FILM

CLOONEY TO THE RESCUE

George Clooney, once considered a lightweight pretty boy, is beginning to look like the new Warren Beatty. Actor, producer, director and activist, he has emerged as the most forceful liberal voice in Hollywood.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON November 21 2005
FILM

CLOONEY TO THE RESCUE

George Clooney, once considered a lightweight pretty boy, is beginning to look like the new Warren Beatty. Actor, producer, director and activist, he has emerged as the most forceful liberal voice in Hollywood.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON November 21 2005

CLOONEY TO THE RESCUE

FILM

THE BACK PAGES

George Clooney, once considered a lightweight pretty boy, is beginning to look like the new Warren Beatty. Actor, producer, director and activist, he has emerged as the most forceful liberal voice in Hollywood.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

He’s barely recognizable. His face is hidden by a heavy, unkempt beard. The bedroom eyes, once compared to quicksand by a giddy female journalist, appear sad and strained. His frame is dragged down by an extra 35 lb. of bulk, and he walks with the tired gait of a man who looks like he’s courting a heart attack. This is George Clooney playing a secret agent with a licence to kill. But he doesn’t look one bit like James Bond.

He doesn’t even look like George Clooney. In Syriana, Hollywood’s most eligible bachelor erases his glamour and melts into an ensemble cast—as a cog in a political thriller about a corrupt oil industry greasing American aggression in the Persian Gulf. George has never been less himself. He doesn’t smile. He speaks Arabic and Farsi. And he endures a horrific torture scene that has left him, in real life, with a painful spinal injury.

He takes one for the team.

Syriana, which Clooney helped produce, may be the most audacious movie ever released by a Hollywood studio at a time of war:

it traces the roots of Arab terrorism in the deserts of the Gulf back to the cold corridors of power in the heart of the American empire. This is one American movie where the terrorists are not the bad guys. In fact, teenage suicide bombers are portrayed more sympathetically than Washington bureaucrats. The film arrives on the heels of Good Night, And Good Luck, which Clooney directed and cowrote—a portrait of anti-McCarthyite CBS anchor Edward R. Murrow that plays as a cau-

tionary tale of American civil liberties under siege. Neither movie is a blockbuster, but both have Oscar potential. Amid the atomized dissent of America’s culture war, these films play like contemporary equivalents of’60s protest songs. And with their combined heft, the actor who found fame as a dreamboat doctor on E.R. has emerged as the most forceful liberal voice in Hollywood.

You could say George Clooney is the new Warren Beatty. There are striking parallels between these two debonair Democrats. They’re both actors who proved they were more than pretty faces by producing and directing their

own movies. They forged reputations as serious party boys before getting serious about party politics. And they comport themselves like unelected politicians, ready to rumble with conservatives. Beatty makes a campus speech berating California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger; Clooney has a public brawl with rightwing pundit Bill O’Reilly. Unlike Beatty, Clooney has not threatened to run for office. But he’s only 44And director David O. Russell, who almost came to blows with him on the set of Three Kings (another tale of American misadventure in the Persian Gulf) unleashed this bitter diatribe in Vanity Fair: “He’s a super-political, extremely manipulative guy, and he’s not an artist. I think George is super-invested in making himself look like a good guy all the time. I think George will be president.”

Well, who knows? Maybe the Democrats could use a candidate who (like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush) doesn’t appear to be smarter than the average voter. It should be noted, however, that the reason Russell was so angry with Clooney is that the actor had berated him for screaming at the crew members. “My job,” said Clooney, “was to humiliate the people who were doing the humiliating.”

Born in Kentucky, Clooney grew up with a first-hand taste of both celebrity and politics—his aunt was singer Rosemary Clooney and his Democrat father, Nick Clooney, a former TV anchor, made an unsuccessful bid for Congress last year. Yet Clooney doesn’t display Beatty’s sense of entitiement. His suave charm is undercut by a self-deprecating candour. Beatty, whose ego is legendary, has always cast himself as the star of his own movies, from Reds to Bullworth. But in his two directorial efforts, Good Night and Confessions of a Dangerous Mmd, Clooney stepped aside and handed the lead roles to character actors.

He’s not a one-man show. With director Steven Soderbergh, Clooney is part of a

Hollywood New Wave that’s intent on wielding studio clout to subvert both the substance and style of American movies. Soderbergh first dignified Clooney’s career by casting him in Out of Sight (1998). And in 2000, they formed a production company at Warner Bros, called Section Eight.They’ve worked on seven films together—from pop hits like Ocean’s Eleven and Ocean’s Twelve to art-house flops like Solaris and Dangerous Mind. And a social conscience has begun to emerge. Their last two projects, Good Night and Syriana, were backed by eBay pioneer Jeffrey Skoll, a Canadian who says he supports movies that are trying to “bring about social change.”

Good Night was a small film made almost entirely on a single set. But Syriana, which cost US$50 million, is an epic shot on three continents, in locations ranging from Casa-

blanca to Dubai. It was scripted and directed by Oscar-winning screenwriter Stephen Gaghan, who wrote Soderbergh’s Traffic. And although Syriana is an original story, it was “suggested” by former CIA agent Robert Baer’s 2002 memoir, See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism.

Essentially, Syriana does for the war on terror what Traffic did for the war on drugs. Both, says Gaghan, are “wars against an abstraction.” And he first noticed a parallel between them when he met with high-level Pen-

tagon officials while researching Traffic. “At that time,” he told Maclean’s, “the counter-narcotics and counterterrorism bureau were the same guy. I started thinking our biggest addiction is how we’re hooked on foreign oil. It’s like drugs. You’re sitting with the dealer, and you’re not questioning him about his personal life, commenting on the malnourished children who are sitting in front of the cartoon network while there’s a handgun on the table. You take a moral asterisk. It’s the same with oil. Who cares what’s going on, as long as the good stuff keeps flowing.”

Baer took Gaghan on a tour of the Middle East, where he’d worked as an agent for 21 years. He introduced him to CIA operatives, arms dealers and Islamic militants. When Clooney offered to play Bob, the character loosely based on Baer, Gaghan had his doubts. “Baer could blend into every situation,” he says. “You don’t go to movie stars for their ability to blend in. You go to them for the opposite—they’re the guys who score the touchdown and get the girl.” Clooney not only transformed himself but sacrificed his US$20-million fee and worked for a hairstylist’s salary, says Gaghan. “George is willing to use his status to make things he really cares about.” And as Bob, he reveals a dark side we’ve never seen. “For such a happy-go-lucky guy, he has a real streak of melancholy that fits with the tone of the film.”

Clooney’s rumpled character is akin to John le Carré’s Smiley, an intelligence veteran confounded by functionaries with no interest in intelligence. In that sense he embodies Baer, whose book mixes wild anecdote with stern condemnation of Washington for sabotaging the CIA while letting terrorism flourish. After killing an arms dealer in Tehran, Bob is offered a cushy desk job—if he performs one last assignment. He is sent to assassinate the charismatic and progressive Prince Nasir (Alexander Siddig), heir to the throne in an unnamed, oil-rich country in the Persian Gulf.

But Clooney’s character occupies only one of many storylines in a realpolitik maze that’s so hard to decipher you’re tempted to go fishing for a decoder ring in your popcorn. Just watching this film becomes an intelligence mission, as the mind races to keep up with the dense but brilliant intrigue.

There are byzantine declensions of evil. Chris Cooper plays a venal Texas oilman with the same Southern-fried swagger he brought to the role of a Marine officer inJarhead. A goth-

ically sinister Christopher Plummer, pruning roses as he conspires, portrays the godfather of a Washington law firm trying to legitimize a shady oil merger. Jeffrey Wright serves as his obtuse henchman. As a CIA sage, William Hurt dispenses wisdom in eye-dropper doses, like pure heroin. In yet another subplot, the ever-preppy Matt Damon plays a financial whiz whose marriage runs aground as he finds a poolside niche in Nasir’s desert kingdom.

Both Clooney and Beatty behave like unelected politicians, ready to rumble with conservatives

At the other end of this geopolitical food chain are two teenage migrant workers, who get recruited to the jihad after losing their jobs when the oil fields are taken over by the Chinese. Though destined to be terrorist martyrs, they emerge as the film’s most innocent characters, casualties of an economic quake who lose their place in this world, and are seduced by the glamour of a promised land that requires no work permit.

In that sense, this Hollywood epic has a bizarre affinity to a small, award-winning film that comes directly from the Middle East— Paradise Now, a riveting Palestinian thriller about two decent but misguided young men who are enlisted as suicide bombers against Israel. Both movies even feature martyr videos made by terrorists before embarking on their missions. Surprisingly, the Palestinian film is more cynical about the suicide-bombing business: as a prospective martyr delivers his last words to the camera, the tape malfunctions, and the bored video operator, idly munching on a sandwich, asks for a second take.

WE’RE STALKING ... DANIEL CRAIG

The five-foot-eleven actor recently dropped by Dean & DeLuca in Washington’s Georgetown area where he’s filming The Visiting. He’s also been prepping for his upcoming 007 role by checking into hotels under the name Jimmy Bond. As for the love triangle with Sienna Miller and friend Jude Law, all seems to be sorted out—Law and Miller are canoodling once again and last month, in Manhattan, Craig, 37, was walking hand-in-hand with a babe of his own.

Oddly enough, Paradise Now is also more accessible than Syriana, and plays more freely with Hollywood formula. It begins as a buddy movie. Before terrorism is an issue, we develop an affection for its slacker protagonists, Saïd (Kais Nashef) and Khaled (Ali Suliman), childhood friends in the West Bank town of Nablus who are stuck in dead-end jobs as auto

mechanics. Said is on the verge of falling in love with a lovely, sensible young woman when he and Khaled are conscripted to carry out a Strike in Tel Aviv. They are ritually shaved, strapped with explosives—and dressed in black suits right out of Reservoir Dogs.

Writer-director Hany Abu-Assad has managed to make a movie that bristles with discourse—virtually every character articulates a distinct argument in the Palestinian conflict— yet if builds nail-biting suspense more efficiently than most Hollywood thrillers. It helps that something real is at stake. The script was partly based on interrogation transcripts of captured suicide bombers who had failed their

Clooney waived his $20-million fee. He is 'willing to use his status to make things he really cares about.'

missions. And it was filmed in Nablus, in the crossfire of a war zone. But after a rocket attack, a land mine explosion and the kidnapping of the locations manager—who was freed by the intervention of Yasser Arafat—the crew finally moved the shoot to safer ground in Nazareth.

Paradise Now clearly disapproves of terrorism. But the movie shows us the human face of suicide bombers, and helps us understand why they exist. From the opposite end of world cinema, Syriana tries to do the same thing. Hollywood had been fighting the war on terror well before George W. Bush got into the act— the swarthy, bomb-happy psycho has long been the villain of choice in the action blockbuster. So it’s jarring, to say the least, to see a studio film that depicts terrorists with a measure of pathos, as cannon fodder in a war beyond their comprehension.

Clooney endured his own war in making Syriana, and didn’t make it easy on himself. In filming the graphic torture scene, he tore the sheath protecting his spinal fluid, and has suffered brutal headaches ever since. “I basically bruised my brain,” he says. There seems to be a cruel irony at work. Clooney is a star unafraid to play older, and sometimes dumber—the Coen brothers cast him as a verbose idiot in O Brother, Where Art Thou? Now, he’s

hurt his brain while playing an intelligence officer who’s too smart for his own good. Bob, working undercover in Beirut, tells whoever asks that he’s Canadian. Uh oh. One more reason for conservatives to suspect George of un-American activities. M