dir: George Clooney
Cloons. Cloooooons. He’s not content having every woman over forty getting wet in the gusset or drooling over him, or buying coffee just because of his ads. No, he has to direct flicks too. He has to get shiny golden statues to make him feel loved too.
And he’s directed a doozy here. Sure, the point of the flick is that politicians are arseholes, a novel and radically new idea never captured on film before, but the solid performances and commitment to following through on its depressing premise carries the picture through. And mostly these prized hams don’t overact, so they’ve all done pretty well.
Clooney can’t resist being in the flick as well as everything else, including the catering, but he doesn’t give himself the plum role, nor could he. He is Governor Mike Morris, the genial, charismatic front runner for the Democratic presidential nomination in some fantastical place where democracy actually works. But he’s not the main character. That role is taken by man of the moment Ryan Gosling.
He plays Stephen, a young campaign manager on the governor’s staff, whose brash and cynical enough for the role, but not so brash and cynical that he can’t be disappointed in the brashness and cynicism of others. Hey, he’s Ryan Gosling, he can do anything at this point and people will take it and say thank you no matter how good or terrible.
Thankfully, he’s very far from terrible. He’s actually quite good here. I do feel like I’m seeing him in a film every two weeks or so, but this is probably a good performance from him. It’s much better, at least, than Crazy Stupid Love and Drive, though there’s nowhere near as much washboard abs action.
I’m going to get cut with a straight razor for saying that. Anyway, as a campaign manager, he’s not a babe in the woods, but he believes, at least, that Mike Morris actually intends to do some of the things that he claims he’s going to do, and that he should win so that he can do them, for the good of some / many / all, take your pick. Yet Stephen is not so much of a true believer that his ego can’t lead him astray when the other side come knocking.
Morris’ main opponent in the primaries (the lead-up which decides who the Democratic nominee will be) is some other guy called Pullman, who barely exists as far as the flick is concerned. But Pullman’s campaign manager is played by Paul Giamatti, so obviously the character matters. At least to them.
He has a meet-and-greet with the other side’s Karl Rove, and Stephen is completely floating on a cloud of his own awesomeness. All the flattery in the world doesn’t convince him to change teams, though, but he is told that it’s a moot point anyway, because Pullman has the endorsement of a key senator, which will really fuck up Morris’s plans for world domination.
As all of these backroom shenanigans are playing out, not that we’re given any reasons to care about whether Morris becomes the nominee or not, Stephen ill-advisedly starts having a sexual relationship with one of the interns working on the campaign. Yes, you’d think intern-fucking would be old news by now, but they still bring it up as a major, some might say debilitating, plot point.
In fact, the existence of Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) underpins the entire flick. It’s not even the issue of whether Stephen’s having sex with her or not, or her place in the Democratic Party’s hierarchy due to her powerful father’s influence. The important thing she represents is a plot point so powerful that she’s like a ticking nuclear time bomb. In other words, though she’s nice enough, she’s not really a character.
Something she does, or, more importantly, something done to her, by someone, changes the entire game. By game I mean the whole film we thought we were watching, not just the contours of the political race. In truth, the game keeps changing as people find new ways to disappoint Stephen, and Stephen finds new ways to disappoint us, and we start wondering whether the cynicism of the story is ultimately arguing that politics itself is inherently corrupt because the people best at it are soulless monsters.
As overstuffed as the whole scenario is, there is a genuine dissatisfaction with the system at play here. There’s genuine disillusionment on the part of the person who Stephen represents, who, I would dare say is the writer of the original play Farragut North, Beau Willimon. Ordinarily, the previous experience of a playwright or screenwriter isn’t that important, or commented upon, or even known. The thing is, though, Beau Willimon worked on Howard Dean’s failed bid for the Democratic nomination way back in 2004. That’s the one that John Kerry ‘won’ and went on to defeat George W. Bush and become supreme robotic overlord of the Americas.
Instead of looking at the end result as possibly a sly look at what might have happened when Dean’s campaign fell apart (which the rest of us thought was because of that picture of Dean with his fists raised looking like an infant in the middle of a tantrum), it should be seen more as the kind of story someone thoroughly screwed over by working for these kinds of people would come up with. Even more so, it should be seen as the kind of story someone comes up with when they’ve worked for senators and presidential hopefuls that would violate the corpses of their own or someone else’s ancestors if it helped them politically or personally in some way, without the slightest regard for the lives or well-being of others, who then decide they have to protect themselves by doing likewise.
No-one but the devil wins in devil’s bargains, and the film sets Stephen up, who despite his intelligence and skill is still an amateur compared to the Karl Rove on the rival’s side, and the Karl Rove on their own side, played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. The only moment he can compete with these men is when he can play dirtier, even way dirtier than they can. And there’s nothing edifying or uplifting about it. None of it, even as the utilitarian argument is made that an incredibly nasty piece of blackmail will somehow allow someone to achieve some of the good they promised, comes across as anything but another example why these people should never be trusted with anything more important than a lemonade stand.
Performances are decent throughout, Gosling is fine, Clooney plays second fiddle happily, in fact everyone does a good job though most everyone except Gosling has limited screen time. Marisa Tomei thankfully doesn’t have to simulate doggie-style sex with Phillip Seymour Hoffman again, like she did in Before the Devil Knows You're Dead despite both of them appearing in the film together, but not in the same scene. I wonder if either of them bumped awkwardly into the other as the film was being made, or whether they avoided each other? Or maybe they wondered whether they could, you know, for old time’s sake?
Try keeping your lunch down after imagining that match-up! Karl Rove and, let’s say, Diane Sawyer, getting it on again in the altogether! Except they’re being simulated by Oscar Winners Phillip Seymour and Marisa Tomei!
Look, none of this is going to be revelatory to anyone who is the primary market for this flick: news junkies and fans of political commentary sites and all that blather. To that audience, none of this is new; all of this is a vindication for the cynicism they are all ready blessed with. People who expect and believe the worst invariably find plenty of proof to justify their beliefs, so they can go on believing something no matter how personally useless it is.
This flick isn’t an antidote towards some kind of thinking that says the problems in politics come from privilege, self-interest or just plain evilness: it puts the problem squarely at the feet of the people who will simply do anything to win, and to maintain their tenuous position on the totem pole. So there’s bugger all to be learned, but plenty to be enjoyed. It’s plenty enjoyable, even if most of the characters deserve to die horrible, painful deaths. No, scratch that, that’s not fair. They deserve, in most cases, to live lives lived in cramped housing and with very limited money, in absolute obscurity, where none of the people they bump into on a daily basis have to worry about having their lives ruined at the whim of another.
Now that’s a Utopia realistically achievable and within our grasp, today. Vote for me and I’ll make it happen.
7 times battlers on Struggle Street will never bother to watch this flick out of 10
“You can lie, you can cheat, you can start a war, you can bankrupt the country, but you can't fuck the interns.” – sure you can – The Ides of March