Monday, 7 November 2011


Sometimes it seems as if George Clooney wants to single-handedly re-interpret America's last great Golden Age in terms of the paranoid politics of today, as if to make the world safe for an heroic sort of Kennedy liberalism. Although he reached back to the Fifties to recast TV newsman Edward R Murrow as the forefront of the campaign against McCarthy-ism in Good Night And Good Luck, it's more instructive to see the CIA reduced to a Chuck Barris gong show, or Fail Safe's Col. Jack Grady given a conscience but still carrying a full payload of paranoia strong enough to conclude both the President and his own son are Soviet dupes.

His latest film, Ides of March, which received its world premiere at the London Film Festival is really a reimagining of The Candidate, which highlight the differences between Clooney the director/star and the approaches of both Michael Ritchie, a sharp social critic, as the Candidate's director and Robert Redford as its star. Ides transfers the focus from the candidate, Governor Mike Morris, played by Clooney, to his number two campaign chief, played by Ryan Gosling. In a neat transfer from The Candidate, here it is the political pro who is the idealist, who believes in the candidate, and the candidate himself is, at best, already a seasoned pol. But just as crucially, we can imagine Ides Of March's storyline beginning exactly at the point The Candidate ends, with Redford as Bill McKay, exchanging glances with the young campaign worker slipping into a hotel room. That moment symbolised McKay's corruption in the way American political films—and I extend this to documentary as well as fiction-- see their politics: in personal terms.

The difference between the two films is primarily that Clooney starts from an assumption that we all know our institutions are corrupt; he is building on the revelations which spawned films like The Candidate. That the professionals are running the show, that ideals are sacrificed on the altar of vote-getting expediency, a revelation in The Candidate, here is taken for granted. The play on which the film is based was called Farragut North, after a Washington DC street off K Street where lobbyists and consultants make their lairs. Therefore the crucial change of focus is from the candidate himself as idealist to the campaign manager as idealist—the somewhat contradictory idea that Ryan Gosling's Stephen Meyers is a ruthless professional who could be in this sleazy business for idealistic reasons. That he is out-smarted by Morris' opponent's campaign chief, Tom Duffy, played by Paul Giamatti reprising Allen Garfield/Goorwitz's brilliant performance from The Candidate, is not a surprise; that the weakness on which Giamatti preys is Meyers' boss Paul Zara's (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) sense of loyalty—Hoffman in a sense is playing the Peter Boyle character from The Candidate, but he is playing it as PSH in standard mode. Although the term 'anorak' doesn't really exist in America, he wears one, and plays it as one; the most predictable scene in the film is the one where he gets the push from Morris. It's a shot of the car in which the dagger is being used, and when Hoffman gets out, and the car drives away, you can predict the slump of the body within the anorak.

Because this is America, the crucial betrayals are not political but personal—and it's hard to figure out whether Meyers is more incensed because Morris is shown to have sexual feet of clay, or because Molly, the campaign intern he's sleeping with (Evan Rachel Hunter) has 'cheated' on him. Intern sex reflects the post-Clintonian reality of political morality, which is specifically referenced twice: first when we learn the Republicans are more ruthless, better organised than the democrats-better at the process of politics, the perennial lament of the headed-for-extinction liberal. And second when we learn that the one unforgivable political mistake is 'fucking an intern'--all else, including starting wars, pales into insignificance.

That Meyers first lets Molly down and then appears to threaten her with exposure causes her suicide, and puts him in the position to be able to blackmail Morris indicates the key thrust of the film. Although Clooney the actor handles Morris' 'reveal' brilliantly. It's always fascinating to me how powerful Clooney can be playing against type. He's our Clark Gable, but he has darker depths. And like Gable, he's not very good at comedy, though unlike Gable he keeps trying. Clooney the director isn't so subtle about the reveal: both Morris and Gosling's Steven are cast in half-shadow, to emphasize the duality of their positions, the choices they make. It's shot wonderfully by Phedon Papamichael, who alternates the styles of campaign documentary and neo-noir with aplomb. The film reveals its origins as a play – it is opened up but everything of importance takes place in small encounters, and the mobile phone plays an important role in delivering outside news. But the real point of the film is never politics, but love.

This is born out by Marisa Tomei's turn as Ida Horowitz, the obnoxious (and Jewish—pointedly so) reporter for the New York Times, who keeps telling people she loves them and reminding them that love means nothing. In that sense, we see Giamatti's seduction of Gosling as more telling than Molly's seduction of him, and we realise that Molly's weakness may well be believing in love more than politics. It is interesting that the scene in which Gosling rings least true in his role comes in the bedroom, where he's revealed to be far more buff male beefcake than you'd expect from a campaign manager—more American Psycho than American Politico. But again, that may be the point. And the reversion of Molly to helpless girl, female victim of morality (her family is Catholic) may well be more a comment on the false morality of American politics than an attempt to send the women's movement back to the Sixties.

There are a few practical problems. That Molly is the daughter of the Democratic Party's chairman means that Mike Morris would know her as well as Paul Zara says he does, and Stephen would likely be at least aware of who she was. Would Morris thus choose her to sleep with? After her death would no one do an autopsy that would reveal her recent abortion, and then check local clinics? Did no one ask Stephen why he happened to go to her room where she was found dead? Did no one try to trace her phone? But those are the kinds of question you'd ask in a crime film, not a political drama.

The revelation that politics are corrupt, or hypocritical, is hardly earth-shaking. It's easy to see Ides Of March as longing for some more innocent reality, but such innocence may never have really existed, we George Clooneys just believed it did because the media (and movies like The Candidate) hadn't revealed all to us. This film is earnest in its liberal way, well-played and well-made, but it really reveals very little.

Ides Of March directed by George Clooney
screenplay by Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon,
based on Willimon's play, is on general release


Anonymous said...

Since we've had years of 24/7 news... what could this movie have shown that you would consider "revealing" or new about politics? Some armchair critics say "nothing new, we already know politics is corrupt"... so does that mean no more movies about politics? The theme of Ides was how one can choose to sell their soul... the environment was unimportant. I like that the movie started with a close up of Stephen, and ended with a close up of Stephen... in a week's time, they show two different guys completely

Robin Ramsay said...

Spot on, Mike. I was seeing The Candidate all the way through it. It also felt like a film version of Clooney's explanation of why he won't run for president: too many girls and too many drugs. Still, better Clooney's memories of Camelot than Camelot 3D, eh?

Michael Carlson said...

@anon.: and 2/3 of the way thru they show him half in shadow and half in darkness. I wasnt asking for something new about politics, but the environment in which you choose to sell your soul very much is important--and in this case revealing about little except his (and everyone's) definition of love. I wasnt saying it's bad, just that it wasnt earth-shattering, and I guess I should have said that I never believed in Stephen's beliefs anyway...but even The Contender was more 'revealing' about people and the process..