Back in the late 1930′s, when our great-grand-parents were coming of age and discovering sex and politics (most assuredly in that order but I have no way to verify) populist film director Frank Capra brought forth the great grandfather of all political films. The title was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). It starred Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur, and what was billed, at the time, as the greatest cast of supporting actors ever. The film garnered 11 Oscar Nominations but won only one Oscar.
A film adapted from a popular novel by Margaret Mitchell, called Gone With the Wind, walked off with most of the gold that year including Best Picture.
However Mr. Smith was a brilliant film – Jimmy Stewart played Jefferson Smith who was appointed as a compromise by the governor of an unnamed western state to replace a Senator who had just passed on. Smith was appointed because the sitting governor couldn’t abide the political boss’s handpicked stooge and he had to worry about his own re-election so he couldn’t name a popular reformer because that would piss off his bosses. So, the middle of the road type, read as unknown, Jefferson Smith is appointed to the Senate vacancy because he was naive, inexperienced, an idealist, and yet could be (they assumed) easily manipulated.
Mr. Smith turned out to be a film that stood Washington on its head. While it is an inspirational and feel good story of the highest caliber, the Washington Press Corps and the US Congress reviled the film because of its portrayal of the corruption and venality in those hallowed halls of the American Government. The Senators and Congressmen didn’t much care for the fact that they came off looking like a bunch of crooks at worst, or a bunch of hogs at the trough at best.
So with a film like that one, symbolizing one of the major roots of political drama in cinema, we can look back and take note of some of the off-springs of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, beginning with Robert Redford in The Candidate (1972), Redford and Dustin Hoffman in All The President’s Men (1976), Joan Allen in The Contender (2000), and of course, The American President (1995) which was directed by Rob Reiner and starred Michael Douglas and Annette Bening. These films made statements about the life and times of American politics and its natural bedfellow – the press.
I mention all of this as background to give you an idea of how excited I was when I heard of George Clooney‘s film - The Ides of March. Dutifully, I attended the 11:00 AM, first show of the day, on opening day, today, October 7th. Basically, the film centers around 4 men, with two women showing up in smaller but key roles.
Clooney plays Mike Morris, the Governor of Pennsylvania, and Presidential hopeful. He’s got it all – looks, charm, charisma, and he says all the right things like; “Within 10 years America will no longer run on combustion engines, there won’t be a need to invade anywhere, and places like Iraq and Saudi Arabia won’t matter“. He says, “My religion is a sheet of paper called the United States Constitution, and if that’s not enough religion for you, then don’t vote for me.”
He’s assembled a crack staff to run this campaign to win the Democratic Presidential nomination. The story takes place in and around the Ohio primary election. As has been said many times before, As Ohio goes, so goes the nation, so you don’t need me to tell that this is a key state.
His campaign manager is the brilliant Paul Zara portrayed by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Paul’s forte is winning the election for his candidate. This means he knows how to make a deal behind closed doors, and he knows who to make a deal with. He’s a whiz at reading the figures, the polls, crunching all of the numbers to be able to read the political winds. What he values above all else is loyalty.
The number two man is the 30-something Stephen Myers played by Ryan Gosling. His forte is beating the drum, and creating the words that win the hearts and minds of the voting public. He’s a wordsmith rather than a strategist, but he knows how to run the campaign office. His strengths are his intelligence and his diligence as well as his fire: “I’ll do or say anything if I believe in it, but I have to believe in the cause“.
The opponent has a strong tactical man at the helm of his campaign. That would be Paul Giamatti as Tom Duffy. He smarter than anyone else in the film, and he outplays and out maneuvers every one. Even when he doesn’t get what he wants, he usually can still end up in a win-win scenario. I thought Giamatti’s performance was just superb, and I’m already to label him the winner of the Oscar in the Supporting Actor category.
Evan Rachel Wood plays Molly Stearns. She’s a beauty, and she’s cast as the hot 20 year old intern. She can best be described as a heat seeking missile, and I don’t mean that as a double entendre. She chases power without even realizing how potent she is. But then again she’s only 20 in this role. Or maybe I misread her and she does have a handle on how to get ahead.
Marisa Tomei plays Ida Horowicz – a fictional New York Times political columnist. She’s pretty savvy about playing the press/politics game. She’s doesn’t get into bed with anyone but that doesn’t mean she’s on the outside looking in. Of course that game is an old one, one hand washes the other. We all know how that works, and the result is that Marisa/Ida doesn’t get a lot of on screen time, but really, her role didn’t need any expansion.
There’s your set-up. Clooney not only acts, but he also directed the film, and he gets a co-screenwriting credit with Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, whose theatrical play, Farragut North, was the source for this movie. What they have created and delivered is another political drama that will soon be considered worthy of sharing space on the pantheon of acclaimed political dramas.
While they haven’t spent a ton of money on this production – aside from the actors’ salaries, you won’t miss those standard DC exteriors. The White House, the Washington and Lincoln Memorials, and the US Capitol Building don’t appear at all. This film was shot in Ann Arbor, Michigan with exteriors of Cincinnati, Ohio. So it comes down to the plot and the script.
While this one is isn’t quite as a good as some of Aaron Sorkin’s best – I mean it doesn’t have the pacing and the crackling good word play. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t get kudos. In fact – I was hooked immediately. In the opening moments when we hear Gosling’s Myers reciting the lines that he’s written for Clooney’s Morris to be delivered at the speech later that night to the end when we hear Clooney’s Morris telling us that ‘… integrity matters …’ – you know you’ve just watched a remarkable film.
What Clooney and company have shown us is that politics is a dirty game (not that we didn’t already know this), that there are no rules, and that the press and politicians use each other far more than you might think. As someone who developed an interest in politics from reading R.W.Apple in the New York Times on the one hand, and Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, on the other – I became less interested in seeing the men in politics as idealists, or heroes, and media icons. Instead I grew to appreciate politicians as tight-rope walkers, or modern day versions of Icarus who got caught up in his own hubris, then ignored the warnings, and flew too close to the sun and burned and perished. In fact, the bringing down of politicians made for far better reading and seemed more exciting than getting them elected.
Clooney has not painted politicians as crooks or pigs at the trough as Capra did 70 years ago. No, in this film, Clooney is telling us that there are no good guys at all. None. We are not corrupted by the characters in the film. We are not placed on any kind of idealistic search for any kind of a political holy grail. When the back room deals are made, and the votes are tallied, we find that the results were not so much of an election as opposed to a foregone conclusion. When all the votes are in, someone has won the election, and someone has lost the election, and we can then understand what Clooney’s message is – that there are no winners – instead there are only players who have outmaneuvered the opposition. Or said another way – it doesn’t matter who wins – because the game was so dirty to begin with, that it only reflects the dark side of political desire and ambition and it also reflects our own-selves. Maybe we are the ones still out by the trough, shoulder to shoulder, knee deep in the mud, struggling to keep our own beaks and snouts wet.