George Clooney as an old-fashioned hero


Several members of my family were watching the Oscars last night, and occasionally I’d step into the room, taking a break from re-reading The Far Side of the World for about the sixth time, which is something I’d rather do than watch the Oscars. (I’m still mad about the “Shakespeare In Love”-as-Best-Picture fiasco of 1998.)

So I heard a couple of references to the movie “Gravity” — which stands out among the films of this past year in that I actually went to see it in a theater. I had heard that a) it was good, and b) the 3D was actually worth seeing. So several weeks ago, I went to see it while I could still catch it in that format.

It was good, and the 3D, while not being mind-blowing, was at least watchable. It didn’t get in the way. But I wouldn’t call it indispensable. I think the film would have been visually impressive without it.

But that’s not what I wanted to write about. This morning, skimming through my email, I saw a link to a Slate piece about the Oscars, and I followed it because I was curious what they could possibly mean by the headline, “Ellen Was the Stephen Colbert of Oscars Hosts.” Turns out, not much. But on the way to finding that out, I ran across this sentence fragment (believe me, you don’t want to read the whole sentence; it’s unintelligible to anyone who doesn’t live and breathe celebrity news): “… another montage about heroes, featuring almost no women.”

No, I don’t know what that referred to, and don’t care. But it got me thinking about George Clooney in “Gravity,” who I thought was impressive as an old-fashioned, early ’60s-or-earlier kind of hero, the kind you don’t see all that often in movies anymore.

MAJOR SPOILER ALERT. Seriously, I’m about to give away the whole movie, so if you care about that, stop reading now.

Yes, the movie centers around Sandra Bullock’s character, who spends most of the screen time alone. The film is mainly about her grit and determination to survive. You would in fact call her character heroic if she were saving anyone other than herself, but whether you call it that or not, her struggle is pretty gripping.

But the reason she spends all that screen time alone is that at the beginning, George Clooney’s character gives his life so that she’ll have a chance.

And in his few minutes on screen, he exhibits enough Traditional Manly Virtues to fill up the whole film and more. He seems to personify all the courage we ascribed to the original seven Mercury astronauts, as described by Tom Wolfe in The Right Stuff. And as befits a hero, he wears it lightly, hid in a constant stream of wisecracks, maintaining an even strain.

There’s a dynamic between him and the Bullock character that I’ve seen in real workplaces. She is the no-nonsense woman who has a task to perform and is doing it not because she enjoys it, but because it needs doing and she knows how to do it, and she just wants to get it done and go home and maybe put her feet up, but while she’s working she has to put up with this lollygaggin’, wisecracking guy who doesn’t seem to have enough to do and who is maybe flirting with her or something, which is something she doesn’t need.

Although it turns out that the good-time Charlie thing is just part of his leadership style. He’s just trying to get a smile out of someone having a bad day (because if you can do that, the unit functions more smoothly). But that’s not all there is to him. When things go bad and somebody needs to give orders, he does so with a crisp, commanding confidence. No question at that point that he is the mission commander, and there’s a reason for that. Because as much as you might need scientists and techies to make the gadgets work, there’s a time when you need a pilot, a guy who routinely hangs his hide out over the edge in a hurtling piece of machinery and hauls it back in again without breaking a sweat — someone schooled in emergency, someone at home with danger. You need someone in charge who knows exactly what he’s doing, even when everything’s gone all to hell.

His persona makes such an impression on Sandra Bullock’s character that even well after he is certainly dead, at a point when she has decided to just give up and let herself pass out from lack of oxygen, he returns to her in a hallucination — still the same lollygaggin’, keeping-it-light guy, but gently goading her into waking up and doing what it takes to survive, in spite of the odds.

And the thing is, he does all of this without seeming like a caricature, or a stereotype, or a throwback to movies gone by. In fact, he does all this more artfully and smoothly than most Traditional Heroes in old movies.

Anyway, I was impressed by that. And I wonder whether any actor other than Clooney could have pulled it off….

21 thoughts on “George Clooney as an old-fashioned hero

  1. Bryan Caskey

    Gus Grissom: [listening to the NASA recruiter] Say, Hot Dog; what the hell does “astronaut” mean, anyway?
    Gordon Cooper: [thinks for a moment] “Star Voyager”
    Gus Grissom: “Star Voyager” Gus Grissom. I kinda like the sound of that.

  2. Jebediah Atkinson

    “If I wanted to watch a depressed middle-aged woman float around for 90 minutes, I’d go to the YMCA pool.”

  3. bud

    Brad why hold such a grudge over something that occurred 15 years ago? Shakespeare in Love was a fine movie. Everyone has opinions about movies and just because you don’t share the voters opinion doesn’t make them wrong. Frankly it was refreshing to see a comedy win for a change. All these obsessively violent movies that keep on winning is a bit off-putting to me. We had the Godfather, Godfather 2, Goodfellas, Silence of the Lambs, Gladiator, The Departed and even Titanic feature 1,500 people freezing to death. So I say let’s have a bit of lighter fare take home the top award occasionally. In 1998 at least the Academy got it right by passing over the enormously over-rated Private Ryan.

    1. Brad Warthen

      “Saving Private Ryan” was possibly the best war picture Hollywood ever made. And “Life is Beautiful” was fantastic. Both were far more profound, more meaningful, than “Shakespeare in Love,” which was a perfectly enjoyable comedy, but nothing to be taken seriously.

      The thing that made the choice so appalling is that “Shakespeare” was so self-referential. It was a fun romp about actors and directors and producers and their lifestyles, transferred to the 16th century. Of course the Academy loved it. It was about holding a mirror up to itself, and seeing something delightful.

      It was as self-congratulatory as the Oscars themselves.

      1. bud

        The first time I watched Ryan I liked it fine. The second time I watched it it dawned on me that this really wasn’t much more than a big budget episode of the 60 tv show combat. Hardly profound.

  4. Karen Pearson

    Actually, I found Clooney’s character in “Monuments Men” more complex, and more realistically heroic than his character in “Gravity.”

    1. Bryan Caskey

      I’m still on the fence about seeing “Monuments Men” in theaters. Did you like it? Let’s hear the Karen Pearson movie review. I could be persuaded, but I’m judicious about the movies where I spend real money. I rank current movies into:

      1. Must see in theater,
      2. Will see on demand (DirecTV)
      3. Will wait for television to pick them up.
      4. Not interested.

      1. Norm Ivey

        I’m reading the book now, and then I’ll watch it On Demand. I like having a background for that type of movie.

      2. Kathryn Fenner

        I pretty much only see films in cinemas if the size of the screen will enhance the experience, or if I believe that my buying a ticket will increase the chances of more such films being made. Inception was the last film I saw in a cinema, then Chicago.

        1. bud

          Asbolutely loved Inception. It would have been my choice for best picture. Chicago was good so when my wife and I went to NY we went to see it on Broadway.

          1. Kathryn Fenner

            I bet live was a lot better than the pixilated cinematography the film used. You want to see the whole dancer, and at least a good chunk of the ensemble, not close ups of body parts…in musical numbers, anyway….

      3. Karen Pearson

        I thought it was a fantastic movie. It is based, I understand on an actual group of men who were tasked with saving these artworks. The characters were well worked; each was an individual in his own right, with his/her own foibles, quirks, and strengths. The plotting was well done. It was not dependent on wild action scenes, much less computer generated impossible feats. In short, I came out of the movie appreciating both the fantastic job this group managed, and the men who managed it. Oh, yes, some of the shots of the artwork they saved are beautiful. Direct TV will work if you have a good sized screen. Any less won’t do the art justice.

        1. Brad Warthen

          Actually, that factor — “each was an individual in his own right, with his/her own foibles, quirks, and strengths” — is a standard trope in war movies. You have the grizzled lifer sergeant; the cynical, street-smart New Yorker (in a pinch, he can be from Chicago; you might want to give him a BAR); the hick farmer, the All-American Boy, the Indian, the Italian (who might also be the New Yorker), the coward, and the guy who just got a Dear John letter from home, and doesn’t care about anything, he just wants to kill….

          1. Karen Pearson

            Those are known as stereotypes. There’s a difference between character and caricature. While they don’t storm Normandy Beach, and not all of them get killed, there’s enough danger, suspense, and loss to keep me engaged. I think this movie was worth the ticket.

  5. Bryan Caskey

    The last film I saw in the theater was “Nebraska”. I saw it over at the Nick. I thought it was excellent. Very funny at times, seemingly bleak, but ultimately a happy movie.


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