ARTS

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October 10, 2011

Clooney's campaign isn't personal; it's just politics


Courtesy of Saeed Adyani

George Clooney’s latest political drama, The Ides of March, is clearly meant to evoke the political intrigue and betrayal at the heart of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, the play from whence the film gets its name. All of the necessary elements for such tragic drama appear to be here: a rising political superstar, his ruthless campaign staff, an extorting and game-playing media, and a third party vying for political favors.

Anyone who has spent any time in the United States during recent election cycles or is dreading the one that is currently ramping up will feel right at home with these archetypes, and Clooney, to his credit, portrays them well with his ensemble cast. For all that the film has going for it, however, it seems ultimately to fall flat, never moving beyond pure entertainment despite its clear aspirations to be something greater.

The film takes place during the week leading up to an Ohio primary that will likely decide the Democratic presidential candidate and, by extension, the winner of the general election. We follow Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), a rising star in the campaign management world, who plays junior campaign manager to Pennsylvania governor Mike Morris (George Clooney). Stephen comes across as somewhat idealistic, at least in comparison to his crass boss Paul Zara (Philip Seymour-Hoffman), although it’s perfectly clear that both are confident in their candidate and will do everything it takes to win.

Constant discussions of poll results and promised delegates lends the work a certain degree of authenticity. However, when Stephen gets summoned to a shady bar to take a meeting with a rival campaign manager, a web of intricate leaks to the media, backdoor dealings with politicians, and your typical “trouble with the interns” storyline ensues.

This is not to say that the film’s screenplay, adapted from the play Farragut North, overreaches and unnecessarily complicates itself. On the contrary, Clooney deftly handles the narrative he establishes and treats the film much like his characters treat the campaign. In a world of meticulously crafted smiles and half-truths, Clooney only shows us what he wants, actively engages in deception, and casts doubt whenever he finds it convenient.

The opening scene sees Stephen walk before a microphone and proceed to give a statement that would normally pin him as a fast-talking candidate, but then he starts joking, the lights come up, and we see he’s testing the podium for his employer. We initially find Governor Morris to be an impeccable specimen of a family man and politician. A few scenes draw attention to the role his wife plays in his pursuits, and his ability to drop buzz words at a moment’s notice, which, more than once, conjures up the image of a campaigning President Obama. However, a few shadowy scenes later, we are not so sure what to make of the man.

Everything appears to be going swimmingly until more cameras than normal circle our protagonist, the editing becomes more frantic, and the music takes on an increasingly suspicious tone—all typical movie tropes for rousing tension.

However, despite the power these suspicions might wield, in the end, none of them seem to carry any weight. The political wheeling and dealing that Clooney depicts seems commonplace in a country where the big news in politics over the summer was a gridlocked Congress. When we know a betrayal and questioning of loyalties is coming, the characters seem non-threatening rather than conflicted and Brutus-like. We’re constantly told that this primary is important, that people’s livelihoods are at stake, but it never feels that way. Despite Stephen’s proclaimed beliefs about political causes, in particular that only Governor Morris can finally change things, the action depicted feels like one more trivial episode in a drawn out spectacle.

Perhaps Clooney’s point is that election cycles have become too melodramatic—too much fuss for what they are. Or maybe he really laments their ethics and the corrupt turn they take, and wishes to explore the players and situations inherent to the cycle. But the movie doesn’t really live up to any of these goals. It’s well acted, written, and shot, but it never becomes the force it could be. A lot can happen over one week in a campaign (as we have all seen), but if this is the lowest someone falls on the ides of March, they should consider themselves lucky.

This is not to say that the film’s screenplay, adapted from the play Farragut North, overreaches and unnecessarily complicates itself. On the contrary, Clooney deftly handles the narrative he establishes and treats the film much like his characters treat the campaign. In a world of meticulously crafted smiles and half-truths, Clooney only shows us what he wants, actively engages in deception, and casts doubt whenever he finds it convenient.

The opening scene sees Stephen walk before a microphone and proceed to give a statement that would normally pin him as a fast-talking candidate, but then he starts joking, the lights come up, and we see he’s testing the podium for his employer. We initially find Governor Morris to be an impeccable specimen of a family man and politician. A few scenes draw attention to the role his wife plays in his pursuits, and his ability to drop buzz words at a moment’s notice, which, more than once, conjures up the image of a campaigning President Obama. However, a few shadowy scenes later, we are not so sure what to make of the man.

Everything appears to be going swimmingly until more cameras than normal circle our protagonist, the editing becomes more frantic, and the music takes on an increasingly suspicious tone—all typical movie tropes for rousing tension.

However, despite the power these suspicions might wield, in the end, none of them seem to carry any weight. The political wheeling and dealing that Clooney depicts seems commonplace in a country where the big news in politics over the summer was a gridlocked Congress. When we know a betrayal and questioning of loyalties is coming, the characters seem non-threatening rather than conflicted Brutus-like. We’re constantly told that this primary is important, that people’s livelihoods are at stake, but it never feels that way. Instead it feels like just one more trivial episode in a drawn out spectacle, and that, despite Stephen’s proclaimed belief in political causes, only Governor Morris can finally change things.

Perhaps Clooney’s point is that election cycles have become too melodramatic—too much fuss for what they are. Or maybe he really laments their ethics and the corrupt turn they take, and wishes to explore the players and situations inherent to the cycle. But the movie doesn’t really live up to any of these goals. It’s well acted, written, and shot, but it never becomes the force it could be. A lot can happen over one week in a campaign (as we have all seen), but if this is the lowest people get on the ides of March, they should consider themselves lucky.

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