Posts Tagged ‘spy’

The American

The American

The American is an unusual film. It takes a familiar movie framework, the spy thriller, and gives us something we don’t expect. Unlike the Jason Bourne films that exemplify the genre, there is little quick-cut action and even less sophisticated spy talk for the protagonist to dazzle us with. Instead of taking on an assassination mission, The American’s Jack spends the length of a calm film studiously constructing a weapon, artfully piecing together a lethal sniper rifle that he hopes never to fire. More than a Bourne film, The American is like a subdued, emotionally distant cousin to Luc Besson’s Leon, and all we have to sustain us through the film is the beauty of the European countryside and the gravity of George Clooney’s performance.

It’s unusual–and unsettling–to watch Clooney in The American. He looks so much like the handsome, charming man we expect from Ocean’s 11 and Up in the Air. He’s mostly wearing his typical look–hair cropped a bit shorter, but still salt-and-pepper. Yet it’s amazing what difference a smile makes. Without that disarming charmer grin, Clooney in The American is cold and aloof, and it’s apparent early that the film will rest heavily on his acting. He certainly delivers, crafting a hunted killer who is cautious (paranoid) and troubled (tormented). Jack is never at ease, eyes always roaming for the assassin who could be lurking around any corner. The cinematography expertly keeps up, exploiting the twisted walkways and narrow European streets to heighten the suspense of looming attack.

What Jack yearns for more than anything is companionship, and the film ends just as this plot thread is really developing. Director Anton Corbijn clearly focused on Jack’s tormented soul, and spends much of the film exposing the audience to the nerve-racking life on the edge that Jack lives. The film cultivates a powerful atmosphere, but viewing it is an experience that mimics Jack’s own hollow existence. Many films give us endings that leave us yearning for more, but the best, like No Country for Old Men, deliver a satisfying experience until those final moments. The American, too, leaves us wanting more, but it’s lean on satisfaction.

That’s the point, of course. There is no satisfaction for Jack in the life he has lived, even as he tries to leave it behind. The methodical construction of a deadly weapon focuses the film, and Clooney’s performance carries a power that lends The American a heavy sense of reality. Perhaps that’s why it feels all the more unsatisfying as the inevitable ending plays out and the credits roll. Does reality have to be so predictable and depressing?

Three Days of the Condor

I liked spy movies better when they used phone booths.

The paths we take to movies can be strange, sometimes.  Case in point: after I first listened to an audio book of John Grisham’s The Pelican Brief more than half a decade ago, Three Days of the Condor set up shop in a tiny corner of my brain.  Grisham’s shadowy assassin loves Three Days of the Condor because it’s familiar territory for him: a smart espionage thriller set in a world of hired killer, government operatives, and code names.  All I gleaned from the brief reference was that it was a spy movie with Robert Redford, and that was enough to keep it bouncing around in my mind until the time was right to finally see it.

And when I did, imagine my surprise when Redford turned out to be a computer geek (to the extent that was even possible in 1975) dealing with arcane bits of data in a cleverly disguised CIA office.  The technology of spy movies has certainly moved on since Three Days of the Condor was released — and it seems like the world has, too.  It’s a movie I’ve never heard mentioned or seen on TV, though perhaps I’m not talking to the right people or watching the right channels.  But you’d think one of the smartest thrillers ever made — with a talented pair like Sydney Pollack directing and Robert Redford starring — would show up a little more often.

Three Days of the Condor begins innocently, introducing you to a small group of CIA researchers, which makes their murder all the more abrupt when it happens.  From that point on, it’s intensity overdrive, with Redford gradually shedding his bookworm persona to become more confident, more daring, more in control.  Unlike most thrillers, in which the gun is the weapon of choice, Redford fights primarily with information.  For most of the film he’s fighting to figure out who wants him dead, and why, he knows it’s something he knows.  So he’s constantly thinking and planning, desperate to untangle the knot of secrets surrounding him before he’s caught.

The weakest link of the movie is Faye Dunaway’s presence as a requisite love interest.  Her acting is by no means bad, but after Redford hijacks her and her car and holes up in her apartment to lie low, their ensuing romance is slightly unbelievable.  Then again, it’s pretty standard fare for these types of movies — I don’t know if we can write it of as Stockholm syndrome or simply accept that people in emotionally charged situations tend to develop feelings for each other, but the romantic subplot is the only element of Three Days of the Condors that plays it by the book.  And really, it’s pretty hard to imagine anyone could resist Robert Redford in his prime.

We’re obviously geared to love Redford from the start, but Max von Sydow utterly steals the show during the finale, driving home a magnificently taut twist ending that’s far too good to spoil.  From the first time Sydow appears on screen, we know quite clearly that he is the enemy, that he is cold, merciless, and evil.  But by the end…he is, perhaps, the most respectable character in the film.

Watch Three Days of the Condors for the fun of keeping up with the plot.  Watch it for Redford or Max von Sydow.  Watch it for the 70s charm of ancient computers and phone booths.  But definitely watch it, because thrillers that brew intensity and brains into this fine a cocktail are few and far between.