People like to talk about the weight George Clooney gained for his performance in Syriana. It’s the easiest thing to say about the movie—not necessarily because one may be loath to unpack its motley plot but because this represents our truest point of interest. In a film that strategically aggravates expectations of clarity, the subversive power of a blunted, fattened Clooney offers some kind of visceral certitude.
If you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the telling shot of a hollow-eyed Clooney, hoofing it down some seedy Middle-Eastern street, evidently unperturbed by the sudden bomb blast going off behind him. It’s a riff on that action-flick cliché—the unflinching slo-mo explosion walk-away—only quite obviously more serious-minded. Hey wow, you think, it’s Clooney ... but look at him: bulky, bearded and jaded. Actually, most of what Syriana has to say can be picked up from the trailer (to simplify, American greed + Arab oil = suicide bombers) but some people have enjoyed puzzling over the picture anyway and this arresting, unfamiliar Clooney image is the main reason why.
Is he going all De Niro on us? Not exactly, nor should he. Clooney, a fine actor, has prospered not as a method man but rather as an agreeably contemporary throwback to the gentleman movie star. What we’ve liked most about him on the big screen is the good time he always manages to have up there and his ineffable way of seeming to deserve it. He’s made us believe that his indulgences in the spoils of glamour are never gratuitous but are always somehow undertaken on our behalf. As A. O. Scott wrote in the New York Times magazine, “Unlike some of his more solemn colleagues ... he plays the role of ideological lightning rod with agility and good humor.” This, paradoxically, accounts for Clooney’s success portraying a torpid functionary in this opaque and arguably humorless political thriller (which, as it happens, he also helped to produce). His character in Syriana, the CIA lifer Bob Barnes, is based on real-life agent Robert Baer, whose memoir, See No Evil: The True Story of a Ground Soldier in the CIA’s War on Terrorism, was this movie’s inspiration. And despite writer-director Stephen Gaghan’s efforts to realize the film as an ensemble piece, George Clooney is its core.
I still think he was at his nervy best as a thoroughly postmodern military man—a wily fiend of indissoluble decency—in Three Kings, David O. Russell’s black comedy about the first Gulf War. Since then Clooney has shown both ambition and discretion and Syriana seems like a logical extension of his performance range.
Another commendable actor who has recently wrenched himself away from type is Jeff Daniels, now appearing in Noah Baumbach’s domestic tragicomedy The Squid and the Whale. Survey the reviews, and two unanimous observations will emerge: that Daniels gives a great, unexpected performance and that he wears a beard. True on both counts, and not trivial. Daniels plays Bernard Berkman, an inadequate and egotistical patriarch, a novelist on the verge of drying-up who is undergoing a divorce that is possibly ruining his sensitive children. As with Clooney in Syriana, just the sight of him is remarkable. Look again at how a fixed persona has come undone; in this character, too, we sense the aura of declining virility. It is as though the beard may have begun as a declaration of manhood but in time, grayed and under-groomed, had come to signify a man who’d let himself go. A vital frame of reference—the jawline, the strong chin, the trusty cornerstone of the leading-man edifice —is lost, inhumed in whiskers. We’ve depended on that face before and watching him now, we’re riveted.
To anyone who ever sat around in jeans and Nikes on earth-toned furniture enduring family-conference announcements of divorce—complete with the platitudes about the kids not being at fault—Baumbach’s vision is perfectly pitched, brutally honest, and mercifully funny. That tone might not have worked without Daniels. When Bernard explains to his son that a philistine is “a guy who’s not interested in books and interesting films and things,” or grouses about high school English classes always focusing on the lesser works of the greater writers, you have to both admire his sagacity and forgive his smarm. It is to the actor’s credit that a character so rough-edged and tinged with such petty cruelty can also become vulnerable and absorbing.
The quiet craftsman Daniels was excellent years before Clooney had arrived with Return of the Killer Tomatoes!. Most of us fondly remember Daniels as the husband in Terms of Endearment, but I first took him seriously in Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairofor his range and subtlety—not to mention his temperate understanding of how movie-stardom works. Here was proof that if you needed an actor to play a Depression-era adventure-film hero who magically comes to life in a New Jersey movie theater and discovers a romantic rival in the dismayed actor who had originated him, you would want to cast Jeff Daniels. Several years ago, writer David Thomson observed of Daniels, “One has the hunch that he might yet deliver a fine performance as some kind of hesitating Everyman. Meanwhile, count on his survival.” Nominate him for the Oscar, sure—but better, let’s start paying him more attention than we figured we should.
To support their gray-bearded, double-take-inducing lead actors, The Squid and the Whale and Syriana make fine use of other dependably strong, willingly recessive performers (I’d single out Laura Linney and Jeffrey Wright, respectively). But Daniels and Clooney run the shows. It’s because of the inherent warmth of their portrayals that we can stand the bracing chills emanating from their characters, and it’s in honor of these performances that we may subdue lingering suspicions that these two (quite different) movies, for all their controlled ceremony, are more slight and less resounding than their makers may have hoped for.
Fittingly, the two actors share the screen in Clooney’s Good Night, and Good Luck, a picture combining suave nostalgia with progressive urgency. These are entertainers who know what it takes to retain our wary faith in the magnetism of leading men, to remind us how the people in movies still matter.
Jonathan Kiefer is Maisonneuve’s film flaneur. His column appears every two weeks. Read more columns by Jonathan Kiefer.