By John H. Foote

(***1/2) Streaming on Netflix

Netflix knocks another film right out of the park. Does every film junkie truly understand the kind of year they are having? Last year was remarkable, but this year has taken them to another level. At this writing, the streaming movie studio could account for no less than five of the films nominated for Best Picture. Five!

Suddenly Netflix has become the studio filmmakers want to work with because they are willing to pay astronomical sums for budgets to name directors and then leave them alone to make their movie. With Da Five Bloods, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Mank, The Prom they are looking to dominate this year’s Oscar race. And here is another …

When on his game, both as an actor and director, there is no question that George Clooney is among the very best in the business. An Oscar winning actor for the blistering political thriller Syriana (2005), he is also an Academy Award and Directors Guild of American nominee for Best Director for his exquisite black and white study of early television, Good Night and Good Luck (2005), and deserved greater Oscar attention for his political drama The Ides of March (2011). That he did not win the Oscar for Best Actor for his stunning performance in The Descendants (2011) remains one of the great injustices of Oscar history. Beloved by both men and women, Clooney walks the fine line between being a movie star and a gifted film artist, seeming to model his career on that of Clint Eastwood, minus the franchise of Dirty Harry (1971) perhaps replaced by the Ocean’s Eleven films.

Count me as a huge fan of Clooney, I truly do love most of his work. After The Ides of March, I asked him in an interview who his directorial influence were. Without batting an eye, he answered “Lumet and Pakula”, citing two greats of the seventies. The realism mattered to him, the authenticity was essential to his work, which was never on greater display than in Good Night and Good Luck, a modern-day masterpiece.

George Clooney

His new film is among the year’s best and will be heard from come Oscar time in many categories. By far the largest canvas on which Clooney has painted his narrative, The Midnight Sky is a science fiction masterpiece, with glorious visual effects, a superb and often haunting score, superb cinematography, editing and sound, brilliant direction, and exceptional performances which all could land in the Oscar race. Oddly quiet since The Descendants, the film places Clooney back in the thick of the top of Hollywood with an interesting, endlessly fascinating, beautiful dystopian film that explores the death of the earth yet ends in such radiant hope.

I was asked not long if I thought George Clooney was a great actor?

Yes, I do believe that.

To gain an understanding of why I feel that way go back and watch such films as From Dusk to Dawn (1996), Out of Sight (1998), O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000), Syriana (2005), Good Night and Good Luck (2005), and the extraordinary performance he gave in The Descendants (2011). My answer when asked that question, is how can you not believe he is not a great actor?? His performance in The Midnight Sky is extraordinary, one of the actor’s best and one of the year’s finest, once again displays the gifts of Clooney. Nothing showy, just a rock solid, believable performance that you cannot take your eyes off.

The Midnight Sky was made for Netflix and is the biggest and broadest film of Clooney’s career as a director. Deeply moving yet melancholy and often very heartbreaking, it stands tall as one of the best films he has directed, and among the finest films of this year.

A film of such stunning visual beauty, taking audiences to the vastness of space and the white, icy vistas of the frozen wastelands of the Arctic, Clooney and his cast of gifted actors offer perfect characters, against the startling visual beauty of the film.

Clooney is Augustine, a scientist, terminally ill in a research facility in the Arctic when a global catastrophe hits the earth. When he learns a shuttle is returning to an earth no longer habitable, he attempts to reach them with the satellite at the facility, but it will not reach. They had been searching for habitable planets and their journey is over, but they are oblivious to what has taken place on their home planet. Knowing there is a more powerful tower miles away he decides to make the journey with a mute girl he has discovered was left behind when the facility was evacuated. Complicating the journey, Augustine knows he is dying of cancer, and taking powerful, necessary medications to ward off the intense pain. His struggle is beautifully juxtaposed with that of the dying earth, gentle but powerful symbolism.

Moving back and forth between the story of Augustine and the girl making their journey across the freezing wasteland of the starkly beautiful Arctic, and the spacecraft moving towards earth, blissfully unaware of the situation on their planet, Clooney builds great tension in the narrative. On the shuttle is the pregnant Sully (Felicity Jones), the commander, her partner Tom (David Oyelowo), Sanchez (Damian Bechir), Maya (Tiffany Boone), and Mitchell (Kyle Chandler). Cutting back and forth between the events happening in the Arctic as Augustine races to the tower, hoping to contact the shuttle before they enter the atmosphere of the earth, and back to the inside of the shuttle where the crew warily try to contact earth, stunned there is radio silence.

Inside the Arctic station, Augustine finds a child, a young girl, who is not mute but refuses to speak, perhaps traumatized by the sudden and frightening evacuation. How was she left behind and who does she belong too? He finds himself realizing she must go with him across the frozen wastelands otherwise she is doomed. Portrayed brilliantly by Caoilinn Springall she is a typical little girl, very curious about everything going on, taking in what others suspect she is not. This child misses nothing and is years beyond her age, exactly the companion Augustine needs for his hellish journey.

There is one aspect of the narrative that I did not care for and am not sure is necessary. We move into the past where Augustine is portrayed by Ethan Peck, and for me it felt false, it did not quite work. Was it that Clooney dubbed his lines? Maybe, or was it that I was simply far more interested in Augustine in the Arctic, battling cancer, trying to reach the shuttle before it perishes in the contaminated air of the earth? The film could lose the flashbacks and never miss them.

Felicity Jones

Felicity Jones is superb as always as the Commander of the shuttle, assured, confident but when she realizes something terrible has happened her thoughts automatically turn to her unborn child. A gifted actress, Jones is going to be around for years to come.

Young Springall is excellent in the film, her facial expressions doing her speaking for her, her eyes truly the windows to her soul. Sharing her scenes with a generous actor like Clooney does not hurt either. The camera loves her.

Clooney as Augustine is superb, making this one of his finest performances. Haunted and haunting, he is very aware of impending death and seems to suddenly love life, all life in those last days. He might not live to see life on another world, but others will, and at this moment life, all life, means the world to him. His weary face will not be soon forgotten by this critic, nor will the sacrifice of his actions. The final moments in the film offers Clooney the director to bring the finest out of Clooney the actor, some of the most emotionally naked scenes of his career.

He creates a film that is stunning to look at, perfectly captures the intense beauty and danger of the environment holding the fates of our characters, and never rushes his narrative. Clooney has always been a patient filmmaker, one in love with the story and the presentation of it. Here he takes his time until the final half hour when it becomes a race against time to save lives, and he knows precisely what to do. His only misfire, and it is small faux pas, is the inclusion of the flashback sequences.

The score is outstanding, the cinematography crisp and pristine in both the frozen wasteland of the Arctic and space, and the visual effects are sublime. Obviously Clooney has watched his own directors very carefully, and the influence of Alfonso Cuaron from Gravity (2013) is felt through the space sequences in this film. It is a big, intense, impressive film with both heart and intelligence, and should land in the Oscar race in several categories. Flashback scenes aside, it is a knockout.  It says as much about the state of our environment as it does without humanity and does so humanely, and with honesty.

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