Friday, 24 March 2017

The Ides of March (2011)

George Clooney is a Presidential candidate with feet of clay in this bitter indictment of American politics

Director: George Clooney
Cast: Ryan Gosling (Stephen Meyers), George Clooney (Governor Mike Morris), Evan Rachel Wood (Molly Stearns), Philip Seymour Hoffman (Paul Zara), Paul Giamatti (Tom Duffy), Marisa Tomei (Ida Horowicz), Jeffrey Wright (Senator Franklin Thompson), Jennifer Ehle (Cindy Morris), Gregory Itzin (Jack Stearns), Max Minghella (Ben Harpen)

Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is an ambitious young political advisor on the presidential campaign of Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney). However, scandal bubbles under the surface of the campaign and Meyers finds himself a pawn in the power struggles between his boss Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the rival campaign manager Tom (Paul GIamatti), as well as increasingly drawn to a young intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) with a secret.

Like some of the work of the current crop of actor-directors (Clooney and Affleck being the prime examples) this feels like a thematic remake of classic (better) films from the 1970s, in this case Robert Redford’s classic The Candidate. Like that film, this one explores a politician whose dynamism, photogenic appeal and liberalism hide feet of clay. The film takes a supremely cynical view of modern politics, presenting a world where even idealists will (when push comes to shove) do anything to assure their position because they believe that only they can deliver the change the country needs. As Rich Hall said in the build-up to the most recent election, it takes a special kind of ego to say “I’ve looked at this countries problems and what you need to solve them is me”.

To get this idea across a bit more, it probably would have helped to get more sense of what Morris (and his rival Pullman) stands for. The film tries to get round this with the shorthand of casting Clooney as Morris: we all know Gorgeous George is a Good Thing (although I’d also add that Clooney’s smoothly groomed, almost too-perfect good looks give him plausibility as a character drenched in hypocrisy behind his charismatic smirk). Instead we have to take it for granted, from his appearance and few phrases about green politics and job creation, that Morris is a Kennedy-like force for change. The film rather weights the decks by presenting no-one in this political game as being truly idealistic or in it for any other reason than personal gain or the thrill of the game – even Morris, a force for the film argues good, is shown to be totally hypocritical and devoid of personal empathy, believing that any means are justified by the end.

Gosling’s Stephen Meyers is the heart of the film, and it’s his growing corruption the film charts. Meyers starts as a slightly uneasy mix of professional politician, cynical about the media and the public, and idealist eager to change the country for the better. Gosling’s performance is the embodiment of the struggle between these good and bad angels, and Gosling has the right balance of naivety and ruthless careerism in his looks to capture this. Having seen this film once before, I actually found it more rewarding this time: Meyers is a cynic who wants to be an idealist.

Slightly less clear, however, is Evan Rachel Wood’s role as an intern. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say her role is largely a tragic one – but the film never quite shapes her as a real person. She’s a model of the intelligent, sexy young woman, more of a collection of beats than a real person (however winningly Wood plays her). Her eventual tragedy is something that happens rather than something that feels like it happens to her – and the story is about the effect this has on the male characters around her rather than what it might have meant for her. She’s a well designed plot device rather than a person.

The film does have an interesting stance on politics – even if it already feels outdated in our new Trumpian, post-truth days. Hoffman and Giamatti do good work as contrasting political fixers at opposite ends of the idealist and cynic spectrum. The vision of politics has something designed to support news cycles rather than to serve the people feels like it has more than some truth behind it. It’s not a masterpiece by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s well made and has some brains behind it. And it does actually grow better on a second viewing.

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