The Lost American

in search of george clooney’s american astray.

What does it mean for an actor to play out larger collective stories in his roles?

Since 9/11, George Clooney has come to play America’s fixer, taking on the nation’s sins, and trying, through the catharsis of his roles, to bring about some breakthrough in our collective emotional and intellectual understanding of all that has gone wrong.

No scene expresses Clooney’s allegorical place in the American psyche better than the extended last scene of Michael Clayton. In the film, Clooney literally plays a fixer for a high-stakes New York law firm. At film’s end, after settling not only his law firm’s messes, but also the injustices committed by a corrupt agribusiness firm, Clayton gets in a cab and pays the driver fifty dollars simply to drive.

The camera stays on Clayton’s face for minutes in the quiet interior of the taxi. Without speaking, Clooney takes us through a series of slow-motion expression changes: deadpan gazes of shock, the verge of tears, almost a sigh of relief, and, finally, the barest hint of a smile. It is a startling and almost overwhelming bit of acting.

I am not quite sure why, but when placed in the string of roles Clooney has recently played, from Ulysses Everett McGill in O Brother, Where Art Thou? to Fred Friendly in Good Night and Good Luck to Bob Barnes in Syriana, the final scene of Michael Clayton compresses the many emotional moods of the last decade — responses felt to 9/11, Enron, Katrina, Iraq, the presidential elections, the recent Democratic National Convention — into a few minutes on camera.

In these films, Clooney has played a kind of lost American searching for his country, taking on the weight of its shortcomings, expressing its best ideals (sometimes with a freighted seriousness and sometimes through a goofy foolishness), and trying (and often failing) to make things right.

Perhaps this cross-film character that Clooney has traced across the screen will one day help to tell the story of what happened to the United States at the turn of the twenty-first century.

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