Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by the week’s new releases or premieres. This week: Celebrate Cold War Week at The A.V. Club with some stellar movies about that decades-spanning conflict.
These days, a George Clooney-directed movie set during the Cold War would almost certainly arrive with a heavy veneer of respectability befitting the Oscar-winning, politically engaged multi-hyphenate. But before Good Night, And Good Luck, Clooney made his feature directorial debut with a weirder, wilder movie about America during the Cold War: Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind, an adaptation of the memoir by game-show host Chuck Barris, wherein he claims to have worked in secret as an assassin for the CIA.
Clooney’s film, featuring a screenplay adapted by Charlie Kaufman, follows Barris (Sam Rockwell, in the weirdo character actor version of a star-making performance) as he tries to make it in showbiz. He winds up volleying between lowbrow TV (creating The Dating Game; creating and hosting The Gong Show) and covert missions where he kills communists in Helsinki and East Berlin. His handler is the shadowy Jim Byrd (George Clooney), and in the tradition of the real Barris, it’s hard to be sure whether his side gig as a murderous spy is real or some kind of extended delusion of grandeur. Textually, the movie doesn’t play up its dreaminess, but stylistically, it’s just hallucinatory enough to keep Rockwell off-balance, which is how he flourishes. This remains perhaps his most Rockwellian role to date: shifty, eccentric, scuzzy, and chockablock with goofball dancing.
Back in 2002, Clooney was fresh off of collaborations with Steven Soderbergh and the Coen brothers (with more to follow from both). It shows in the playfulness of his Confessions direction, which borders on show-offy but has an energy and a hunger missing from his progressively more staid follow-ups. The cinematography utilizes a lot of soft, bleeding edges and saturated pastels, and Clooney uses trick transitional shots and whooshing edits to mash some scenes together like free-flowing highlight-reel memories. It’s a distinctive take on the era, blending the moral murkiness of international intrigue and the rise of smarmy junk-food TV.
The psychosexual loneliness Barris brings into that moral murk flags the material as very Charlie Kaufman, who has gone on record about his displeasure with the final product. As brilliant as Kaufman is on his own, and as respectable as Clooney has become since 2002, it’s thrilling to see the latter tangle with such an ambitious, offbeat writer. It feels very much in the sketchy tradition of Barris himself to point out that sometimes there are more interesting qualities than mere respectability.
Availability: Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Netflix or possibly your local video store/library. It’s also currently streaming on Netflix and Amazon Prime.