortable – they’re not used to seeing a sad-sack George. They’d rather see him walk into a bar and flash a sideways grin, and leave with $100 million in Bellagio chips. Even in The Descendants, there was enough comedy to keep you engaged and familiar with the frontman – there was enough to make sure you remember who this guy is, that there’s a pretty famous actor playing the part of the cuckolded dad.
Clooney joked about this part of his celebrity, in a 2005 interview with Charlie Rose. He didn’t have the weight in his shoulders, he said, to play a guy like Edward Murrow. Nobody would look at him in a black-and-white film about McCarthyism and think, “Oh, poor George,” he said. And he was probably right. So maybe that’s why The American was overlooked, or why it was simply rather ignored.
It begs your attention; it makes you watch one thing for two hours straight.
There’s beauty here – there are lessons for filmmakers. And it’s very old school in that way: like a Fellini joint, there’s a beginning and there’s an end, and that’s all we’re sure about. A whole lot of stuff happens in the in-between, and it gets you from then to here. And then it’s over, like everything is.
Like I said, there’s beauty here. You just have to pry it out. Unlike Italy, where the reasons for being there are pretty obvious.
VIDEO: ‘Italy’s Great Hill Towns’ by Rick Steves Europe