Friday, September 3, 2010

The American - Starring George Clooney

I chose the new George Clooney film The American as my first movie to review without knowing much about it other than that the main character is a hired assassin and that the story takes place in the Abruzzo region of Italy. With the politically active Clooney in the lead role and the suggestive and politically loaded title, I assumed the film would deal with politics in some fashion. I was mistaken. While there is a fair amount of bloodshed in the film - three perfunctory shootings in the first five minutes - the context of the killings is left purposefully obscure. It is never revealed who Clooney's character - named Jack - is working for, what his purposes are, who he has killed and why, or the social or political impact of his "work." Nothing is known or revealed about Jack's past other than a military style tattoo on his shoulder indicating previous involvement in some branch of the US armed forces.

While the obscurity of the sources of violence and the randomness of its targets can be an artistic jumping off point for a philosophical or political critique of violence itself, it is clear that this is not what the filmmakers are after. Unlike Syriana, a previous Clooney film where the violence played out against the convoluted logic of Middle Eastern politics and perceived American interests, the violence and cruelty in The American is like a moral green-screen - the backdrop for a snapshot of personal anguish. This role for Clooney is a form of political devolution, from a film with characters that were highly politicized - or at least motivated by some understandable political end - to one stripped of politics but retaining the violence. It's really a film about someone trying to escape from self imposed isolation.

It is in this way that it can be seen as a type of American "political" film. Literary critic Irving Howe pointed out in his book Politics and the Novel that what in a European context would be called political ideology, in the United States often appears in the guise of religious, cultural or sexual issues. In Howe's view, "Very few American writers have tried to see politics as a distinctive mode of social existence, with values and manners of its own." In the United States, politics has been viewed by a large section of the American public and has often been portrayed in literature and on film as shallow, boring or inherently corrupting. For instance, Howe points out that at the end of Robert Penn Warren's All The King's Men, Governor Willie Stark's political enabler Jack Burden wanders in "an isolation that a wounded intelligence is trying desperately to transform into the composure of solitude."

Clooney's character Jack is clearly a wounded and isolated intelligence. He is a man who looks at the world through a lens, either of his photography camera or the scope of his rifle. The only time he clearly seems to focus on and enjoy what he is doing is when he is assembling a new custom weapon that he has been paid to build or during sex with a local prostitute. I'm not sure if you can describe sex as a craft, but judging from the reaction of Jack's lover, I believe she would assent to that word. Jack is good with his hands, even if they are bloody.

In preparing the new rifle, Jack plays a slick assassin's version of the village cobbler. He loses himself in the work, paying close attention to the shape of the gun barrel, concentrating on how the parts of the rifle fit together and finely tuning its shape and weight. During these moments of work he is rooted in the material world, in what sociologist Richard Sennett refers to in his book The Craftsman, as a "lost space of freedom."

The priest, who befriends Jack in the medieval mountain village where he is hiding, tells him that he has the hands of a craftsman, not an artist. Sennett argues that an egalitarian ethos can be derived from the realization that everyone can become a craftsman if they have the wisdom to see the virtues of craftsmanship and the discipline to develop those skills. Jack has the skills - he is a "good man," his prostitute lover tells him - but he is unable to use those skills in a communal way, outside of his insular and paralyzed emotional world. There is no use for his finely honed rifle except as a tool for killing.

The film takes place primarily in the Abruzzo region of Italy, a starkly beautiful mountainous region east of Rome. The location of the film is not far from Pescina, the village where the writer Ignazio Silone was born and is now buried. Silone, best known for his two novels Fontamara and Bread and Wine, which are both set in the Abruzzo, was a man who wrestled with the relationship between political means and ends, how to reconcile his religious beliefs with the discipline political parties require, and the historical fate of the peasants he grew up with and next to. In The American, the landscape is about aesthetics, a visual opulence that exists for the cinematographer to capture. In Silone's novels, the land is life and livelihood - and politics is the cruel fight over who works it, who controls it and who reaps its bounty.

For Silone's literary characters, unlike Jack, there is no escape from the individual and collective action that is the essence of politics. In Mussolini's Italy the protagonists of Silone's stories act in ways that often prove tragic. But Silone concluded that to remain passive was a spiritual betrayal, a tragedy in itself. An early member of the Italian Communist Party, he later left the organization, choosing to describe himself as a Christian without a church and a socialist without a party.

Early in the movie, the village priest Father Benedetto (perhaps not coincidentally the same name as the revolutionary priest in Bread and Wine) tells Jack that because he is an American he believes that he can "escape history." Benedetto admonishes Jack, suggesting that he has committed more than his share of sins and asks him if he wants to confess. Jack declines. His attempt to escape his reduced condition is not through a redemptive confession, but neither is it through joining a more buoyant social community. The only path forward that he sees is the same one that Silone's main character sees in Bread and Wine, "that the only way to realize the good to live it."

Jack tries to "get out" by living the love that has eluded him. Wounded and bleeding, he drives to meet his lover at an edenic spot on a river outside of town where he has both taken target practice with his new rifle and refused a baptism of love with the prostitute earlier in the film. There is no escape here either as the river has been polluted by the shell casings his lover finds - the empty symbolic remains of his chosen work.

Jack presses a bloodied hand against the glass of the car's window shield - another barrier separating him from the life he could not live. It's not necessarily politics, but it sure is sad.

Further Reading:

Bread and Wine - Ignazio Silone
Fontamara - Ignazio Silone
The Picaresque Saint - R.W.B. Lewis
Politics and the Novel - Irving Howe
Bitter Spring, A Life of Ignazio Silone - Stanislao G. Pugliese
The Craftsman - Richard Sennett


  1. This Washington Monthly article by Chris Lehman is a great take on the limits of American political fiction, also including a discussion of All the King's Men.

  2. Great Film. Great post.

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  5. I think George Clooney is a great Actor, so I love all his Movies and this one does not disappoint. Very intriguing, and the drama does hang in there. I highly recommend!