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Now and Then: In Political Films, Reality Trumps Fiction

Photo of Matt Brennan By Matt Brennan | Thompson on Hollywood! January 23, 2012 at 4:39PM

"The Ides of March," George Clooney's latest directorial effort, promises by its very title a mixture of danger, betrayal, and warped power. What we get, though, is more disquisition than thrill ride, a technically sound but ultimately unfeeling film about the cynicism of modern politics.
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Ryan Gosling in "The Ides of March."
Columbia Pictures Ryan Gosling in "The Ides of March."

"The Ides of March," George Clooney's latest directorial effort, promises by its very title a mixture of danger, betrayal, and warped power — it refers to the day Caesar was murdered by Brutus on the floor of the Roman Senate. What we get, though, is more disquisition than thrill ride, a technically sound but ultimately unfeeling film about the cynicism of modern politics.

The film tells of a junior campaign manager (an excellent Ryan Gosling) for a major contender for the Democratic nomination (George Clooney, coasting a little bit). Both are idealists, tired of "politics as usual" and promising big changes. Aided by the milieu of communications directors and campaign managers, reporters and interns, sharks and jets, however, the desire to win inevitably supersedes the moral imperative. That this is the stock narrative of nearly every political thriller is troublesome, but given Clooney's strong handling of the political material in "Good Night, and Good Luck," it wasn't enough to ward me off. Unfortunately, the acting talent Clooney has amassed, with Gosling shored up by wily veterans Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, can't save a script so heavy on didacticism and so light on good dialogue. In trying so hard to make its claim on the zeitgeist, "The Ides of March" becomes so earnest that it feels old-fashioned — and, even worse, the very opposite of dangerous or risky.

Watching "The Ides of March" I was reminded of "Primary Colors" (Mike Nichols, 1998), a thinly veiled Clinton biopic that is in every way more muddled and more melodramatic than Clooney's film, and yet wins me over time and again on the easiness with which the film creates its characters. John Travolta plays southern governor and Presidential candidate Jack Stanton, and it's a witty — if slightly shallow — impersonation, nailing the affect without quite getting at the roots of the ambition. Better, and to my mind the film's real core, is Emma Thompson as his sharp, no-nonsense wife, Susan: Thompson lends her a real bravery, treading the line between loyalty and betrayal with far more ambivalence than anyone in "The Ides of March."

To suggest that politics have become unscrupulous, greedy, and broken is one thing; to suggest that its participants lack any moral fiber whatsoever strains credulity. "Primary Colors" avoids certain of the problems inherent in political filmmaking by playing for comedy. Elaine May's sparkling script is wickedly funny, the kind of satire that serves as a reminder that politics in this country are not a tragedy so much as farce.

George Stephanopoulos (left) and James Carville in "The War Room."
Focus Features George Stephanopoulos (left) and James Carville in "The War Room."

If "The Ides of March" is an intellectual exercise, and "Primary Colors" a warm, humane portrait, then Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker's documentary "The War Room" is the real thing, pulsing with flesh and blood. It was, rightfully, the coming-out party for lead strategist James Carville and communications director George Stephanopoulos, who together prove that politics really does make for strange bedfellows. The former is a Cajun jokester moving a mile a minute; the latter looks like a matinee idol and speaks in a clipped, assured middle American accent.

As the film progresses from Clinton's comeback in the New Hampshire primary through Gennifer Flowers, Ross Perot, "read my lips," and the other milestones of the $60-million campaign ("the biggest single act of masturbation in history," Carville cracks), we get more than just a sense of the main characters. Without suggesting that the players are only in game for selfish, dishonorable reasons, the film is not shy about how politics can be cutthroat. Witness Stephanopoulos speaking to a director in Perot's Illinois office who claims to have evidence that Clinton fathered an illegitimate child, and Stephanopoulos responding, firmly and quietly, that such an accusation will spell the end of the tipster's career in Democratic politics.    

But the passion, which we tend to forget when all we see are ads and sound bites and debate performances, is in "The War Room" at least as much as the politics. To see Carville and Stephanopoulos holding back tears as they thank the staff in the final war room meeting of the campaign is to be reminded that behind the cynicism there are real people, and that there's always more going on here than meets the eye.


The War Room (1993) by ItsBartman

This article is related to: Now and Then, Headliners, George Clooney, Thriller, comedy, Documentaries


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Thompson on Hollywood

Born and raised in Manhattan, Anne Thompson grew up going to the Thalia and The New Yorker and wound up at grad Cinema Studies at NYU. She worked at United Artists and Film Comment before heading west as that magazine's west coast editor. She wrote for the LA Weekly, Sight and Sound, Empire, The New York Times and Entertainment Weekly before serving as West Coast Editor of Premiere. She wrote for The Washington Post, The London Observer, Wired, More, and Vanity Fair, and did staff stints at The Hollywood Reporter and Variety. She eventually took her blog Thompson on Hollywood to Indiewire. She taught film criticism at USC Critical Studies, and continues to host the fall semester of “Sneak Previews” for UCLA Extension.