Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Ides of March

"'The Situation' in The Situation Room"
"A Little Problem with the DnC"

The bobble-head version of George Clooney is back in The Ides of March, the new film directed by...George Clooney.  You remember the bobble-head Clooney, don't you?  It was the loosey-goosey version of the actor that was popular during his "ER" days, a combination of looseness and arrogance, and it made up his persona in his early film career, before the time he decided that he'd get serious about his career after the debacle of Batman & Robin.

Well, that wobble of the head returns in Ides, adapted from the play by Beau Willimon (by Willimon, Clooney and Grant Heslov) called "Farragut North."  I've always seen that wobble as an indication that whichever character he played with it had a lack of moral rectitude, an imperfection of the spine or sensibility that disconnected the head from the rest of the persona—a flaw that lent unpredictability to what actions they'd take, a toss of the head like a toss of the coin.  And it is one of the ways that Clooney telegraphs what his Governor Mike Morris, candidate for President on the democratic ticket, might be capable of.  It keeps you guessing, whatever the words from his mouth might indicate, about the actions this man might take in his run for power.

It is tough to express surprise at the roads political films—or films about politics—might take these days.  It's all about disenchantment with the process and how power—or even the quest for it—corrupts.  It's an old saw that goes back long before Shakespeare and back to The Greeks.  And very few films—or plays—about the Court of Kings, fact or fictional,  can look clear-eyed at the process, thinking that ideals might remain intact.  Even Mr. Smith Goes to Washington deals with the innate corruption of government and pleads for a clinging to of ideals from our public servants...or even an acknowledgment that they are servants, rather than our Masters.  What was nice about things like "The West Wing" was that, despite the maneuverings, manipulations and moral morasses that went with the job, public service was declared an altruistic aspiration, a noble thing, however down and dirty things got to accomplish anything.  Most, though, like The Candidate or All the Kings Men (any version) have it as a "given" that compromise of purpose, process and principles are par for the course, that it is next to impossible to determine the true measure of a political man.  The only variable is how corrupt that man (it's usually a man, and white) can be.  Post-Watergate and The Lewinsky Affair, even a film like Absolute Power assumes, without doubt, that The President of the United States is capable of the most craven of murders.  The Ides of March doesn't swerve from that cynicism.

The film begins with Morris' Head of Communications, Stephen Myers (the ubiquitous Ryan Gosling—if his Drive performance is a "1" and Crazy, Stupid Love is a "10," in dramatics, this is is an average "5") approaching a microphone, coming slowly into focus, a process that is completed when he is at the podium—the shot will be mirrored later in the show.  He begins to slap-dashedly spew homilies about his religion, and then the speech deteriorates into babble.  Not that it is important, he is merely a stand-in, checking a microphone for his candidate at a technical rehearsal for a televised debate.  It would pass without much notice, except at the real debate, Morris uses the same lines words for words defending his lack of religion when challenged on the point.  It is clear, at that point, that Myers is Morris' surrogate, putting words in his mouth, articulating the governor's message, packaging the man to appeal to the lowest common denominator and the highest number of registered voters.  

The campaign manager is Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a jaded veteran of the political trenches, spinning, manipulating and point-man for acquiring the parties' nomination a few months down the road.  Zara is the Big Picture Packager, Myers is Dr. DetailsOn the other side is campaign manager Tom Duffy, who is played by Paul Giamatti—and let me just say what a pleasure it is to see Hoffman and Giamatti, two of the best character-spinners in movies today going up against each other.  It is a match made in Political Purgatory.

Before too much gets underway, Clooney introduces another character in a shot that tracks her movements, flouncing, buffed, polished and toned, towards campaign HQ: this is Molly Stearns, intern (Evan Rachel Wood) and just the way Clooney introduces her puts you on alert that she is important to the drama, far more than her job of bringing coffee would indicate. Wood is a fine actress, and as with Down in the Valley, she's able to convey twin faces of innocence and corruption, the theme of the film at which she is the fulcrum. Already one sees where things are going, but one wonders if Clooney has the directing chops to make it fresh.

He does...kinda.  There are nice little touches of how the film seems to bifurcate into twin halves reflecting each other,* the actors make the dialog snap and there's just enough "play" in the film to keep you guessing about what is "real" or political theater. And there's one scene that's shot very simply—a tension-inducing pull-in to a black van that makes you suspect the worse (which, for some it might be) that is rather nifty.

Ultimately, though, as well as the film is presented and played, it is not telling us anything we don't already know...or fear...that hasn't been said for the last 60 years, when, post-Eisenhower and the star-struck Kennedy years, we ditched the notion that politicians are concerned with the People, rather than their prestige and perks.  The Ides of March has no spine of its own to speak of and brings us nothing new, offering no solution (not even providing dramatic satisfaction)...but merely more of the same, just like every election season.

The Ides of March is a Rental.

* Clooney did a good interview with Charlie Rose about the film—Rose has a cameo for verisimilitude, as do a few other familiar talking heads—in which he said "The first half of the film is for democrats and the second half is for republicans." Exactly right.


Candice Frederick said...

yeah that the general consensus: good performance in an uncompelling script.

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

After I saw this and did my review, and went out to read others and I get where the general response of it not being anything "fresh" comes from, but really I can't indict it for that. The script is so deftly handled, and the performances are so sound. I'm quite surprised at how much I liked it, but I did a great deal.

The thing about your review, though, is that I get all that you're saying. And one thing I agree on is Clooney's direction has moments of goodness, but it's sometimes inconsistent.