Sunday, September 12, 2010
Float Like a Butterfly: The American
The American stars George Clooney and gives a nod toward Clint Eastwood, but all movie long I thought of Steve McQueen. How could I not? It’s the quintessential McQueen role: terse, intense, attractive, suave. There’s even a motorcycle chase. Er, make that a Vespa chase. Close enough. Like Frank Bullitt, Doc McCoy, Tom Horn and so many other McQueen roles, Clooney’s character is a mysterious loner, and for the most part he likes it that way. Also like those McQueen roles, what little we learn about Clooney’s “Jack” (he’s called a number of different names in this film) is coaxed out of him in the tender embrace of a beautiful woman – a woman Jack is drawn to less because of who she is than because of how unusually at ease he feels in her presence, which isn’t to say he always feels at ease. That this woman is frequently topless is yet another element of The American that recalls McQueen’s filmography, because it’s hard to recall a time since the 1970s in which a major American star at the apex of his career appeared in a movie so comfortable with nudity. In the same way that small European towns are delightfully unfussy and old-fashioned, so too is The American, which in pacing and plot seems to belong to a bygone age of American cinema.
Surely it’s no coincidence then that The American is directed by a Dutchman, Anton Corbijn, who despite his background directing upbeat music videos, for U2 and Depeche Mode among others, demonstrates a meditative European cinematic sensibility. Thus it’s ironic that the tone of this film reminded me of a line from a blockbuster by the most American of filmmakers, Steven Spielberg: Corbijn’s film seems to take place in the space between spaces. (I’m still not exactly sure what that’s supposed to mean in Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, but in this case it feels right.) The American is like the epilogue and prologue of two Jason Bourne movies made into a film of its own. Even then, all the stuff that would usually be given center stage – the who, the how, the why – is left to rattle about in the shadows, tangibly near but never examined. Written by Rowan Joffe, based on a novel by Martin Booth, The American is the enemy of certainty. It remains ambiguous not because it wants to be profoundly inexplicable but because the film itself, if it’s about anything at all, is about the experience of not knowing. Clooney’s Jack operates in a world that requires him to trust some seemingly untrustworthy people very much and everyone else not at all. It’s a lonely existence, and a paranoid one. But it pays well, and the traveling is nice.
The McQueen film that The American conjures most is Bullitt, because that McQueen movie, more than any other, relies on the King of Cool’s awesome presence – that special combination of forcefulness and grace. And so it is here with Clooney. The magnetism of the lead is crucial in these two pictures precisely because the plots aren’t. Bullitt and The American are both patient quasi-thrillers in which the story’s core mysteries manage to be simultaneously inexplicable and obvious – a seemingly mutually exclusive combination that can be achieved only when the plot is ultimately superfluous. High Noon director Frank Zinnemann once noted that Bullitt is proof that “you can make a very successful film without really having much of a story.” Speaking at the American Film Institute in 1984, Zimmemann said of Bullitt: “I defy anyone to tell me what it’s about, except that there is a crooked politician and a cop, and a key witness has been shot. That’s all. The rest of it is a car chase and all kinds of visual excitement, and nobody in the world gives a damn about the story. People flock to see it because of the visual excitement.” The principal element of visual excitement in Bullitt is McQueen himself, as it is with Clooney in The American. We rarely understand why someone is running or shooting in this film, but we don’t really need to. Clooney’s presence convinces us that this is all worth watching.
Of course, having detailed the similarities of The American and Bullitt, I’m required to point out a key difference: there’s no action set-piece in Corbijn’s film that even begins to rival Bullitt’s famous San Francisco car chase. To audiences with short attention spans or an affinity for Michael Bay movies (forgive the redundancy), The American might feel like a tease, a movie that commits the sin of not even attempting to appease our country’s ever increasing addiction to adrenaline. But considering that most American movies about professional assassins approach adrenaline the way that porn films approach eroticism (see: The Expendables), this says more about what we’ve become conditioned to expect than it does about what good movies actually deliver. That’s why you won’t find me arguing that The American needs a really long chase sequence. But I will say this: to be a great film, The American needed something like Bullitt’s car chase.
Confused by the apparent contradiction? Let me explain. The American doesn’t suffer from a lack of action, because it’s not an action movie. It does suffer, however, from its lack of a defining moment (unless we conclude that the film’s final minutes are its defining moment, which would be a shame, because while the ending is appropriate it’s also a bit of a departure from all that happens before it). The problem with men of few words is that they’re rarely given anything especially memorable to say and so their physical action must speak for them – as it does in Bullitt, or in Eastwood’s collaborations with Sergio Leone. (Spoilers ahead.) Fact is, as fascinating as it is to watch Jack play MacGyver, using car parts to fashion a one-of-a-kind weapon, we never get to enjoy the payoff. And that brings us to The American’s other letdown: For a movie full of trained assassins, each attempted hit is always as curiously and unnecessarily complicated – weapons not loaded when they should be, marks stalked at public places, shots taken from afar when it would be easy enough to get up close and personal. Then again, I could make the same criticisms of Bullitt. How appropriate.
In the battle of silent intensity, McQueen had more je ne sais quoi, but Clooney has more range. In The American, he projects fury, fear and longing, each one convincing and recognizable, even though they seem to be just a few subtle clicks apart on a sharpshooter’s scope. All the while, Clooney’s Jack protects tantalizing secrets, not just from his love interest, Clara, played by a devastatingly alluring Violante Placido, a gorgeously natural physical specimen who might be sexiest with her clothes on, but from everyone else, too. The American lacks the high-caliber explosiveness of a Michael Mann movie, but there’s a similar masculine brooding and a sense that love is as doomed as it is potentially redeeming. The American’s butterfly symbolism might be a little too on-the-antennae, but Clooney wears his insect tattoo as well as McQueen did in Papillon, so it's not a total loss. And in a year marked by 3-D films promising movies like never before, there’s something overwhelmingly satisfying about a cinematic experience that feels like something from decades ago.