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Posts Tagged ‘The West Wing’

Having just discussed Steven Soderbergh’s Contagion, I was half-expecting The Ides of March, directed by George Clooney, to have Soderbergh involved with it in some capacity as well. The two have, after all, a lot of history together, most notably with Ocean’s Eleven and its sequels, but also with less commercial movies such as Solaris. But no, Clooney and Soderbergh appear to have parted company (amicably one hopes), and the only noticeable crossover of personnel between Contagion and The Ides of March is the presence of Jennifer Ehle, who plays a small but significant role in both films.

In addition to co-producing, co-writing, and directing the movie, George Clooney also appears as Mike Morris – not the former UK breakfast TV host, nor indeed the peerless Doctor Who critic and commentator, but a Democratic candidate for his party’s presidential nomination. Morris is looking good for the White House (and it must be said that Clooney is supremely plausible in the role). This is partly due to his strong team, which is led by Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Perhaps even more crucial is the presence of brilliant media analyst and political operator Steve Meyers, who is the main character of the story. Meyers is played by Ryan Gosling (who’s having a pretty good few months, what with this and that movie about driving where he plays the driver who drives a lot, the name of which escapes me).

Morris’ candidacy for the Presidency is looking as assured as something of that nature can, but a crucial primary is looming (on the date of the title). Then Meyers is startled to receive a job offer from their chief opponent’s campaign manager (Paul Giamatti), his relationship with a young intern (Evan Rachel Wood) unexpectedly brings a shocking secret to light, and as the polls unexpectedly start to shift against them Morris’ refusal to engage in the traditional political horse-trading begins to look naive rather than principled. With all his certainties crumbling Meyer is forced to ask himself exactly what his true priorities are…

Fans of The West Wing should run to see The Ides of March (possibly carrying on a complex dialogue with each other as they go), as this film operates in a very similar narrative space – the dialogue doesn’t crackle quite as much as Aaron Sorkin’s, but the dizzyingly swift pace, convoluted plot and strong characterisations should all seem very familiar. That said, there’s another sense in which this is a very different kind of story indeed – there was something almost Capraesque about The West Wing’s wide-eyed positivity about the political system and the people who work in it: no-one was really self-serving or anything but a very decent human being. The Ides of March starts off in a broadly similar vein , but the story of the film is the story of masks slipping in extremis and the true nature of the characters becoming clear: and I tell you, folks, it ain’t pretty.

That said, the film takes care not to get too worked up about this – from the very first scene, it’s made clear that for all his idealism, Meyers is a ruthless operator not above playing dirty (in a mild sort of way). On the other hand, for a film with – to put it mildly – a somewhat cynical view of the political animal, it’s notable that The Ides of March doesn’t actually have a villain. Giamatti’s character is just a little more obviously ruthless and goal-oriented than the rest.

As a British viewer I obviously watched this with a certain sense of detachment, but enough of the story is universal in nature for it to remain a very satisfying film. I wonder why we in this country can’t produce similarly satisfying political dramas more consistently? It can’t all be down to American hegemony. Perhaps the very nature of the American system lends itself more readily to this kind of narrative intensity.         

One of the stories doing the rounds about this film is that Clooney and company first started work on it in 2008, but basically parked the project as they realised their audience wouldn’t be interested in such a jaded view of politicians in the year of Obama. Putting aside the question of why they’ve decided to make it now, it seems to me that this is another movie springing from the Clinton era. You may recall a number of key films from the mid-to-late 90s which cast the President of the US in such unlikely roles as romantic lead, gritty terrorist-basher, and jet-piloting alien exterminator, all surely products of the enormous positivity of key Hollywood figures towards Bill Clinton. Fifteen years on, here is a movie – not the first of its kind, of course – which concentrates on the darker side. Quite how many personal foibles are we prepared to overlook, if the right candidate comes along? Can a principled man really succeed in modern politics? We’re left to decide for ourselves how much of Morris’ persona is an act – Clooney has less screen time than you may be expecting.

That said, he’s very good whenever he does appear, as is everyone else: this is a very strongly-written and uniformly well-played drama, which grips from the start and has some very powerful and moving moments along the way – along with a few lighter moments, of course. Overall it’s an impressive package. If, like Contagion, it ultimately seems to be lamenting things which lie beyond anyone’s power to change, then so be it – sometimes it’s for the best that we remind ourselves of uncomfortable truths, especially if in doing means making movies as good as this one.

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