“CHANGE YOU CAN BELIEVE IN” IS ALWAYS A GLASS MOSTLY EMPTY: ON “THE IDES OF MARCH”
Note: the following piece contains spoilers.
One time in my fleeting youth, I encountered George Clooney in the Warner Brothers screening room on 53rd Street after a National Board of Review screening of Steven Soderbergh’s The Good German. This is before I had, despite my ongoing poverty and lack of renown, spent ample time around movie stars and the merely sort-of famous at sundry locations, both foreign and domestic, becoming relatively at ease in their strange company. I still often felt not unlike the protagonist of Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, as he follows William Holden through a blustery New Orleans afternoon, sensing some protean, dynamic aura from a man he had only seen as light reflected off of (or emanating from) the movie screen. I nervously approached Clooney, as he began to exit the screening room’s staging area after enduring a surely exhausting series of boredom-inducing exchanges with the tired old rich ladies that lunch who make up the NBR’s rank and file. “Cincinnati boy who’s done the town proud,” I said. He stopped and smiled at me. “True enough. I spent most of my time in Northern Kentucky though… Are you from Cincinnati?” he asked, before we briefly talked about high schools (He wished he had played football for Moeller), neighborhoods (“Barry Larkin is from Silverton, right?” he tried to remember) and favorite chili parlors (Ft. Thomas, Kentucky Skyline, he said), his handlers waiting awkwardly on either side to usher him out the door. He parted with a handshake and quickly disappeared into the gray Manhattan day, the whole exchange lasting perhaps two minutes and feeling like an hour.
I can’t help but recall that moment after catching Clooney’s The Ides of March at the 7th annual Zurich Film Festival. A film about the political and moral machinations behind Ohio’s Democratic Presidential Primary in some unnamed year after the beginning of the Iraq War (but with no mention of the financial crisis), when clearly a black man being a potential Vice President let alone #1 isn’t such a big deal, The Ides of March is at once deeply unsatisfying, borderline infuriating and a rousing good time at the movies. Clooney’s fourth directorial effort is an oddly (and, for me, enjoyably) parochial movie and if taken to its logical thematic conclusion, deeply disturbing. Its structural absences are far too big and important to forgive for someone as smart and committed as Clooney seems to be, regardless of the posturing of critics who assume the intricacies of politics are too boring or complicated for popular cinema to delve into with specificity and nuance. Clooney’s picture is nonetheless more beguiling and troubling a picture than I could have ever anticipated, a movie that seems to want to go hunting for the big fish, a la Network or Bulworth, but decides to play it safe in the end, regardless of the loss of supposed innocence on display in Ryan Gosling’s final fourth-wall breaking gaze on the Muskies home floor. My suspicion is that Clooney intended it to be a thoroughly watchable, yet ultimately conventional political downer for committed liberals everywhere to some degree, but he has succeeded in ways he isn’t even fully aware of and failed in others that are perhaps much more significant than we can currently know.
Most movies can’t stir even the most basic desire to find out what happens next — what David Mamet would say is the whole point of drama. Clooney’s political “thriller” does stir said desire with aplomb. His thoroughly reworked adaptation of former Howard Dean staffer Beau Willomon’s hit play is imminently watchable and highly involving, never boring or hard to understand and incredibly well acted. It features three Oscar winners, four nominees and one guy who should have been a long time ago, each working near the top of their abilities. Yet Clooney and his collaborators either failed to grasp or chose to ignore how money (and its inevitably quid pro quo inspired sources) affects our political dog-and-pony show in this tale of how a decidedly but not too liberal, ex-military, intern-banging, handsome and charismatic as all hell Democratic Presidential candidate with few cherished ideals beyond his agnosticism (which would of course be a non-starter in Southwestern Ohio) and anti-war stance foils the good intentions and political ideals of a talented, young true believer, who from moment one is clearly on his way to becoming a soulless spinster with the rest of the K Street crowd. After all, Marisa Tomei’s shifty Times political beat reporter tells him as much in the first reel.
Contemporary American politics is a cesspool of half truths and convenient lies of omission; the movie gets that, but decides not to investigate the causes (namely the cost of winning office, the entrenched interests of various elites, the fear of communicating to the public just how fucked up things are in terms they will understand and act upon). Instead it simply sifts around in the symptoms offering some moral reprobation for those that don’t acknowledge how little the truth matters while still acknowledging that bullshit reigns.
Still, there is a lot to admire, even if the movie isn’t likely to stir you to go protest Wall Street (as so many brave young New Yorkers are doing right now), or call your congressman’s staff and ask who its bosses’ campaign is financed by and what they want in return (which is of course, what I wanted it to do to me). Perhaps it’s simply milieu that made The Ides of March hook its claws in me and not let go so easily; surely no one else could have made it but someone who understood the place it’s set. Had he not chosen to set this corruption-filled race to America’s top office across the Ohio River from his hometown and within my very own, amidst the very heart of the Congressional GOP’s leadership and on some of the same streets I not so long ago spent time rallying ne’er-do-wells and nincompoops to go to the polls to vote for Barack Obama, true believer I was, perhaps Clooney’s film wouldn’t have stirred me so. Certainly the first critics filing on the picture out of Venice and Toronto seem to have adopted a posture of polite, not terribly impressed applause about the whole affair, but they probably miss a boatload of regional life within the thing that gives it some of its grit. This is a movie filled to the brim with local color and authenticity, from his near fetishization of local and regional news stations (one of which his father was an long time anchor for) and University affiliations within the text (Xavier, Kent State, Miami of OH, OSU and UC are all name checked and some filmed upon; “Are you a Bearcat?”, “No I’m a Buckeye” becomes a line that, on its second usage with the retort, late in the film, reinforces the eternal cycle of sexually exploitative political machination and gender hierarchies, after simply being a flirtatious throwaway early on) to the great, ominous sense of emptiness and emotional dislocation he gets from staging various scenes against the backdrop of the gorgeous if lonely Roebling Suspension Bridge (the Brooklyn Bridge’s older cousin) and Paul Brown Stadium, the publicly subsidized home of the NFL’s most hapless team. If this was the Boston of Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone, there would be stories in the Eastern press’ hollowed tomes about the film’s unforced authenticity, but instead these qualities will be largely missed by the cinerati.
Jeffrey Wright’s Senator Thompson, the film’s erstwhile Uncle Tom boogie man kingmaker, is a conservative Democrat with delegates to hand out to whomever candidate he can extract the most political favors from — a man that would, if he had his druthers, “wipe the top ten floors off the UN,” according to Clooney’s Governor Mike Morris. Morris, despite the advice of his veteran campaign manager Paul Zara (a game Philip Seymour Hoffman), doesn’t want to “compromise his ideals” by accepting his endorsement from Thompson. I suppose Thompson isn’t on board for compulsory public service in exchange for free education, a platform that Gosling’s wunderkind young campaign staffer Stephen Myers reluctantly convinces the Governor to accept. The movie never bothers to explain why he’s so bad, other than that he’s clearly another untrustworthy, selfish, wealthy politician. With his bleak eyes and Hitleresque mustache, he is clearly meant to evoke Ken Blackwell, the ex-Ohio Secretary of State and Republican gubernatorial candidate who used to wear dashikis and talk about black power when he was a standout linebacker for Xavier University’s now-defunct football team and may have tipped the 2004 Presidential election with intentional voter suppression among the vary Southwestern Ohio minorities that he rose from (my father, who had voted in the same district for years, mysteriously disappeared from the rolls in the weeks before that election, along with many other, less suspecting working class African-Americans in Democratic leaning southern Ohio districts, I presume). I once shared Jamaican beef patties with Blackwell at some Jack-and Jil- function in my pre-adolescence. He seemed aloof and Machiavellian even then, and I didn’t even know what that second modifier meant at that early date.
That the film’s national political ambience is so authentic, with requisite appearances by MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and CNN’s John King, with the blather of Chris Matthews and the Drudge Report and Roll Call all getting name checked, only serves to amplify how those very sources, along with the film in question omit or obscure how someone like Mike Morris (or Barack Obama), who we eventually learn is morally dubious individual with little shame and a Clintonian libido (not that this should be faulted in the abstract), is certain to be a phony at the worst, a false hope at the best. The movie’s idealism, as embodied by Gosling, is totally bogus from the start (anyone who would have risen to that status in a fledging Presidential campaign would already be past the dove stage) and Clooney & Co are too intelligent not to know it, but their protagonist has to have an arc, I guess.
Had it more gumption and a desire to delve into the real ugliness of this stuff, to not be a by-the-numbers campaign thriller, The Ides of March could have found a way into these thorny parts of our change-averse system and put it up on the screen for us to mourn over and be angry about. Will Gosling’s Myers, after screwing over his mentor to keep his job and his candidate’s chances afloat, albeit after he’s been used and abused by everyone in Hamilton County it seems, really see the change he says he wants to see, that Morris is ostensibly the only feasible conduit for? Our recent history and everything within this story would tell us no. Isn’t that what we should be actually upset about, “the change we can’t believe in” as opposed to Evan Rachel Wood’s gorgeous and connected intern’s untimely demise? The film’s setting is, as James Pogue so eloquently pointed out in a recent story in N+1, a deeply troubled place, one in which a candidate like Mike Morris could find plenty to be genuinely flummoxed by and inspired to “change” had he a shred of the convictions he claims and simply looked hard enough.
Anyone with half a brain can witness the manifest clarity of our overestimation of these messianic political figures, both fictional and all too real. Simply recalling how one felt on November 4th, 2008 and then spending half an hour directly following these ruminations watching Obama speak about the Israeli/Palestinian Conflict at the UN last Wednesday followed by 10 minutes of viewing time from any of this season’s Republican Presidential debates will do the trick. Then remember that this is the hottest year on record, just like the previous 14 or so, that the Iraq War still isn’t over, that America has 5% of the world’s population and 25% of its prisoners, that Guantanamo Bay is still open, that nearly 700,000 Iraqis have likely died through violence since March 20th, 2003, that only 55.3% of 16-29 year olds are employed, that six Palestinians for every one Israeli has been killed in armed conflict since the aughts began, that the student-debt bubble is continuing to grow and that your toothbrush and sneakers are made of an ever depleting resource called oil.
“As Ohio goes, so goes the Nation,” they say at the end of this film’s fleet footed exposition. “To Hell” might be a worthwhile rejoinder.