Actor George Clooney could have just made bright, appealing leading man films, pocketed a fortune and focused on being the modern Cary Grant.
He made a lot of those films and occasionally detoured into a few off-beat character roles and personal projects, but also used his Hollywood power to bring some darker emotional and political themed projects to the screen. By dark, I’m not talking about that role as Batman. How embarrassingly awful (in my opinion and his). Clooney has some definite views on money, power and corruption. He also appreciates noir films, using that shadowy, mysterious and ambiguous style of storytelling. And, his heroes are often deeply flawed; heroes do not have to great people to do heroic acts.
Like his contemporaries, Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, Clooney is not afraid to take a secondary role in one of his own projects. Clooney has formed successful production companies for films and television projects. He started with Section Eight Productions in partnership with director Steven Soderbergh, then moved on the Smokehouse Productions with Grant Heslov.
Here are some of his films that have a political or deep emotional tone. Enjoy.
Fail Safe (2000) A live television drama, based on the original novel and 1964 feature film. Clooney co-stars in this tense dramatic story of a computer malfunction that sends an American air wing of planes armed with nuclear bombs. A proceed code is erroneously sent that confirms the planes to cross the fail safe boundary. Attempts to recall the wing are jammed by Russian electronics. Efforts to shoot down the bombers by American fail, Soviet aircraft shoot down all but Clooney’s bomber. Attempts by the son of Clooney’s son to convince him to stop also fail.
Clooney is part of an all-star cast and has one of several roles that dig emotionally deep, forcing each to agonizingly choose duty over what seems like logic and personal sacrifice. I will not spoil the ending. See the 1964 film, which is easier to find and has features film effects.
Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002) Clooney’s maiden voyage as a feature film director. Based on the memoir of game show creator/host Chuck Barris who details his supposed career as a CIA hit man.
Clooney, as a first-time director is rather over the top in drawing attention to his visual style. It’s style over substance, but he tries to create a mysterious mood that never really confirms the question of Barris’ spy career. Clooney provides the atmosphere and moral ambiguity, yet the recipe never really gels.
Solaris (2002) This is a re-envision of the book that the 1972 film was based. Soderbergh wrote and directed the film which mostly takes place on a space station. I would say this is a combination of the emotional and intellectual ideas of Bladerunner / 2001: A Space Odyessey / Heart of Darkness.
Clooney’s doctor character is convinced to travel through space to a station orbiting the planet Solaris. The crew needs psychological help, but he finds most are either dead or missing. It is a dark, uncertain world he is entering.
The doctor experiences what possessed the crew, his dead wife appears, which knocks the doctor off his rocker. The second half of the film is the doctor trying to understand his wife’s appearance and falling into believing that somehow the two of them can be together, but it’s more complicated than that. Clooney’s doctor must convey belief, fear and romanticism at the same time.
One of Clooney’s darkest films is Syriana (2005), a film his company co-produced and where he took a co-starring role in a cast that included just about every actor alive. The huge cast included Matt Damon, Christopher Plummer, Chris Cooper, Jeffrey Wright and William Hurt.
There are about five storylines going, each representing a different economic/political/cultural interest in the Middle East. Each story unfolds at the same time, sometimes overlapping and in conflict. The film is complicated to follow but illustrates the complexity and cross-purpose of in just about every relationship.
The film is loosely based on former CIA officer Robert Baer’s memoir which is more his story of fighting terrorism. The film is more about the swirling instability between The Middle East and the West. Clooney plays a version of Baer who can’t get the right people to listen to him as he chases a stolen missile that no one else cares about.
“The star of this film is the screenplay, it’s an ensemble piece,” Clooney said. “It’s like a 1970s film about geopolitical issues that doesn’t point the finger at specific people.”
Clooney grew a beard, emphasized the gray and gained 30 pounds. This was not a romantic, leading man role, it was a character part. He also won an Academy Award for his portrayal.
Good Night, and Good Luck. (2005) Co-written and directed by Clooney about the communist scare, and the difficulty the media had with taking on Sen. Joseph McCarthy by Edward R. Murrow. Clooney played news producer Fred Friendly, the network man behind Murrow. The film was shot in black and white, to give it a serious, period look. Director Clooney lets the seriousness of the material and his actors’ talent take center stage. We know that he can create atmosphere and attention-getting camera work. Here, you minimize the intentional art to let history speak.
The darkness of the film is not the visual textures, it is the fear and importance of the risks these news professionals are taking. Careers and lives were ruined in this era. The darkness resides in corners of the mind. These were heroes, although
The Good German (2006) Clooney and Soderbergh team up for this post-WWII story set in Germany. Yes, this is an intentional attempt to stylize after 1940s noir films, in particular Casablanca. The film is definitely more style over substance. Based on the book by Joseph Kanon, the plot is twisty, and the lead character Jake Geismer (Clooney), is more of a schmo rather than a hero, although like most noir films, he has a chance at the end to do something redeeming.
The film borrows liberally from Casablanca, The Lady From Shanghai, Chinatown, The Third Man and North By Northwest – all classic films.
Every character in the film has a dark center, perhaps darkened by war, but more likely choices made. Clooney’s Geismer, is not much of a hero, he frequently gets the shit kicked out of him, his wallet is stolen, does not have much standing and at times is quite naive.
Michael Clayton (2007) Written and directed by Tony Gilroy (The Bourne Identity, Proof of Life) about a class action lawsuit And a lawyer who is losing him marbles. Clooney is Michael Clayton, a fixer who gets called to fix sticky situations. Clayton finds himself in a sticky situation as a bomb destroys the car he just stepped from.
Clayton is a divorced dad with plenty of his own personal issues. Clooney is back to looking like a leading man. He’s cool and efficient, but not much humanity. He’s successful, but not enjoying it.
Clayton is sent to help a lawyer and friend at his firm, in charge of the class action lawsuit against an agrochemical conglomerate, who had a manic episode, triggered by guilt, overwork and evidence detrimental to the client. Clayton attempts to sort it out and keep the lawsuit defense on track.
Little does Clayton know, the firm’s client decides to solve the issue with their lead-attorney another way. His phone is tapped, his apartment is search and incriminating evidence taken. Clayton is also under surveillance as his friend and trying to sort the mess.
The client arranges for the lawyer to be killed, but made to look like a heart attack. Clayton gets himself involved in the case, visiting one of the plaintiffs who was scheduled to see the lawyer. Clayton goes to the lawyer’s apartment, finding a clue, but is arrested. The clue is a report printed by the lawyer with evidence against the client, that Clayton and the client gets. A bomb is put in Clayton’s car to obviously silence him.
Up in the Air (2009) As the Great Recession was pulling the rug out from under millions of working Americans, who lost jobs, homes, retirement, marriages and even lives, cottage industries sprang up to capitalize on others’ grief and despair. Clooney played Ryan Bingham, who specializes in terminating people from their jobs. He’s a hired gun, who’s termination spiel tries to convince the soon-departed, that this loos of job is the opportunity of their life. Naturally, he gets a lot of “go fuck yourself” reactions.
Bingham has a great life, because he really has no life. He lives in a suitcase and has no real relationships – until he meets Alex (Vera Farmiga), another traveler, his sister needs to involve him in her daughter’s wedding and his company changes its strategy and wants ground the terminators online instead.
The film is about how these events challenge, disappoint and change Bingham. Suddenly the life he knows and values, has changed. The film captures the what was happening in the global economy from the housing crisis that spread like a runaway inferno through the rest of the economy. This was a brutal time; I saw employees walked out the front door who had no clue what was happening. I knew people who lost homes and saw investments disappear. Lives cratered.
Clooney was just a hired gun on this film, just as an actor. Another of his characters who appear to have it all, but their lives are a house of cards, and hollow on the inside.
Up in the Air is not preachy and it does not scream, “Look at me” as an important film. Terminating people is a heartless activity, and it was brought about by heartless, greedy lenders, Wall Street and immoral dark-hearted fuckers who mostly escaped without going to jail. Do the white collar crime, enjoy your margarita and lime.
Ides of March (2011) Clooney plays a governor is vying for his party’s presidential nomination. A series of events, some self-inflicted, threaten to derail his campaign. Clooney co-wrote and directed, and recruited an all-star cast.
Clooney gets to say many things that real presidential candidates do not, but you likely heard on The West Wing. This is not a bad film, it is just average and melodramatic. Politics is full of good intentioned people who succumb to temptation. One of the characters says, “This is the big leagues. When you screw up you lose the right to play.” That’s not quite true, you find a way to knock someone else out of the game, anyway you can.
Clooney’s role is actually small, although central to the story. His indiscretion is the spine of the story, but everyone else is flawed in other ways.
Suburbicon (2017) Mainly penned by the Coen brothers, directed by Clooney, Suburbicon is a dark comedy about ideal life in late 1950s suburbia. Only life is not so ideal with racism, home invasion, murder and insurance fraud.
Clooney enlists Matt Damon as his protagonist, the white bread Gardner, who is not what he seems. The bright, vibrant Suburbicon harbors a fractured American Dream. An African-American family moves into the community with the expected outrage from everyone except Gardner’s son.
Suburbia is an easy target. The Coens wrote the script many years before Clooney and Grant Heslov updated the story with their spin. I’m not sure what the intent was, but the film was a massive misfire at the box office and with critics. Marketed as a dark comedy, they were only half right. There is nothing humorous or even clever about this film. The darkness is off-putting. The Coens are normally on the mark, but this completely missed the target. Instead of the period having a warm glow, we are glad we aren’t living it. In the hands of someone writer Paddy Chayefsky, this could have been a devastatingly powerful story. Clooney aims high, you can’t fault him for that. What other filmmakers tackle the subjects he chooses.
And in darkness, there is also humor.