I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I bloody love George Clooney. Whilst it’s hardly original to comment on the fact that he oozes a kind of suave charisma and effortless charm that hearkens back to romantic leads of the era of classic Hollywood, it is an important point to remark upon that Clooney, along with Harrison Ford, is perhaps the only film actor currently working who truly satisfies the demands of being a movie star as opposed to an actor. That isn’t to say that he can’t act, quite the opposite in fact, but that what the audience expects of Clooney is to deliver a variation upon the screen persona we all know and love. The other end of the spectrum involves intensely naturalistic verisimilitude by which actors eradicate as much of their own personality as possible from their portrayals of a wide range of characters: only actors who do this, such as Tilda Swinton, Tom Hardy, Christian Bale, Michael Fassbender, Gary Oldman et al, can to my mind be considered great. Unfortunately, the rest of the acting stratosphere floats boringly, and wrongly, between the two.
However, to tend towards being a film star is a tad presumptive as only the rare few can truly merit the term, and one way Clooney ensures that he remains deserved of it is by taking risks and associating himself with interesting work. He is a consummate Hollywood entertainer in films such as “Ocean’s Eleven” and “Out of Sight,” but he’ll also undermine the superficial cool of his image in “Up in the Air,” turn his talents to sinister and dubious ends in “Michael Clayton,” and explore dense and complex political and philosophical quandaries in “Syriana” and “Solaris.” It is the interrogation of liberal political ideology which also elevates his best work as a filmmaker, in conjunction with an assured, confident and restrained brand of cool which has clearly assimilated his directing from his acting. A Clooney-directed film generates the same impression I imagine his lovemaking leaves: slick, smooth and satisfying.
Liberalism and censorship of the free press are of course the central concerns of his noteworthy previous effort “Good Night and Good Luck,” and in his latest film “The Ides of March” the political system itself takes centre stage: not the clash of wills, personalities and opinions, but the unscrupulous mechanics of the machine hard at work behind the gloss and hype of American politics, processing people alongside numbers in the tireless and uncompromising struggle for votes and victory. The film at first lends itself to a resurfacing of the ideas concerning the theatrical in cinema that I have been expounding upon in recent weeks. The film is based on the play “Farragut North,” and whilst the piece is directed in a cinematic way a noticeable hangover from the play is evident in the movie’s structure, with Ryan Gosling deftly cruising through a series of two-handed scenes, first with Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Evan Rachel Wood and Paul Giamatti, and later with Marisa Tomei and Clooney himself, all of which function to portray the key conflicts and traits of the characters through the simplicity of duologues giving rise to impassioned and defining monologues.
The title blatantly alludes to Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” and in Clooney’s film the notion of betrayal and backstabbing giving rise to the furtherance of individual political power is as problematic as in the great play. In Shakespeare, a pivotal ambiguity of the narrative revolves around the motivations of Brutus, Cassius and their fellow conspirators: are they murdering Caesar for the good of the Commonwealth, or for their own benefit and ambitions? It is the duality of their betrayal which provides Brutus with the uncertainty and anagnorisis which grounds him as the actual tragic hero of the piece. In “The Ides of March” the act of betrayal Gosling’s naïvely optimistic yet dynamically principled campaign manager commits is unequivocally an act of self-preservation and self-furtherance, but interestingly it is not the politician bidding for supreme power (in this case the promise of the US Presidency) that Gosling stabs in the back, but his mentor and fellow campaign manager Phillip Seymour Hoffman. Clooney is therefore not concerned with the body politic and is in fact preoccupied by the duplicity and disloyalty of the mysterious and seedy invisible system that is in fact manipulating and controlling the political future of the world’s most powerful country. One scene in particular employs a metaphor to highlight the irony of the mistaken importance we have placed upon the overt politics of the piece: in front of an American flag Clooney’s Presidential candidate Mike Morris delivers an idealized and impossible speech of the dream liberal politician, whilst behind the flag Gosling and Hoffman realise that a secret meeting misinterpreted as consorting with the enemy campaign is in fact about to cost Morris the election regardless of the sense of his mandate. The point is clear: policy and belief plays no role in the world that is driving American government.
So for Clooney in “The Ides of March” politics isn’t about politicians, but about the men and women who advise and run them, and in the form of Marisa Tomei’s character the media who decide what the public should and shouldn’t know about their elected officials. This being the case, the actual political spectrum is populated by characters who variously illuminate the pessimism at play in twenty-first century, jaded and confused post 9/11 governments in the Western world, who are becoming increasingly ineffectual at addressing divisive current issues, i.e global warming, financial recession and foreign policy. Gosling’s character is at first a pillar of naïve integrity, proclaiming to the candidate that he can only support what he believes in, but in the end he finds himself commanding an entire campaign mired in life-threatening secrets to keep himself individualistically in this dubious career. The campaign managers played brilliantly by Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti are both slimy and duplicitous selfish monsters: the former lectures on the importance of loyalty even as he decidedly disloyally has his protégé fired, whilst the latter will wreck a bright young man with great prospects’ career purely to cripple the opposition. Tomei’s journalist is privy to the innermost workings of the spin machine, yet will only reveal that which is advantageous to her remaining in the loop, withholding information a journalist of integrity would surely consider to be in the public interest. Even Clooney’s dapper, mercurial and intelligently inspiring candidate, apparently removed from the repugnant anti-humanistic ambition of his campaign team, is revealed as an adulterer who indirectly prompts a suicide.
Such pessimism and negativity regarding important political figures, who may ultimate play a prominent role on the world stage, I must admit reflects my personal view of our present political state. Contemporary politics has been marred by so many personal scandals and is such a hotbed for those aspiring towards power and respect rather than public service that I regard anyone working in politics with an endemic mistrust, and the poor performance of consecutive British Governments, comprised of individuals from all three major political parties, over the last few years has done nothing to inspire my trust and confidence in UK Politicians’ ability to govern. That Clooney sets “The Ides of March” entirely within the Democratic Party hints at present American dissatisfaction, perhaps even disillusionment, with the Obama administration. A beacon of hope and change when elected, as much as Obama remains an elegant and admirable individual, whose opinions are for the most part sound and sensible, the inefficacy of his term in office has undeniably lead to his popularity wearing understandably thin. Looking back at the films released this year, it would seem that this jaded pessimism is not an opinion exclusive to myself and George Clooney. The fact that so many works this year have been made regarding social gender inequality, most notably “Potiche” and “A Separation,” is surely a reflection upon the weaknesses of the heavily masculine world of politics: “The Ides of March” contains two women, one of whom serves the sole purpose of satisfying the infidelities of her superiors. In very different ways, “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” and “Fair Game” also address the loss of idealism and the rise of the clandestine and the darkly amoral in the government of Western nations. One could even go so far as saying that British films released this year in the wake of the transition of industry power and funding from one government body to another reflect a sense of social malaise and inertia involving people divorced from any sense of society and community, for example “Kill List,” “Tyrannosaur” and “We Need to Talk About Kevin.”
“The Ides of March” is a slick drama boasting uniformly excellent performances, and clearly Clooney has brought his understanding of the craft of acting to the service of his direction in eliciting such strong work from his cast. However, perhaps the film also makes overt an idea that has brimmed beneath the surface of many a film released in recent times: that of governmental skepticism and political apathy.