Friday, October 7, 2011

All the Maybe-President’s Men: A Trek on the Campaign Trail

“I’m all goosbumpy about this guy,” admits Ryan Gosling as Stephen Myers, an idealistic press secretary working for an inspirational candidate.

“He will let you down sooner or later,” predicts Ida Horowicz, a crafty New York Times reporter played by Marisa Tomei. This comment is reminiscent of what Shakespeare had a soothsayer tell Julius Caesar about the danger inherent in a certain date. The Ides of March, a new film that borrows its title from the mystical line written by the Bard in 1599, suggests that we should beware politicians of every stripe and their minions.

George Clooney
In this case, Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) is a populist progressive running for the Democratic nomination at the start of a U.S. presidential campaign. With Philip Seymour Hoffman as his seasoned campaign manager Paul Zara, the barnstorming effort appears to function like a well-oiled machine. Enter a beautiful, lusty intern named Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) and the machine begins to rust.

Just ask Caesar if the greatest peril might reside within one’s own circle. It’s certainly true for Morris when Stephen makes two bad decisions – one involving Molly and the other Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), a dirty trickster who works for another Democrat hoping to inhabit the Oval Office. They’re all gathered in Ohio, where an important primary race is about to take place and an influential senator (Jeffrey Wright) is angling to be the puppet master.

Clooney also directed Ides, which he co-wrote with his producing partner Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon. The script is adapted from the latter’s 2008 play Farragut North in which the candidate was never on stage. In the movie, Morris shares the spotlight with his top aides. Consequently, behind-the-scenes shenanigans threaten the highest levels of the campaign. This may be a cinematic necessity, but at the expense of an audience’s emotional connection to the intimacy created in a theater. The plot becomes more conventional.

Ryan Gosling
Adamantly pro-choice, anti-death penalty and against invading or bombing other nations, Morris proclaims that “the richest people in this country don’t pay their fair share.” (Timely, given the recent White House stance and the thousands of people in New York City’s current “Occupy Wall Street” protests.) He fends off an opponent’s snarky remark about faith with: “My religion is the U.S. Constitution.” Given that the play’s unseen character is now front and center, his stump speeches ought to genuinely wow voters but the rhetoric comes across as more rote than eloquent. He replaces roll-up-your-sleeves fiery with suit-and-tie stiff.

Farragut North was based to some degree on Willimon’s experience as a “press advance man” on the 2004 bid for the presidency of former Vermont governor Howard Dean. He could really whip up enthusiasm before whipping up a whoop in Iowa that spelled his downfall. Ides fails to show what it is about Morris that might similarly capture hearts and minds. Despite Clooney’s abundant charm, the charisma factor is mostly missing. As Al Gore discovered, enlightened policies must be propelled by an exciting persona in the fickle public marketplace of ideas.

Evan Rachel Wood & Ryan Gosling
In the play, the intern is a pretty but not va-va-voom girl. In the portrayal offered by Wood, an actress who always seems mature beyond her years, Molly has become a slightly raunchy femme fatale. This radically alters the dynamic when she seduces a willing Stephen. Consequently, her plight doesn’t generate the sympathy it no doubt did on paper when there’s a sudden switch to victim-hood. Without that sense of compassion, a viewer may have trouble going along fully with his significant arc of change.

The metamorphosis from compelling drama to slick thriller probably means greater box office appeal, as does a uniformly talented cast with Gosling – whose moment has clearly arrived – as the big name next to superstar Clooney. Hoffman and Giamatti tend to steal the show, however. When these two briefly inhabit the same scene, we witness movie magic.

Philip Seymour Hoffman & Gosling
While The Ides of March is ultimately cynical about the electoral process itself, Hoffman’s Paul represents our conscience. He’s a battle-hardened veteran of political conflict who still values loyalty above all else. Decency shall not go unpunished, of course. For those willing to lie and cheat, victory is decidedly bittersweet. “I have to believe in the cause,” Stephen says at one point, not yet aware that the cause is his own survival at any cost in a ruthless game to rule America.

To reference Julius Caesar again: “The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.”

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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