Directed by Anton Corbijn and based upon the Martin Booth novel A Very Private Gentleman (1990), The American is far too formulaic and slow of pacing for it to function as an effective thriller. However, if approached as more of a character study, the film does suggest some insight.
The film begins with Jack (Clooney) living in a snowy wilderness with a ‘friend’. When some assassins turn up and the ‘friend’ dies in the firefight, Jack the former spy is lured out of retirement and placed in the field by his former handler. Right from the start, Jack is a rootless and isolated man who walks through the world acutely aware not only of that world’s hostility, but also his lack of place in it. Like all spies, he is the resident of a demimonde of assumed identities and hidden skills. Corbijn communicates Jacks demimondaine status by having him instantly recognise a fellow demimondaine who hires his to make a custom-built gun for her.
As Jack attempts to pull together the tools that will allow him to work on the gun, he is forced to make friends with the local priest; a man who not only knows his place in the ‘grand order’ of things but also within his local community. Much like Jack, the priest has secrets but, unlike Jack, he does not allow these secrets to isolate him from the people around him. In fact, his secrets only serve to embed him even further in the local landscape. He is a rock of his community, a man completely at home in the world for all of his propensity to dwell on that which lays beyond it.
As he works on the gun, Jack begins two contrasting relationships: The first is with the fellow spy. Corbijn does an excellent job of communicating their rootless flirtation by having the pair demonstrate the extent to which they trust each other (they aim loaded guns at each other and even fire in their general direction and yet they do not shoot one another) while the traditionally trappings of seduction and romance are revealed to be nothing more than props in case the police should pass by. The second relationship with a local prostitute resembles the first in so far as it too spurns the traditional trappings of romance and seduction but here the oddness of the flirtation is presented more as a sign of openness and complete honesty than of guile and mis-representation.
When Jack decides that he wants to get out, his handler predictably turns on him and Corbijn struggles to fill the formulaic denouement with anything approaching tension or dramatic charge. In a way, it simply does not matter if Jack gets out… the heart of the film lies in its portrait of a man struggling to deal with his sense of alienation from community and landscape alike.
The American is one of those films that reminds me why it is I think that spies are posterboys for the postmodern condition: Isolated, deracinated and living in a world they not only do not belong to but actively fear, spies fill their days with the ritualised mundanity that is tradecraft: Check to see if anyone has been in while you were out, check to see if anyone is following you, check in with your handler, check the dead letter box, check to see if your contacts have gotten back to you and all along make sure that nothing you do makes you stand out as anything other than ‘normal’. Spies are people alienated from society who spend all of their time trying to pass for members of the societies they live amongst. That sense of alienation combined with paranoia and intense longing for membership and place are the constituent parts of that postmodern existential urge to belong and to know where one stands.
The fact that Jack’s flirtations are with women who exist on the margins of society is telling. By virtue of being a spy and a prostitute, the film’s female characters are both people who, like Jack, pass as normal thanks to having learned the rules of normality from the outside, as aliens. Jack’s stilted and technical conversation with the female spy reveals what the aliens’ language might be like while Jack’s awkward flirtations with the prostitute seem to hint at a path out of the demimonde and into the sunlight of normality.
As much as I liked the film’s capacity for capturing the postmodern condition, I was not all that convinced by Jack’s desire to return to the real world. At the beginning of the film, he is living a ‘normal’ life in the middle of nowhere and it is not clear why it is that a life embedded in the real word should be superior to that or why Jack should require ‘the love of a good woman’ to save him. The slow pacing of the film and the atmosphere of art house detachment and depression invites us to speculate about Jack’s inner state but with a plot this formulaic, I found myself unwilling to turn a blind eye to the lack of depth. A few extra scenes fleshing out Jack’s existential dread beyond there merely generic would have transformed this from a perfectly watchable film into a good one. A missed opportunity but very much part of a growing tradition of existential spy films.