THE IDES OF MARCH C+
USA (101 mi) 2011 ‘Scope d: George Clooney
America remained obsessed with the ramifications of the Vietnam War for decades afterwards, where the anti war protests of the 60’s and 70’s left the Democratic left subject to attacks from the Republican right for being soft on defense, a criticism that stuck a chord with American voters, leading President Reagan to coin the phrase the Vietnam Syndrome, which was a reluctance on the part of Americans to support foreign military intervention, still reeling from the negative effects of the experience in Vietnam, where so many lives were unnecessarily lost. This led to a series of Republican Presidents in a 24 year cycle from Nixon to Bush, interrupted only for four years by Washington political outsider Jimmy Carter, who offered amnesty for draft dodgers that fled to Canada during the Vietnam era. The quick success of American troops in Operation Desert Storm (1991), declaring a cessation of ground operations just 100 hours after the campaign started, made many forget about the shameful debacle of Vietnam, which remained something of an unspoken embarrassment for decades afterwards.
What this film does is resurrect the scandalous legacy of the Clinton years, completely ignoring any political success or failures during his two terms, but instead focusing entirely on the shameful conduct of his personal life, much as the Republican opposition did when he was impeached by the House of Representatives in 1998, later acquitted by the Senate. All people talked about during that era was how a President having extra marital sex in the White House demeans the office of the Presidency. If one didn’t know better, you’d think this movie was a Right wing smear campaign against Clinton, only to discover George Clooney directed and co-writes this script with Grant Heslov, adapting Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North, which resuscitates from the dead the Republican argument 15 years after the fact, all but conceding the Republican view that Clinton’s womanizing was an embarrassment to the nation, as if the nation’s cynicism about politics can be traced to this single act.
Despite the preaching and overreaching tone of seriousness where everything looks larger than life, this is basically a rehashing of the Monica Lewinsky story where a Democratic Presidential candidate (Clooney) is again caught having sex with a young intern (Evan Rachel Wood), despite believing he had taken every precaution to avoid getting caught. The story even includes the intern having a powerfully connected father, as here he is the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee. This is all about the inside ramifications within a political operation rather than the overall effect it has on the nation, but certainly by the end, there is no denying that politics itself have been tainted with this kind of tawdry descent into tabloid journalism. For Clooney to exploit the salacious sex angle undermines any other meaningful point the movie may be trying to make, as a revisitation of the immorality of the Clinton years is quite simply an astonishingly regressive step. Nonetheless the movie is so slick that many may actually miss this point, as it’s not so much a movie about THE CANDIDATE (1972), where Clooney himself is relegated to a mostly offscreen secondary role, it’s instead what’s going on in the lives of the political operatives behind him, where their lives are surrounded by the intense pressure and daily intrigue of running a high profile political campaign.
Philip Seymour Hoffman is the rumpled, cigarette smoking man behind the candidate, the head political operative with all the years of experience, where his wing man media advisor is the up and coming rising star, Ryan Gosling, where together this team runs a formidable political operation, known for their shrewdness in manipulating the press and for their inspirational political savvy, making sure their candidate stays on message. In contrast, the opposition campaign is run by none other than Paul Giamatti in a Rabelaisian role of a guy willing to “get down in the mud with the fucking elephants” and play dirty tricks and political hardball, not at all afraid to use smear tactics to raise his candidate’s standings in the polls. The behind-the-scenes intrigue is especially convincing by the power of Gosling’s performance, as he single handedly elevates this material, as does an affecting turn from Evan Rachel Wood, as the two are the real heart and soul of this movie. Despite excellent performances from some heavy hitters, the problem is that this never elevates the political discussion, instead it only rehashes old news, bringing it all back to the forefront, something we all hoped was forgotten long ago. Leave it to a liberal leaning Democrat to once more embarrass the Democrats with another eager young intern and cast an ugly stain over the entire political system in the process. All that’s missing is the blue dress.