There’s this perception amongst the general public that actors “shouldn’t be political.” In a lot of cases, this point of view is used as a dismissive shorthand against artists, especially ones from marginalized and international communities, criticizing the status quo in America. The problem with actors, directors, or anyone else involved in making movies engaging with politics shouldn’t be that they’re trying to reckon with systemic issues. After all, art itself typically has a political bend, whether consciously or unconsciously. The problem people should be focusing on instead is when artists make clumsy stabs at being “political.” A streak of movies directed or starring George Clooney in the 2010s, for example, are not bad because they’re innately trying to be “political.” Nor are they emblematic of Clooney being actually “evil” or supporting bad causes impacting working-class Americans. But the flaws in these features do, unfortunately, reflect shortcomings in many “political” movies made in the American mainstream.
These shortcomings should be recognized as a way of improving further relationships between art and activism, rather than as a way to tell people to “shut up and dribble.” Issues plauging George Clooney’s socio-politically conscious 2010s output — The Ides of March, Money Monster, and Suburbicon — shed light on much larger film industry problems that have needed to be addressed for decades.
George Clooney’s Politically Conscious 2010s Movies
After cementing himself as a box office draw, an award-season darling, and even an Oscar-winning actor throughout the 2000s, it’s no surprise that Clooney would try and shift gears in the 2010s to projects tackling what he considered “important” issues. These projects were a pair of directorial efforts, the 2011 movie The Ides of March (which explored political corruption involving Democratic party candidates) and Suburbicon (a period piece attempting to explore racism). In between those two motion pictures, Clooney also headlined the Jodie Foster directorial effort Money Monster, a movie that saw this actor playing a pastiche of people like Mad Money’s Jim Cramer. This figure gets attacked by a working-class man who lost all his money in the stock market thanks to the advice of Clooney’s character.
All three of these features were rooted in issues that dominate the headlines, though all of them, ironically, felt too detached from reality to ever leave much of an impact. The Ides of March, for one, was already too meek in what it thought a “controversial” presidential candidate could look like back in 2011. The feature explored junior campaign manager Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) undergoing a series of events that revealed to him that the political candidate he’s working for, Mike Morris (George Clooney), is far more corrupt than he could have imagined. The features execution of that plotline was incredibly dry all while delivering an examination of politics with less depth than an average Schoolhouse Rock song.
Worse, the feature loses sight of the everyday folks affected by double-crossing politicians like Mike Morris. The long-term impact of politicians having no consistent moral character never really comes through because The Ides of March doesn’t take the time to emphasize how this behavior impacts the proletariat. The whole feature is about Meyers playing catch-up to the duplicitous behavior of politicians, a reality most audience members are well-aware of. The tone of The Ides of March suggests it’s saying something new and profound. The substance of its script and filmmaking, though, doesn’t reveal anything insightful.
This is, unfortunately, a problem many Hollywood movies about politics share. In the interest of not “alienating” viewers and their money, features like The Ides of March won’t get too into the nitty-gritty of political discourse or confront the larger systemic problems innate in the status quo. Instead, productions like The Ides of March just repackage long-standing obvious truths (politicians often lie and do bad things) as a fresh revelation. It’s a wolf in sheep’s clothing, a Charlie Puth ditty masquerading as having the subversive edge of a Gil Scott-Heron song. That, unfortunately, is a sentence that could be applied to any of Clooney’s socially conscious works in the 2010s.
Why ‘Money Monster’ & ‘Suburbicon’ Fell Short
Money Monster is not a good movie. Its flaws are many (like the sickening light blue color grading smeared on every frame) but it’s especially egregious as a piece of sociopolitical commentary. For starters, having our main aggrieved working-class character, Kyle Budwell (Jack O’Connell), be mad at Clooney’s protagonist because this guy offered bad investment advice on TV that cost Budwell tens of thousands of dollars is an incredible ill-advised narrative move. As pointed out by other astute breakdowns on the film in places like the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast, it cost so much money to get the kind of stock Budwell acquired that it already makes the character feel detached from actual working-class people. Even Money Monster’s depiction of the “scrappy man of the people) has to have had a lot of money.
Worse, the film’s depiction of where greed comes from ends up emerging in the form of powerful CEO Walt Camby (Dominic West). All the financial inequality of America gets boiled down to one guy rather than larger problems ingrained into the fabric of this country. Eventually, Cambry gets defeated, imprisoned, and even turned into a cartoonish meme. It’s a very tidy ending suggesting that everything would be fine in this country if one bad person was put away. Money Monster even has the audacity to end its entire runtime with a cutesy exchange between Clooney’s Lee Gates and his director, Patty Gates (Julia Roberts), for the former character asking the latter figure what will be on their show tomorrow.
On the surface, Money Monster wants to be a movie about the ways financial inequality can turn ordinary people into monsters. Money Monster’s sitcom ending, though, is emblematic of how, much like The Ides of March, this is a mass-marketable approach to this topic. Much like how financial inequality isn’t down to one person, Money Monster’s overly neat approach to weighty issues is a microcosm of how many mainstream Hollywood movies struggle to comprehend the idea that big problems are larger systemic faults.
But if one thinks Money Monster has to be the nadir of Clooney’s 2010s sociopolitical cinema exploits, wait until we get to Suburbicon. This Clooney directorial effort has shifted its focus from scummy politicians and financial inequality to race. This feature, which started life as a script by Joel and Ethan Coen, is split into two halves, both set in the same 1959 neighborhood. The primary storyline involves Matt Damon as Gardner Lodge, a seemingly ordinary suburban guy who gets in over his head with local mobsters and an insurance-fraud scheme. At the same time, a Black family moves into a prejudiced white neighborhood.
This family is known as the Mayers, with the mom and dad of this group being played by Karimah Westbrook and Leith Burke, respectively, while their child, Andy, is portrayed by Tony Espinosa. The older Mayers getting no names is emblematic of how the Suburbicon script treats these characters. Their existence is exclusively defined by the intolerance they experience from white people. We do not learn about their interests, families, any ambitions they have. They’re not really human beings. In trying to emphasize the horrors of racism, Suburbicon just ends up committing another dehumanizing act against Black people by reducing the Mayers family to barely-defined background characters.
Once again, a Clooney production meant to “stick it to the man” merely reinforces how many mainstream supposedly “progressive” Hollywood productions just hammer home harmful stereotypes. In this case, Suburbicon is an especially egregious example of how often stories about Black people are deemed “important” only if they both take a back seat to stories about white folks and are only defined by the racial torment they experience. Stories about the experiences of Black individuals navigating the systematically-flawed institutions of America work best when they’re like Killer of Sheep or If Beale Street Could Talk and focus almost exclusively on Black characters. In these confines, the humanity of the marginalized can be emphasized, they’re not just defined by the actions of the oppressing class.
Of course, such projects are anomalies in the mainstream American film scene. Typically, movies about race do it like Suburbicon: a period piece (because racism is all in the past) largely focusing on white people that has no room for a variety of non-white characters.
Should George Clooney Stop Making Political Movies?
George Clooney’s exploits in starring in and/or directing 2010s movies meant to comment on hot-button political issues indicate the restrictions of trying to comment on systemic issues within the confines of mainstream cinema. Our country is still being rocked by corrupt politicians, ever-increasing divides between economic classes, and systemic racism (these and other important topics are also often overlapping). But mid-budget adult dramas like Money Monster and Suburbicon can’t offer the insight or in-depth reflection of realistic nuances that these subjects require. Rather than being haunting reflections of systematic woes, these productions, intentional or not, just reaffirm the status quo. They don’t challenge institutions or the viewer but rather suggest that the real problem is one or two flawed people.
I’m sure George Clooney had all the best intentions in the world with his creative participation in these projects. But even if his ambitions on The Ides of March, Money Monster, and Suburbicon were as pure as the driven snow, that’s still emblematic of how major Hollywood movies often stumble in tackling heavier real-world issues. The necessity to make something “marketable” and not alienate audiences inevitably sands off the edges of your goals and commentary. Major actors in Hollywood taking political stances and challenging the status quo is not an innately bad thing. But major Hollywood features like Suburbicon contributing to systemic issues rather than confronting them, that’s a rampant problem we should all be complaining about.