True Confessions, Embellished – or Total Imagination?

Confessions of a Dangerous Mind (2002)
Dir: George Clooney
Stars: Sam Rockwell, George Clooney, Drew Barrymore, Rutger Hauer and  Julia Roberts

This film reminds me of that old saying, “truth is stranger than fiction.”  To me, the “ultimate truth” of the story of this character, Chuck Barris, doesn’t even really matter.  What I mean is, whether this man was truly a CIA operative or not is completely irrelevant.  The film is indeed based on Mr. Barris’ book, which details his thirty-plus kills on behalf of the CIA.  Therefore, in this film, for this story, Chuck Barris believes it and sells it to us.  Like the aforementioned saying suggests, truth is more bizarre than anything we can make up:  so, is it really beyond believability that America’s game show harlequin of the 1970s was really a cold blooded killer with numerous, successful, overseas operations during the Cold War to his credit?  Isn’t that the point, that the enemy would never have considered a game show host to be a threat?

Another saying that I think is very appropriate for framing this picture is, “let’s walk a mile in this guy’s shoes.”  Confessions reminds me of those times when I’ve sat down with an older person to hear their tales of adventure.  They pour emotion into their story, they interrupt themselves, they clamor to remember that one detail that they’ve forgotten, which seems essential.  Watching Confessions was like what I’d imagine listening to Mr. Barris himself might be like.  His stories are set with romantic colors and with the backdrop of exotic settings and beautiful women everywhere.  The clothes of his subjects are exquisite and elegantly reflect the years he’s describing.  In other words, Mr. Clooney – superstar leading man – also knows what he’s doing in the director’s chair.  His choices in how he tells Barris’ story – from the shot selection to the music – are appropriate and entertaining, but not overdone.

What I mean is, Barris lived a frantic, crazy lifestyle.  Consider the scene in which he’s running his show, The Dating Game, and things are going well and then – uh oh! – there’s his CIA handler, Clooney again, who’s insisting he fly to eastern Europe for a job as soon as possible.  Bang, we’re in Helsinki with his two contestants.  The male contestant incessantly asks Barris for help in talking to the female contestant because he’s so shy, but all Barris can think about is how and when he’s supposed to meet his contact and say the magic code-phrase that proves he’s OK and then the contact can respond properly and they’ll be OK to start working together…  When he finally meets the contact – whoops!  it’s the wrong one – OK, here’s a couple of restaurant booths down, there’s the right one – hey!  that’s Julia Roberts…. OK, now he’s meeting yet another person and – bang! he shoots this man in an alley (out of frame – again, appropriate for the story), apologizes about the man’s teeth and then shoots him again several times.

Are you tired?  So am I!  But while I was watching all of this I was definitely entertained, I even laughed a couple times, and I was engaged with not only Rockwell’s acting, but also the flow that Clooney created.  Everything I described above could be the legit movements of a CIA operative, or the ramblings of a mad man.  And that’s an incredibly difficult line to tow, which Clooney balances upon the entire film.  In the end, I don’t care whether Mr. Barris was CIA or not.  What I do care about is how stories are told within the medium of moving pictures.  In my humble opinion, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind is one of those overlooked masterpieces of the past 10-15 years.

Final Thought: With all the attention on Argo lately, I couldn’t help but remember Confessions as somewhat of a comparable to Affleck’s picture.  I’m not taking anything away from Argo – in fact, I liked it very much, and will have to dedicate an entry to it sometime soon – but I suggest the comparison because it’s set in kind of the same time period and has that storyline that’s just too outrageous to believe.

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