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George Clooney grows up

His work in ‘Syriana’ and ‘Good Night’ suggests a newfound maturity. By John Hartl

Now a two-time Golden Globe winner and a triple-threat Oscar nominee, George Clooney is a long way from “Return to Horror High” and “Return of the Killer Tomatoes,” which launched his movie career nearly two decades ago.

He’s also survived such career-threatening ruins as “Batman and Robin” (1997) and “From Dusk Till Dawn” (1996), while establishing a politically provocative persona in such high-profile 2005 films as “Syriana” and “Good Night, and Good Luck.”

Clooney’s topical movies actually began somewhat earlier. A direct line can be traced from “The Peacemaker” (1997), in which he plays a maverick special-forces agent trying to stop Iran from getting Russian nukes, to “Syriana,” in which Clooney plays a maverick CIA agent trying to avert another kind of Middle East debacle.

He just does it better now. In “The Peacemaker,” busily directed by his “ER” director, Mimi Leder, he comes off as arrogant and obnoxious, so certain of his understanding of a dangerous situation that he’s dying to break the rules.

In “Syriana,” directed with far more subtlety and control by Stephen Gaghan, he’s betrayed and trapped by forces he can’t control. The movie and Clooney’s performance are far less gung-ho; they’re the work of people who recognize complexity where they once saw simpler solutions.

In part, this is the difference between a movie produced four years before Sept. 11, 2001, and a movie produced four years after. “The Peacemaker,” which includes cameo appearances by the World Trade Center, ultimately deals with a terrorist attack on New York City. (So does a non-Clooney 1998 film, “The Siege,” in which martial law is declared and Arabs are sent to a concentration camp. Indifferently received at the time of their initial release, both movies have acquired a fascination they didn’t have before.)

Clooney’s performance in “Syriana,” which earned him his second Globe as well as an Oscar nomination for best supporting actor, suggests a depth and maturity he didn’t show (or perhaps wasn’t allowed to show) in “The Peacemaker.” That earlier, pushier performance can’t touch the mounting sense of futility and tragedy he brings to his key role in “Syriana.”

Project close to his heart
Clooney has also been nominated for directing and co-writing “Good Night, and Good Luck,” his deliberate attempt to draw historical parallels between the McCarthy era and current troubles in Washington D.C. He could have collected a fourth nomination for co-producing the film, but he insisting full producing credit go to his friend and co-writer, Grant Heslov.

Clooney also has a role in the movie, smoothly underplaying the part of CBS newsman Fred Friendly while allowing David Strathairn and Frank Langella to set off the fireworks. Rarely has ensemble playing seemed so selfless.

The son of a newsman, Nick Clooney, who insisted that his children keep up with current events, Clooney is often drawn to explosive subject matter. He produced a live 2000 television remake of the 1964 anti-nuke thriller, “Fail Safe,” and made his 2002 directing debut with “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind,” about a game-show host who claimed to be a CIA agent. He’s talked about doing a live television remake of “Network,” Paddy Chayefsky’s prophetic 1976 satire about the blending of news and entertainment.

Clooney earned his first Golden Globe for his work in the Coen brothers’ 2000 Depression epic about Mississippi music, escaped prisoners and the Ku Klux Klan, “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” The cheeky title, borrowed from the 1942 Hollywood satire, “Sullivan’s Travels,” refers to pretentious Hollywood producers who specialize in message movies.

On a less messagey note, Clooney played a divorce lawyer in another Coen brothers tale, “Intolerable Cruelty” (2003), easily matching wits with the gold-digging Catherine Zeta-Jones. Kids may know him best from the “Spy Kids” movies; he briefly impersonated the U.S. President in the third one.

A knack for character workClooney has often demonstrated a knack for fleshing out such sketchy characters. He was an ill-defined Massachusetts fishing-boat skipper in “The Perfect Storm” (2000), a paternal World War II captain in “The Thin Red Line” (1998), and daring ex-con Danny Ocean in both the tricky “Ocean’s Eleven” (2001) and the trickier “Ocean’s Twelve” (2004).

He made these last two with director Steven Soderbergh, who is widely credited with providing Clooney his career breakthrough in the hard-boiled crime thriller, “Out of Sight” (1998). During casting sessions, Soderbergh liked the chemistry between Clooney and Jennifer Lopez so much that he couldn’t see anyone else in their roles.

Indeed, their flirty relationship on opposite sides of the law — he’s a bank robber, she’s a federal agent — is what makes the movie memorable. From the moment they first meet, jammed together into the trunk of a getaway car, they seem somehow made for each other. It remains the high point of Lopez’s career.

Clooney and Soderbergh also worked together on an ambitious science-fiction remake, “Solaris” (2002), that turned out to be one of their rare duds. The latest Soderbergh/Clooney collaboration, “The Good German,” is a black-and-white murder mystery set in post-war Berlin. A supporting player in his most recent movies, he’ll return to starring roles with this one.

As a producer, Clooney has scored more misses than hits. For every “Far From Heaven” (2002), there’s a “Rock Star” (2001) or a “Rumor Has It” (2005) on his producing resume. Well, at least those movies sounded interesting.

Clooney’s best political film may still be his Desert Storm classic, “Three Kings” (1999), written and directed by David O. Russell. Caught in an impossible situation just as the war ends and the first President Bush allows Saddam to slaughter the Iraqi rebels, Clooney questions his military mission: “I don’t know what we did here.”

Russell claimed he wrote Clooney’s character as “a male authority figure who isn’t a clown,” and that’s exactly how he’s played. The clownish pride of “The Peacemaker” seems permanently vanquished here.

“Three Kings” earned zero Oscar nominations during its original release. But like several of his other movies, it’s grown in stature and interest since 9/11.

When he accepted his Globe for “Syriana,” Clooney said he was surprised because he expected the award to go to Paul Giamatti for “Cinderella Man.” Maybe he’ll get to use that line again.