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Saturday Night at the Movies by Dennis Hartley review archive

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Hullabaloo


Saturday, October 08, 2011

 
Saturday Night At The Movies

The seduction of George Clooney


By Dennis Hartley


Ambition’s debt is paid: The Ides of March


In the decidedly theatrical opener of George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, The Ides of March, a well-attired young man with a lean and hungry look emerges from backstage shadows, steps up to a podium and begins to address an empty hall. After muttering some standard-issue mike check gibberish, he begins to recite snippets of what sounds like some tried-and-true, audience-rousing political campaign rhetoric. His tone becomes so assured and impassioned, you find yourself wondering if he is the one running for office. He’s not, actually. But he is playing to win. He’s a hotshot campaign advisor named Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), a Ninja spin doctor (or, “Spinja” if you like) who also possesses something relatively rare in the cynical and duplicitous profession he has chosen to work in. He actually believes in the candidate he is working to put into office.


That candidate is Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), making a first-time bid for the presidency. The charismatic and straight-talking (seeming) Morris is in a fierce fight with his party rival to win the Ohio primary, which should cinch him as the Dem’s nominee. Stephen isn’t the only weapon in his arsenal; his campaign manager is Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) a seasoned veteran with an impressive track record of wins. In the pecking order, Stephen answers to Paul. The one thing that Paul values above all is loyalty, and he makes no bones about it. That is why Stephen feels torn when he is approached by Paul’s competition, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) who manages the rival campaign. After the obligatory “You should be working for the winning team, kid” pitch, Tom gives Stephen a “hot tip” that his camp has been assured a key endorsement from a senator (Jeffrey Wright) which will give Tom’s guy the win. Why is he telling Stephen this? Is it a trick? Should he warn Paul? Then again, it’s flattering to be wooed. In the meantime, Stephen does some wooing of his own, with an intern (Evan Rachael Wood). You would think that this sharp young man would know about the pitfalls of office romance. Sure enough, this leads to a huge pitfall, one that could sink Morris’ campaign.


I suppose that is the message of this film (politics is all awash in the wooing). The art of seduction and the art of politicking are one and the same; not necessarily a new revelation (a narrative that goes back at least as far as, I don’t know, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar). The politician is seduced by power. In order to get that nut, the politician first must seduce the voter. A pleasing narrative is spun and polished, promises are made, sweet nothings whispered in the ear, and the voter caves. And, like a relationship, it’s all brisket and blowjobs at first. But once your candidate is ensconced in their shiny new office, well, about that diamond ring? It turns out to be cubic zirconium. Then it’s all about the complacency, and the lying. And the psychodramas and the traumas. While a lot of folks do end up getting fucked, it is not necessarily in the desirable and fun way. But I digress.


If you would indulge me my prurient analogy a wee bit more, Clooney’s film, while competently made and generally well-acted, could have used a little Viagra (or something). The TV ad campaign spins it as a political thriller, but while it obviously involves politics, and does feature some intrigue, it’s not really that thrilling. I would classify as more of a political potboiler, simmering on medium high all of the way through. The screenplay is strictly by-the-numbers (Clooney co-adapted from Beau Willimon’s play, “Farragut North” along with Willimon and Grant Heslov). Clooney is believable as presidential material (duh), Gosling continues to impress with his chameleonic skills, and there are fine moments with Marisa Tomei (as well as Hoffman and Giamatti), but if you are going to go to the trouble of assembling this much explosive talent, don’t just give ‘em caps and a hammer to play with. That’s free campaign advice.



If you don’t want to venture out to theater this weekend, there is an outstanding, overlooked drama in this genre that was originally presented as a three-part 1995 BBC miniseries, called The Politician’s Wife (still in print on DVD, not sure about Netflix but I’ve seen rental copies). Juliet Stevenson gives a tour-de-force performance as Flora, the staunchly supportive wife of Duncan Matlock, an ambitious rising star in the Tory party.


A scandal erupts when Duncan is caught with his pants down by the tabloid press. His fling with an “escort girl” (Minnie Driver, excellent in an early role) quickly becomes fertile ground for muckraking, as he happens to be the Minister of Family (oops). At first, Flora suffers in silence, desperately wanting to believe her husband’s assurance that it was only a regrettable one night stand. She caves in to pressure from Duncan’s handlers (including her own father) to keep a brave face in public, “…for the sake of the party.”


But when a conscience-stricken member of the Minister’s inner circle slips Flora some irrefutable evidence proving that the “fling” was in fact a torrid year-long affair, her pain turns to bitterness and anger. Fueled by the deep sense of betrayal and growing awareness of Duncan’s wanton abuse of his powers, she hatches a clever and methodical scheme to subvert his political capital (i.e. to drain his precious bodily fluids, figuratively speaking).


The beauty of Paula Milne’s script lies in the subtle execution of Flora’s revenge. Eschewing the “Hell hath no fury” stereotype, Milne’s protagonist (not unlike Livia in I, Claudius) finds her empowerment through an assimilated understanding of what makes the members of this particular boy’s club tick; she is then able to orchestrate events in such a manner that they all end up falling on their own swords (keep your friends close, but your enemies closer). Intelligently written, splendidly acted, and not to be missed.


Give us dirty laundry: The Candidate, All the President’s Men, The Contender, Scandal, , Wag the Dog, Tanner ’88, Bob Roberts, Bulworth, The War Room, Advise and Consent, Primary Colors, The Seduction of Joe Tynan, All the King’s Men, Secret Honor, Citizen Kane, The Hunting of the President, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.


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