Around this time last year, I opened a mysteriously heavy package to discover a deluxe art book celebrating the release of The Midnight Sky, then the latest movie directed by George Clooney. When awards season is in its throes, such glossy, content-light tomes turn up at my door on a fairly regular basis, especially when the movie, as this one was, is a Netflix release. (This year, I received books for Passing, The Power of the Dog, The Hand of God, and The Mitchells vs. the Machines.) But The Midnight Sky’s was different in one important regard: The movie was never a serious contender for any major awards. Given that it eventually eked out a single Oscar nomination (for visual effects), one could argue that the thousands it must have cost to print and ship those books was money well spent. But considering how plodding and unremarkable The Midnight Sky turned out to be—and how indifferently received it was by both critics and audiences—that hefty, cream-colored slab, which sat shrink-wrapped in a closet for a year until I started working on this piece, feels like an analogue for Clooney’s career as a director: handsomely made, pleasant to look at, bereft of personality, and devoid of substance. I don’t expect I’ll ever look at it again.
As a movie star, George Clooney is a happy warrior, always ready with a thoughtful quote or charming anecdote, and he’s the rare celebrity whose political acumen matches his outspokenness. Perhaps because he spent more than a decade playing minor roles on TV shows and starring in movies like Return of the Killer Tomatoes! and Horror High before breaking through on ER in the mid-’90s, he’s always treated his fame like a gift rather than a burden, and he’s participated in the rituals of fame gladly, while also refusing to take them too seriously. Clooney makes no bones about enjoying the fruits of his success—or at least is self-aware enough to know that no one wants to hear a person as rich and handsome as he is carp about its downside—and understands celebrity’s power and its limits as well as if not better than any of his contemporaries. (He has stayed away from campaigning for environmental causes, for instance, because he reasons there’s no way for a person who regularly takes private jets to do so without seeming like a hypocrite.) For him, public attention isn’t something to be indulged or endured, so much as a tool he can turn to worthier ends. When he did an ad campaign for Nespresso in the early 2010s, Clooney used most of his paycheck to train a satellite on the genocide in Darfur. “I want the war criminal to have the same amount of attention that I get,” he told an interviewer. “I think that’s fair.”
As a director, though, Clooney seems profoundly ambivalent about the very idea of entertaining the masses. From his debut, 2002’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, through his latest film, The Tender Bar, even a glancing association with the entertainment industry acts like a waxed mustache on a vaudeville villain, branding a character as suspect if not outright corrupt. (The Tender Bar opens in theaters this weekend, and will arrive on Amazon Prime Video Jan. 7.) Confessions purports to be the true story of Gong Show creator Chuck Barris’ double life as a CIA assassin—Charlie Kaufman’s script is purportedly based on Barris’ “unauthorized autobiography”—but in the movie, Barris does his real damage in prime time, dragging the country into a cesspit where horny newlyweds swap single entendres to the prodded chuckles of a studio audience.
The Tender Bar is also rooted in autobiography, this one at least truer to life. It’s based on a memoir by the Pulitzer-winning reporter J.R. Moehringer, starring Daniel Ranieri and Tye Sheridan as his younger selves. The most important figure in young JR’s life—he insists his name be spelled without initials until the New York Times’ style guide forces him to change it—is his uncle Charlie, played by Ben Affleck, a garrulous, bright-eyed oak of a man dispensing wisdom from behind the bar at the local tavern. Like his regulars, Uncle Charlie is a prolific autodidact; the shelves behind his bar aren’t crammed with craft whiskeys but books, free to borrow and read in an adjacent room. He’s the one who sparks JR’s interest in writing and cheers as JR goes to college and gets his first Times byline, but he also reminds his nephew that the elite spaces he’s infiltrated don’t hold all the world’s answers. Neither JR nor his Yale classmates can name the date the Magna Carta was signed, but the regulars deep into their afternoon cups at Charlie’s bar can.
The villain of The Tender Bar is JR’s father, a radio DJ known only as “the Voice.” The Voice is a physically abusive drunk, so perhaps it’s a blessing he’s not around much, but he also doesn’t have the decency to just keep his distance. He keeps popping back into JR’s life, pledging to spend more time with him, then letting him down again and again. And these broken promises come, more often than not, in the form of a disembodied voice on the phone. As a child, JR searches for his father on the air, catching snatches of him between songs, but the Voice lies, again and again. Reading is an honest workingman’s pursuit, but you can’t trust the radio.
His ambivalence about entertainment doesn’t mean that Clooney is anti-art, exactly. But he’s deeply suspicious of putting on airs, with an affinity to blue-collar intellectualism that belies his showbiz upbringing. (Clooney’s father, Nick, was a beloved local news anchor, and his aunt is the singer Rosemary Clooney.) His 2014 movie The Monuments Men retells the true(-ish) story of the Allied mission to rescue thousands of paintings and sculptures stolen by the Nazis from museums and private collections. But the movie establishes their value in cultural rather than aesthetic terms, as the foundation of European patrimony. As Clooney’s curator, who spearheads the effort, explains to President Roosevelt, it’s a matter of protecting “the greatest historical achievements known to man.” What’s important about a Picasso isn’t the boldness of the brushstrokes or the vibrancy of the colors; it’s that it’s a Picasso.
For years, it’s puzzled me how Clooney, a great actor, savvy operator, and apparently all-around good guy, could make such dull and lifeless movies. As a performer, he’s able to generate rivers of charm, as he does in Ocean’s 11 and its sequels, and is equally adept at sending up his own smugness, playing overconfident goofballs for the Coen brothers in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Burn After Reading, and Intolerable Cruelty. Even when he’s playing the wrung-out fixer in Michael Clayton, it feels like he’s in dialogue with his own irrepressible charisma—you know that this is a guy who can still talk anyone into anything, even if he’s deeply conflicted about whether or not he should. But Clooney’s initial attempts at transferring his roguish ER persona to the big screen were flops, bottoming out with his squirrely turn in Batman & Robin, a film so bad that it derailed the Batman franchise for almost a decade. The movie is self-consciously lightweight, emulating the camp of the 1960s TV show, but Clooney is a leaden lump; it feels like he’s not sure he should be there, like he knows he’s failing at something he’s not even sure he wants to do. Given that Batman & Robin’s failure could easily have killed Clooney’s career, it’s not surprising that there’s a hint of miserabilism under his forced quips, but he never strayed that far into pure froth again.
If there’s a thesis statement for Clooney’s feelings about entertainment, it’s 2005’s Good Night, and Good Luck, his portrait of the legendary TV journalist Edward R. Murrow. Building up to Murrow’s exposé of red-baiting Senator Joe McCarthy, the movie presents Murrow (as played by David Strathairn) as a stoic and dogged defender of truth, so relentless in his pursuits that he can’t even accept an award from his fellow newsmen without using his speech to deliver a homily on the evils of escapism. The movie spices up its sober TV news procedural with jazz interludes (sung by Diane Reeves) and an invented subplot about CBS staffers (Robert Downey, Jr. and Patricia Clarkson), who have to keep their marriage secret from the network. But Clooney keeps the film’s central figure almost surgically isolated from these dramatic concessions, as if even allowing Murrow to share their airspace might degrade him. (He tries a similar tactic, to much more egregious effect, in Suburbicon, where a fictional thriller about corruption in a white suburban family overwhelms the fact-based story of the racist harassment suffered by their black neighbors.) When Murrow takes a break from hard-hitting news to do an interview with Liberace, Clooney stages it like he’s doing the stations of the cross.
As Murrow allows in a confrontation with William S. Paley (Frank Langella), the CBS chief executive whom the movie casts as the primary internal obstacle to Murrow’s quest for truth, the network’s regular programming has its place. But producing hard-hitting, money-losing programs like Murrow’s are, he explains, “the price you have to be willing to pay.” In his closing speech, Murrow is at the awards podium as he asks a room full of tuxedoed swells to imagine a Sunday night where “the time normally occupied by Ed Sullivan” is given over to “a thoroughgoing study of American policy in the Middle East.” The implication is that the latter can only exist at the expense of the former, but the movie doesn’t allow for the possibility of doing both—that much great journalism, and much great art, comes from engaging audiences’ hearts and minds at the same time.
The simplest explanation for why one of our best actors is also one of our most consistently mediocre directors is that acting and directing are different skill sets, and being good at one is no guarantee of being good at the other. But in a year when Rebecca Hall and Maggie Gyllenhaal made their thrilling, visually astute first films, the fact that Clooney’s eighth is so comparatively undistinguished remains a genuine puzzle. There are few actors who now how to command the screen the way Clooney does, but when he steps behind the camera, there’s nobody there.