The spy genre is one Americans have held close for years. It is often filled with intense action sequences, incredible gadgets and more assault rifles than the Soviet army can shake a stick at. George Clooney's latest spy adventure, The American, features very little of these. It is, however, an extremely well-acted film, filled with high tension and beautiful locales.
In the film, directed by Anton Corbijn, Clooney plays an aging spy named Jack - or Edward. We're never quite sure. He is an expert gunsmith, capable of producing firearms to meet nearly any specification and situation.
The film opens with Clooney sporting the woolliest beard audiences may ever have seen him with. He is staying in a snow-covered cabin in the forests of Sweden with a gorgeous woman, and seems to be genuinely satisfied with life.
Things quickly take a turn for the worst, however, and in a shocking moment The American reveals itself for the dark, brooding film it really is. Jack flees to Italy, where he is ordered to begin on his next weapon.
The American evokes a much older style in the spy movie tradition. Heavy action and explosions are replaced with tension and intrigue. Time-honored Hollywood cloak-and- dagger standards are present throughout: Spies meet in street cafés to discuss plans, contacts are reached through phone booths and the exotic village much of the film is set in seems composed entirely of a nightmarish maze of dark alleyways.
At times the film feels as if it was made by Alfred Hitchcock; Clooney seems to channel the suave appearance and cool head of film star Cary Grant (think Notorious and North by Northwest). In addition, several scenes seem directly inspired by Hitchcock's films, such as Vertigo.
The American is also, however, an intriguing character study of spies and the heavy toll a life of cloak and dagger can lead to. Jack is a man on the edge of control; he is excellent at what he does, but throughout the film it becomes clear he's losing his edge. Paranoia is ever-present, blurring the line between friend and foe. A lifetime of constant vigilance has drained Jack, and it's unclear how much longer he can hold up.
Jack's only true friends make for an ironic combination that speaks of his own torn convictions. He regularly pays a visit to Clara (Violante Placido), a high-class prostitute. Eventually, the two move outside the realm of "business" and begin dating.
When he's not with Clara, however, Jack often spends time with a Catholic priest named Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli). Both he and Clara suspect Jack is hiding something, but Benedetto gets closer at the truth. He does not out Jack, however. Instead, he urges the spy to reexamine the world he's living in.
"You cannot deny the existence of hell," Benedetto tells him. "You live in it. It is a place without love."
Indeed, despite his two friends, Jack lives a life of profound loneliness. Were it not for the prostitute and the priest, which sounds like the beginning of a crude joke, he would have nobody. In this, director Corbijn reveals a painful side of the world of espionage that audiences have often been spared from.
People looking for fast chases, explosions and hails of gunshots in their spy thrillers will likely get little from The American. Those looking for a more subtle, deeper examination into the life of espionage may find this tale of a fractured spy more than worth the cost of admission.
Josh Snyder is interning this semester for the Ahwatukee Foothills News. He is a senior at Arizona State University.