It’s a running joke among some film fans that James Bond is the worst secret agent ever. Everywhere he goes he just announces himself with his real name. Not very inconspicuous. But now the movies have presented us with a real life secret agent who was known to millions of television viewers in the `70s. That is, if we believe his story.
Based on his “Unauthorized Autobiography” Confessions of a Dangerous Mind takes audiences through the purported double life of game show impresario Chuck Barris. On one hand there’s the public Barris, creator of such shows as The Newlywed Game and The Gong Show. On the other hand, there’s the Chuck Barris who used his job as a game show producer as a cover for being a CIA assassin.
When the book was first published in 1984, critics were unimpressed with the tome and dismissed Barris’ claims out of hand. But whether his claims of being a contract killer for the CIA are true or is just a metaphor for his own problems with frustration at the direction his life was going in doesn’t matter and the movie doesn’t try to make a judgment one way or the other either. There are clues that point both ways. The film is a character study of a man educated enough to be able to quote writers like Carlisle and Nabakov, but frustrated that he doesn’t find the actualization of his own ideas to have the same impact as the writers he admired.
For a first time effort, George Clooney has directed a film that is more visually engaging then some turned out by more experienced helmers. The film’s story span the 1950s through the early `80s and he and cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel have designed a specific look for each decade from the faded look of the `50s through the monochromatic look of Barris’ CIA training to the handheld camera work of the 1970s. Clooney has an interesting eye for designing shots, sometimes moving the action into the background while something as mundane as a doorknob fills the foreground. Other shots, like Barris’ call to an ABC executive about The Dating Game or the transition between his memory of his parent’s cold marriage to The Newlywed Game set have a stage-like feel that recalls some of the tricks Orson Welles used in Citizen Kane.
Fans of The Gong Show and other of Barris’ productions may be a little disappointed as not much screen time is devoted to them. But these fleeting moments do deliver some great gems- Brad Pitt and Matt Damon as bachelors loosing out to a schlub on The Dating Game, the actual video tape footage of one of The Newlywed Game most notorious answers. Rockwell’s absolute perfect capture of Barris’ on-air Gong Show persona merely enforces the rest of his performance in the viewers minds.