George Clooney: a Political Satirist In Venice

by Elisabeth Sereda September 5, 2017
George Clooney at the Venice Film fetsival, 2917

getty images/corbis/alessandra benedetti

George Clooney has always been at his best as a director when he takes on political and societal issues. This is where he feels most at home, having grown up the son of an anchorman and news reporter. He calls himself a left wing liberal, has supported both Clinton and Obama and been called a traitor to his country when he voiced a critical opinion of the Iraq war during the Bush presidency.

As a filmmaker, he cleverly tells even very dramatic and serious stories under the veil of a satire. Suburbicon, his latest film that premiered at the Venice festival is no exception. He combined the tale of a severely disturbed couple with the reality of life in a small town in the 1950s, weaving racism and civil unrest into what is essentially a story of a bunch of killers. He and producer Grant Heslov share screenwriting credits with Joel and Ethan Coen: “The Coen’s wrote this film as a murder-comedy in the 80s. After a year of looking for a movie to direct - I had read about 80 scripts - I couldn’t find anything. I started hearing things on the campaign trail about scapegoating minorities and building walls.” When he found a 30-minute black-and-white documentary called Crisis At Levittown about a black family that moved into a white town in Pennsylvania, he incorporated it into the otherwise comedic script. He believes that looking to the past to point out problems of the present is the most poignant way to tell a story. He did this very successfully with Good Night, and Good Luck, a film that won two prizes at the Venice festival and went on to be a major contender during the awards season that followed.

With Suburbicon, he debunks the myth that the last time America was at its best was in the oh-so-idyllic 1950s: “When you are talking about making America great again, what you are really talking about is the Eisenhower 50s, which everyone thinks is perfect.  The economy was going great, and it was great if you were a white, straight man, but otherwise, maybe not so great. 

It’s interesting to lift that veneer up and look underneath and remember that they were all screwing in the back seats of cars and that nothing was necessarily quite as good for a huge group of Americans. We like to fantasize that that is when America was great.  I am not quite sure we were.” He worries about the state of his country: “I have never been in this experience before, where I am ashamed.” But he is hopeful, too, saying that he does see the institutions starting to take hold and that he is happy that many people in the US are waking up and starting to take responsibility: "Winston Churchill always said that you can count on America to do the right thing after we have exhausted every other possibility.”

That some of the scenes in his film might conjure up painful associations with the all-too-recent events in Charlottesville is the kind of coincidence that seems to happen more and more: the lines between art imitating life or life imitating art become blurred. Clooney does not shy away from harsh criticism of the US president. He resents the notion that one can go in front of TV cameras and compare the Black Lives Matter movement to the KKK and the Alt-Right. To him, there is a clear difference. Black Lives Matter, he says, even when their members commit violence, in protesting for racial equality. On the other hand, the KKK and the Alt-Right are protesting for racial supremacy. “Those two can never be equated with one another. And the President of the United States should be saying that.”

He fears that his country will be in for another three-and-a-half years of Trump, even though he won’t rule out the possibility of an impeachment: “The thing is, that when people lie, it gets them in the end. And no one lies as much as he does and with this persistence.” He laughs off the suggestion that he should run for president himself in the next election, stating that he does not consider himself the right man for the job: “But I will actively support whoever the Democrats find within their party.” So for now, the only campaign trail that Clooney will be on, is the one that is confined within the limits of Hollywood: awards season.