Monday, 3 September 2012

The Ides of March (2011)

Dir. George Clooney
Starring: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti

It is many months since we were in the District of Columbia, but it is here in Ohio that we find the film about political chicanery that I had wanted to find there. Oh sure, we had Mr. Smith Goes to Washington andf All the President’s Men, but those were good versus evil stories. There were no shades of grey. In Ohio we find fifty shades of them, courtesy of silver-haired charmer George Clooney. 

It shows how far Clooney has come from his ‘dishy doc’ days on E.R. and some truly regrettable film choices in the ‘90s (Batman and Robin anybody?) that here he directs and stars in a layered film about moral choices and political malfeasance. I’m still putting his reinvention down to O Brother, Where Art Thou? which showed that he was willing to take artistic risks.  

Here Clooney is Governor Mike Morris of Pennsylvania. He is competing for the Democratic party nomination for President in the pivotal swing state of Ohio. To all intents and purposes it is a dead heat between him and his rival, Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell). Each is playing for one of two prizes: the Ohio delegates and those that had earlier voted for the now-eliminated competitor Senator Thompson (Geoffrey Wright) of North Carolina. Thompson is willing to sell his endorsement in exchange for the position of Secretary of State in a new Democratic administration. The question is how far Morris and his team are willing to compromise their principles in order to win. Morris complains about all the principles he has had break in order to get to this point: he agreed to fund-raising dinners, he agreed to trade union support, but he will not entrust the Secretaryship of State to someone who hates the U.N. 

Morris is painted as the good guy. He is the real threat to the Republicans (which is why the right-wing pundits encourage their followers to vote for Pullman in the Ohio primary). He is green, pro-choice, against the death penalty, secular. He is a lot closer to the European political mainstream than that in America I would think (though he is encouraged to call for compulsaory national service for 18-year-olds). Certainly Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), his deputy campaign chief, is a believer. As he willingly admits, “I drank the Kool-Aid”. This is not just about the job for him; he is willing to follow Morris wherever the path leads. 

However, in real life there are no Jefferson Smiths. Everyone has flaws. Everyone makes mistakes. Stephen’s is attending a meeting with Pullman’s campaign chief Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti from Sideways). Duffy is a chess player par excellence. He regards Stephen as the best media mind around. He offers him a job. If Meyers accepts it, the Pullman campaign benefits. However – and this is the so-twisted-it-is-genius moment – if Meyers turns it down the Pullman campaign still benefits. How? Because Duffy knows that Stephen’s boss Paul Zara (Capote’s Philip Seymour Hoffman), a man who values loyalty above all else, will fire him, thereby depriving the Morris campaign of Meyers’ talents. Sneaky, huh? 

Zara’s mistake is to fire Stephen. Because what Paul doesn’t know is that Stephen has information about Morris that can kill his campaign in an instant. Whilst pursuing a casual affair with 20-year-old campaign intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) Steve discovers a secret that destroys all the trust and belief he held in the Governor. He discovers that Morris had slept with Molly. And that Molly is now pregnant. For the good of the campaign Stephen hushed it up. He even drove Molly to a clinic for her abortion. But he now has the ability to crush Morris. As he tells the Governor, “You can lie, you can cheat, you can start a war, you can bankrupt the country, but you can’t fuck the interns. They get you for that.” In many ways it is a criticism of the American political system that is unconcerned about gross management of the nation, but is prudish when it comes to issues of personal and sexual morality.

Steve lectures Molly about her mistake. But it was Morris’s mistake too. More so his, because he is older and married. But it is Molly who has to pay the greatest price, not Morris. Again, this is the way it works in America. The great man has to be protected, and the young woman is crushed beneath the wheels of the machine. Meyers, to his partial credit, seems to recognise this. And in return he becomes the “jaded, cynical asshole” that Duffy warned him about. He earlier said that “I’ll say or do anything if I believe in it, but I have to believe in the cause”. The only thing he is left to believe in is his own ambition. He has to turn nasty or end up back in a consulting firm on K Street with a cloud over his career. Stephen now looks upon Morris not as a Messiah but a meal-ticket. Morris is forced into an unhappy marriage of convenience with Meyers. The irony is that this wins him the ticket. People who believed in Morris could never have persuaded him to compromise his principles and meet Thompson’s demands. Meyers now can. In fact it is one of his conditions.  

The ending is very bleak. We go from Morris celebrating on the podium to Stephen sitting in a darkened auditorium awaiting a TV interview. As the questions come in to his earpiece the camera keeps a tight focus on his blank face. The difference to the casual, joking Stephen seen in a bar earlier in the film is clearly apparent. He does not know what to say. And meanwhile a new intern arrives on the staff, seemingly mirroring Molly. 
And they said a black man could never run for president...
The film is based upon Beau Willimon’s stage play Farragut North. This election seems to mirror that of 2008 – a divided Republican party, an energised Democratic opposition. Morris even borrows the iconography of Obama in his Shepard Fairey-inspired campaign posters. But the slogans of ‘Hope’ and ‘Change’ taste bitter in the end. In many ways it parallels Anonymous’s fictitious account of the 1992 presidential campaign Primary Colors, which featured a charismatic Bill-Clinton-alike politician who likewise was unable to keep it in his pants. But Jack Stanton, the candidate in that story was likeable enough to win people over through charm and force of personaility; we forgave him his weaknesses. Morris is not so effortlessly charismatic. His strength is the arguments and the policies that he and his team have drawn up. His is a cold intellectual attraction. As such, when his weaknesses become apparent, it is impossible to sympathise with him the same way. The overwhelming impression is that we have been duped.

The Ides of March is not a film to watch lightly. The title might have been changed to appeal more to an international audience who have no idea what a Farragut North is (it is a D.C. Metro station in an area which is home to political consultants and lobbyists), but the viewer needs to understand the nature of the American democratic system. Presidential candidates are chosen by the country at learge rather than just elected politicians / trade unionists / paid-up party members. The votes do not automatically go to the candidate, but are aggregated by state, with each state having a certain number of delegates to award the candidate who ‘wins’ that state (so someone who wins Ohio with 51% of the votes, would not share those votes out with his rivals, but would rather get 100% of Ohio’s delegates). Acronyms like DNC (the Democratic National Convention – the party) are bandied around. Without a basis in how American elections are decided and run one would imagine a viewer coukld get quite confused, quite quickly. But for politics nerds (like yours truly) it is a very watchable film of political chicanery full of good non-showy performances. 

What have I learnt about Ohio?
Surprised that a political drama is set outside the Beltway? Don’t be. The people in power in Washington are only there at the behest of that nebulous entity known only as ‘We the People’. Ohio has People. It has a lot of People. Its large population makes it a crucial state for politicians to win as those votes equal delegates. It is also a bellweather or battleground state. Ohio has achieved a significance greater than the sum of its votes. It is a swing state. When it comes to the real Presidential elections everyone knows which way New York, California and Massachussets will vote; they also know which way Texas, Wyoming and Kansas will vote. It is those which are finely balanced like Ohio and Florida that decide elections. This means that rival candidates and campaigns will devote an awful lot of attention to winning Ohio. 

Ohio has ‘open primaries’. That means that anyone can vote in the primary elections to decide a party’s candidate. In closed primaries only registered Democrats can vote in Democratic primaries. In Ohio independents and Republicans can also cast their votes to decide who will be the Democratic nomination.  

March in Ohio is cold. There is frost on the ground and winter coats are required. While Ohio is known as ‘the Buckeye State’ it is only those from Columbus in the centre of the state who refer to themselves as ‘Buckeyes’. Those from Cincinnati refer to themselves as ‘Bearcats’. 

Cincinnati itself is located right on the southern edge of Ohio. Kentucky is right across the river, linked by a bridge. The implication is that the two states have different laws – particularly when it comes to the legalities of a 30-year-old sleeping with a 20-year-old. 

Can we go there?
The Ides of March is the first of my three ‘Ohio’ movies to actually have been filmed in Ohio. The film was set and partially shot in Cincinnati. Locations such as Fountain Square, Hamilton Avenue in Northside and Xavier University were used (Xavier provided the final scene in the sports hall whose corridors re emblazoned with ‘X’s). Another university used for its auditorium was Miami University’s Farmer School of Business (Miami University being located in Oxford, Ohio, northwest of Cincinnati, rather than in Florida). Filming also spilled over the Ohio River into Kentucky. In the film the campaign chiefs are housed in Cincinnati and the interns in Kentucky (where they have a better bar). Hence we see Stephen and Molly cross over the blue John A. Roebling Suspension Bridge into the city. The Cincinnati / Northern Kentucky International Airport seen in the film is also located in Kentucky. 

However, a lot of the filming actually took place in Michigan to the north, with several locations being duplicated by Detroit and Ann Arbor’s University of Michigan. Morris’s campaign headquarters was created at 1263 Griswold Street in Detroit. Christ Church Cranbrook was used for the funeral scene.  

Overall Rating: 4/5

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