“O, brave new world! that has such people in it!”
Shakespeare, The Tempest

“Its existence is endangered.”
Mr. Butterfly, speaking of a butterfly

Permission to write about The American (Anton Corbijn, 2010) as a portrayal of the future of the U.S. comes from the title. Justification comes from a correspondence between the film, specifically a brief and selected view of the life of Jack, called “Mr. Butterfly,” played by George Clooney, and a condensed allegory of the present darkening of the American Dream and its ominous future.

It is the fallen present “existing conditions” in the U.S. today that most tellingly touch an atmosphere of fatality of both protagonist and plot. Wars – in Iraq and Afghanistan and Pakistan – with as suspect beginnings as Viet-nam, waged as ambiguously and as confusingly as Viet-nam, are a significant part of present “existing conditions”. So too is the latest traumatic revelation of global capitalism’s dark side made crystal clear in the global financial chicanery leading to what Americans describe as “The Great Recession of 2008.” The heart, however, of tragedy in our American Elsinore is with the young Prince himself, President Barack Obama, whose audacity seems now, in the eyes of a growing number of detractors, to be no more than foolhardy insolence and his hope far from the hope impregnated in Americans by Ronald Reagan and since Reagan. This fallen idealist, our Mr. Butterfly, on the American stage now faces a disastrous ending to his audacious hope, his dream of the meaning of the American Dream.

What Americans are in their own eyes now at the end of the first decade of the new Millennium, they cannot say nor can any observer say. Or, closer to the truth (and who can measure this?), every American and every observer has something to say. This is plentitude. This is contention and hostility. This is pandemonium. But it is all distilled in this film wherein an entire American culture becomes one man; American hegemony is personified as a “man who claims he is not good with machines but, in truth, is very good with machines”; American pretensions of “freedom bringing” and “democracy building” and “human rights” advocacy narrow to one skilled bricoleur/assassin’s drama of friendship and love; and, the envisioned last days of that culture play out in an enigmatic drama of assassination.

Jack, the Mr. Butterfly of the film, is one man, or, in the title of the novel the film is based upon, A Very Private Gentleman, but the film title expands his role from private individual to a cultural stereotype: The American. No longer “a” American, Clooney’s Jack is a collective but also exceptional: “The.” “The American” is from “The America,” born in the U.S.A. and not Guatemala or Brazil. The American embodies the exceptional role the U.S. plays on the world stage. This is no small tragedy; this is not the death of Willy Loman, a failed salesman, nor will the consequences be as meaningless as the fall of Ozymandias. What happens to Clooney’s Jack is prophetic and as tragic to the entire world as the death of Arthur or the death of JFK. This American is an Everyman American. His is a national tragedy.

Does the darkness of Clooney’s Jack represent the darkness of the American Everyman? Has every American, metaphorically speaking, dutifully taken the orders, machined the weapons of destruction and taken payment? Haven’t Americans made and sold the weapons that now arm both the Iraqis and the Afghans? Is every American prepared to kill the innocent as part of the business they are engaged in, a business of murder?

Clooney’s Jack does all of this, within his own range. He does it efficiently; he is a master of detail, of measurement, of delivery and customer satisfaction. He takes the bricolage of an auto repair shop and works it all into a weapon that meets all the demands of the purchaser, an equally efficient dealer in death.  His mastery parallels the U.S.’s own master role on the world stage. Techno-capitalism’s global supremacy has been most effectively chaperoned by Americans; it enables an American military supremacy.

This situation, however, has been seriously shaken by the Great Recession of 2008, the huge deficits created by supporting continuous warfare, and the collapse in both the image of American Exceptionalism and the American Dream, both at home and abroad. There is also a growing American cultural pathology attending all this, namely, a paranoia that makes President Obama a foreign-born Muslim, a hatred that burns the Koran as a message, a nation-wide furore over the building of an Islamic center close to Ground Zero, and a turn toward a lunatic fringe that advises Americans not to retreat but “just reload!”

Although President Obama declared on August 31st, 2010 that the war in Iraq had ended and “it’s time to turn the page,” it was painfully clear to all observers, including the Americans themselves, that one or more pages revealing the future would have to be turned in order to determine if battles continue in Iraq and if Americans would ever fully depart. On September 6th, the PBS Newshour screened this testimony by an Iraqi who had fled to Jordan to save herself and what remained of her family:

“I blame Americans for everything that’s happened. For the death of my brother, for the death of my brother-in-law. I blame them for poor policies, shooting at families, going into homes. My nephew, he’s a young kid. I can’t tell him to love America even though they killed your dad. So, he’s going to have a lot of bitterness towards America. And it’s going to grow up in his generation.”

On the national stage, we see all the signs of confusion and anger leading to mindless extremism, insensibility to argument and fact, and a rallying round the celebrated but deranged. Obama’s follow through on a bank bailout begun by George W. Bush, his bailout of GM, his stimulus to revive an economy foundering after Wall St. chicanery, and his success in extending health care to millions who did not have it have earned him comparison with Hitler and Lenin by Tea Party members. On the eve of the 2010 Congressional elections, Obama-nation, the perceived socialist America of President Obama’s creation, looms like an enraging red flag in the eyes of a growing number of Americans.

When you conflate all of this into one person, Jack, the film’s Mr. Butterfly, you see a slow movement in awareness from a darkened present to a hopeful future. It’s the butterfly who is endangered, the great dream and hope of the New World to reach beyond the history of Old World sins to a new light, an Edenic grove. In the film that Edenic grove where an endangered butterfly can find a home is first a place where the new weapon can be tested by both the maker of death and the dealer in death. When Jack returns with Clara (Violante Placido), who is not a romantic ingénue but a prostitute, there is a moment when he is sure to kill her because he believes she will try to kill him. She has a gun in her purse. She is therefore part of a world Jack knows well, the world of kill or be killed, the world of profit in murder. Innocent people and butterflies are “collateral damage.” But the gun is for defense; there is a serial killer targeting prostitutes. She’s defending herself from the world of murder and mayhem, a fallen world never imagined in Genesis. And so we think that her love for Jack will transform her from prostitute into an Eve before the Fall. We think that his love for Clara will transform him from a man who is good at death to a resurrected man. This is not to be. When he returns a third time to the Edenic grove, she is there waiting, but death finds him and the movie ends.

A young lady leaving the theatre remarks to her companion: “I thought there would be more.”

Can it be that there is never enough “more” in the present to satisfy our Millennial, globalised information society? Could it be that the Americans of the New World lead the pack because from the beginning they were destined for the future and not the past? History is very much an issue in the tragedy of both country and its avatar, Jack, for history, whether it be Old World or only as far back as Viet-nam, is unvisited. Unvisited by Jack because the past can only reappear as a nightmare, one indeed he does have of his Swedish paramour he has killed at the very beginning of the movie. But history is also unvisited by the whole country because market rule has only interest in the present. Yesterday’s Dow Jones is meaningless. Yesterday for both The American and The America is painful.

In response to Jack’s admission that he isn’t reading a history of Abruzzi, that he merely takes photographs, Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli) remarks that Americans live only in the present, that history does not matter. Jack has picked a fitting occupation for the photographer takes a picture of the present scene and the present moment, a picture to be sold for profit in the present. Historical review is not an American obsession. If it were, perhaps the mantras of “democracy building” and “deliverers of liberty” would have lost their allure long ago. If some sort of redemption, either national or personal, either all of the U.S. or just this American Jack, is needed to avoid a tragic ending, does this mean that the past, that history must be revisited in order to chart a new and recuperated path in the present? But Obama himself, our national Mr. Butterfly, the man of audacious hope that America can rise above its partisan enmity and renew a spirit of oneness, says “it’s time to turn the page.” It’s time to stop dwelling on what deceit occasioned a preemptive strike that caused the deaths of so many. It’s time to stop dwelling on what Wall St. swindlers should be indicted, or what thievery private contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan have practiced.

On the Jack level, the burden of a murderous past is too overwhelming to be faced. All that he can do is stop doing what he has been doing and run off to a new life with Clara. Shutting down the past and running on to the next page may be the only move that President Obama can make because the national past, in spite of Disneyland’s version of America, is not rescuable. It can’t be redeemed. The audacious hope is to take a new direction in the future and lay the past to rest. Unfortunately, in this new cybertech Information Age, the present has a voracious appetite for the news and today’s headlines, especially in regard to what Obama wishes to turn the page on, will revisit the past to suit the needs of the present.

Because there is such a complicated, polluted, labyrinthine past, both America’s and this American’s, and because none of it can be faced and corrected, this film does what is denied a whole nation: it pares down all troublesome memories, focuses the camera on Jack and occasionally on Clara and Jack, or Father Benedetto and Jack, or Mathide (Thekla Reuten) and Jack, and finds an untormented, easily digestible Hollywood “international underworld/intrigue” plot to house the whole. The Swedes are after Jack, these terrorists in Jack’s life, a life we enter on a sheet of ice in Sweden, thinking this is a George Clooney fun romp or romance –maybe something like an Ocean’s Eleven (Steven Soderbergh, 2001) or Intolerable Cruelty (Joel Coen, 2003)– but very quickly discover he’s not the good guy. But Jack does find romance, even though he’s told not to make friends. He hopes, as does the audience, that by giving up being a bad guy maybe what’s left is a good guy. Tight and taut and well engineered, all the parts fit neatly and lock into place, the film is constructed the way Jack machines his weapons.

You need to take the parts, oil and clean them and fit them: “I’m no good with machines,” Jack tells us. To be good with machines is something to deny in Jack’s mind because nothing good but only death comes out of that accomplishment. It is the métier of techno-capitalism.

The camera focuses briefly on a book with photos of butterflies that Jack is reading, and then it drops to his chest and he falls asleep. When a butterfly lands on Clara, Jack remarks that it is endangered. Perhaps the well-machined world endangers the butterfly, endangers the garden itself. And perhaps it is Jack and the whole weight of his murderous past that is endangered. The dream of an American resurgence, of an America rising once again to its own promise of Exceptionalism, is endangered, as Jack is throughout the entire film, and finally ends in a bloody death, a bloody hand reaching toward Clara in the butterfly bower, and only touching the windshield of his auto, a well-oiled machine.

The butterfly becomes in Jack’s mind somehow the symbol of a natural purity, of Nature itself that has since the beginning done well without machines or information or war or assassins or money. A dream of a garden before the machine. The freedom and beauty of the butterfly are fragile, elusive, transient, much like the redeemed self Jack hopes to find, much like all the elusiveness now of the American Dream.

“I didn’t come here to give you pleasure,” he tells Clara. “I came here to find some pleasure for myself.” This attitude changes and it is this change from self-concern to a love of Clara that causes Jack to tell his contractor, Pavel (Johan Leysen), that this will be the last job he will do. He will turn from murder, from the business and craft of death dealing, and reach for something else, something that he has begun to find in Clara. He will transform himself into the Mr. Butterfly that she calls him. Transformation itself had been the promise of America’s Mr. Butterfly, President Obama. Transformation from the nightmare world Americans had plunged themselves into after 9/11 seems to have been at the heart of what Presidential candidate Barack Obama symbolised for Americans. That promise is unfulfilled in this film and it ends tragically. The promise did not end the bloodshed nor did it relieve the bitter divisiveness of the country. That disharmony intensified mindless of Obama’s inspiring words, and has been fuelled to even greater dissension and bellicosity in response to every word and action taken by this president.

Jack won’t confess to Father Benedetto because he suspects the priest has his own past guilt, which Father Benedetto admits is true. Jack cannot confess the past because he has repressed it, because it overflows any telling. But Jack’s scenes with Father Benedetto reveal more than this. This old, fat priest who enjoys a good French brandy has the look of Old Europe, the look not of an ascetic but a man who has indulged immoderately all the senses in his youth and now in decline seeks a redeemed role. Jack detects the hypocrisy –and perhaps the impossibility – in this and holds back from seeking his own redemption through Father Benedetto. The America Jack personifies is in somewhat of the same position with Old Europe: America was the brave new world where inequality, religious wars, wars of domination, and destructive traditions of inequality and oppression would be overcome and replaced with enviable ideals, with an American Dream every individual could fulfill. Caught within this grounding psychic drama, Americans cannot look to Old Europe to find their way back to a dream of the American Dream.

There is a part that doesn’t seem to fit the machinery of this allegorical reading. If Jack is a personification of America, President Obama is the Mr. Butterfly that Jack finally hopes to be, a man of ideals and promise, a man of audacious hope. Who Jack the death-maker and death-dealer is cannot be the Obama of hope. But he can possibly be a president who spoke of ending a war but only extended it, or, a president who launched by deceit a pre-emptive attack. The Jack we come upon in this film is already loaded with a great deal of censurable history.  He has not earned the name “Mr Butterfly” because none of what the butterfly represents is in his past. We see only nightmare. Obama, on the other hand, is only loaded with hope for the future but is waylaid by a past not his own. A nightmare history endangers this hopeful “Mr. Butterfly.”

This film shows us that there is no recovery from such a history, either by The American or The America. Neither country nor its avatar get a chance “to turn the page” but only, in the end, to die at the wheel.

Dark allegory indeed.

About The Author

Joseph Natoli is the author of numerous books, the more recent of which are This is a Picture, and Not the World: Movies and a Post-9/11 America (Suny Press, 2007), Memory’s Orbit: Film & Culture 1999-2000, (Suny Press, 2003) and Postmodernism: The Key Figures (eds. Hans Bertens & Joseph Natoli, Blackwell, 2002).