Saturday, October 08, 2011
Beware "The Ides of March"!
Beware The Ides of March, for viewing it might make you "cynical" about politics! Actually, it's more like an education about the way our politics actually work, so naive purists need to make sure that they see this movie if they want to understand the complexities and nuances of our political system.
When I first heard that George Clooney was making a film based on the Howard Dean campaign, I was stoked. However, that was actually misinformation. The movie is actually based on a play called Farragut North, written by Beau Willimon, who had worked on Howard Dean's presidential campaign in 2003-2004. Big difference! Because I thought it was going to be based on the Howard Dean campaign, I thought it would be about how the media trivializes the political process by inventing scandals where none exists (the prime example being the way the media overplayed and over-analyzed Dean's enthusiastic yelling in a crowded auditorium to pump up the disappointed volunteers and supporters when Dean came in third in the Iowa caucuses).
The movie seems more reflective of the John Edwards campaign of 2007-2008. George Clooney (whom many would like to see run for political office someday) plays Democratic governor Mike Morris of Pennsylvania. He's running for president and campaigning in the delegate rich state of Ohio. His opponent, Senator Ted Pullman, is considered the weaker candidate but has a chance to win the Ohio primary because independents and Republicans are allowed to vote in the open primary, thus choosing the weaker opponent to face the Republican candidate in the general election.
This primary battleground state is where compromises get made because victory is considered essential. Key to the strategy is gaining the endorsement of an African American Senator from North Carolina (played by Jeffrey Wright, who had played Colin Powell in Oliver Stone's W.). Governor Morris does not like the guy because of views he considers "extreme" (such as wanting to eliminate the top ten floors of the United Nations building). However, Morris' opponent is offering his colleague in the Senate the Secretary of State position if he becomes president. Morris has to make a deal that tops that, which the viewer can probably assume that its the Vice Presidency, though its never mentioned.
The movie centers on the loyal, idealistic campaign aide named Stephen Meyers (played excellently by Ryan Gosling). He has the position I've been dreaming about for almost two decades now. In the campaign, he's the second man down on the totem pole (his supervisor is the Campaign Manager played by Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and he definitely has the Governor's ear on a lot of things. Clooney--er, Morris--gives the standard liberal Democrat applause lines on the positions he takes. Make no mistake, this is likely the kind of candidate Clooney might actually be in real life, if he ever decided to run. Marisa Tomei plays a jaded reporter who warns Meyers that its dangerous to fall in love with a politician, because he'll inevitably be disappointed. And by "falling in love", I meant in its political usage, not the romantic one. It is the nature of politics for supporters to want to "fall in love" with a candidate, which is why the Republican Party is struggling right now to find a "perfect" and flawless candidate that their rabid teabaggers can blindly support all the way to the White House.
On the rival campaign, Paul Giamatti plays the campaign manager who seeks out Meyers for a private meeting on the pretense that he has some info he'd like to share. This sets the story into motion and soon, we're hearing about the importance of absolute loyalty, and that almost nothing in politics can be taken at face value. People have to approach politics like a chess match, not a checkers game. It requires being shrewd and thinking through things before one acts. This is why politicians tend to be cagey about how they respond to questions. Being fully honest and straightforward can lead to controversies, scandals, and drama. People complain about politicians not answering questions in a forthright manner, but for those that do, they face media scrutiny (such as just this past week when Senator Scott Brown was asked about rival Elizabeth Warren's derisive comment regarding his modeling jobs that paid his way through college. He had said "Thank God!" when the interviewer mentioned that Warren never posed nude).
The film title "Ides of March" comes from the famous soothsayer warning in Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. The soothsayer warned Caesar to "beware the ides of March!" because that was when a plot to dispose of Caesar would happen, the most famous betrayal in history (well, perhaps second most famous, after Judas Iscariot of the Messiah Jesus). Though I understand why the phrase was chosen as the title to the film, I still believe a better title could have been used.
When the moment arrives, this is where the film really comes alive. Up to this point, the movie builds slowly. As I watched, I felt a subtext of menace. The music, the lighting, the close-ups on the faces, all of it seems meant to convey that there is something going on beneath the surface, even if we don't realize it or see it. The rivalry between Hoffman and Giamatti as opposing campaign managers is simply dynamic. Perfect casting coup getting those two, because I can visualize them as actual campaign managers. Hoffman's lecture about loyalty is right on the mark (as one who is naturally loyal, it still amazes me that I have not been able to find my way on a winning campaign or valued for my loyal nature among those who do win).
Another element in the film involves a young intern who manages to get Meyers to sleep with her. In one amusing scene, they make love in front of the television, with the late night news on, reporting on Governor Mike Morris, and Meyers, ever the devoted political aide actually stops kissing her to turn his head and watch his boss on the television screen. I imagine that could be awkward for the girl, but as Meyers had said to Morris when the candidate asked him if he was single, Meyers replied, "I'm married to the campaign, sir!" That is the only acceptable answer.
After another late night session with the intern, Meyers is working on his laptop in bed when a cell phone rings. He picks it up and answers. After the caller asks for the girl and then hangs up, Meyers realizes that he answered the wrong phone. He asks the intern who would call her at 2:30 in the morning and does an automatic redial against her pleadings not to. He learns that it was the governor who had called her and in his facial expression, you can see all of his idealism and loyalty drain from his face. For all of Morris' talk about honesty and integrity, it turns out that he's just another typical politician with a sex problem.
To reveal any more about the film is to give away the intrigue and the power that makes this film worth seeing. In the end, while it is a very good film, it could have been far greater. For someone who understands the nature of politics and the subtexts and nuances, nothing that happens in the film surprises me. And I'm an idealist (with a splash of realism). One of my frustrations with those who call themselves "teabaggers" as well as those on the left who believe that Congressman Dennis Kucinich or former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney are "saints" is that they don't understand the nature of politics. You can never take things at face value when it comes to politics. There is ALWAYS a subtext. The proof of this is when politicians ask reporters if they can speak "off the record" and the reporter agrees. If we want to change our country, then no politician should ever be allowed to speak off the record. Every utterance should be fair game, because speaking off the record means that they are going to give an honest opinion or viewpoint or fact that they believe the public either has no right to know about or can't handle or that they fear repercussions to their moment of honesty.
Thus, for anyone who studies politics or follows it, you have to read between the lines. Always! Teabaggers don't understand this. Nor do radical liberals. As I've told many naive people, "Politics is not a game for amateurs." It always amazes me when I hear people who only get their political opinions from watching Fox News or listening to Rush Limbaugh, because a true political scientist is savvy about information. One has to be able to look at what is said and look at what is going on and be able to analyze what is likely to be true. Often, it won't be the statement on the record. For example, Hillary Clinton claims to have been surprised when Obama had asked her to be his Secretary of State after winning the election. I don't believe that is the truth. I believe that a deal was made before the general election, when they were meeting to discuss her campaign debt and role at the convention. In order to get her on board, Obama had to offer her something, and my guess is that it was either Secretary of State or the Supreme Court. She may have wanted the Vice Presidency. We won't ever know. All we can know for sure is that there is no way in hell that Hillary only learned after the election about Obama's interest in her being his Secretary of State. That is politics in a nutshell. Deals are made behind the scenes and kept from the public until its safe to reveal.
While I did enjoy watching The Ides of March and will own the DVD when that comes out, I believe that Primary Colors told the same story in a far more interesting way (with humour, as well). Clooney may call this film cynical about politics, but I don't think so. It represents the truth about politics and as an idealist, I'm not jaded at all. I understand the game and until we are willing to take responsibility and make some real changes (everything starts with public financing of campaigns in order to ban contributions from corporations and wealthy donors), our political system is not going to change. Good people can still run for elected office and maintain their integrity. It just takes some extra effort and keeping one's pants zipped. Once you indulge in behaviour that can easily be blackmailed, you're setting yourself up for compromise and extortion.
The best political film I've ever seen, though, still remains Robert Redford's The Candidate. That one was based on Robert F. Kennedy's campaign for president and presented a more hopeful, idealistic view of what is possible. But, thanks to George W. Bush, we still live in cynical times.
Speaking of cynicism, a Facebook friend of mine is running for president. I have a hard time believing that he's serious. I'm not certain that his mental faculties are 100%. The reason I say this is because he had defriended me several weeks ago after he saw that my name was listed as "liking" George W. Bush and Mitt Romney. I was stunned when he emailed me saying that he could not be friends with someone who liked those two! Wow. Really? For one thing, I don't know how my name was attached to "liking" Bush's Facebook page because there is no way I would have done something like that. I did click on the "like" button for Mitt Romney, though, so I can monitor what his campaign puts out on their Facebook page. I used to be attached to Sarah Palin's Facebook page until they banned me (because I had said that she had no intention of running for president and was only using her fans as an ATM machine. Turns out I was correct!).
After I explained myself to this guy on Facebook (I'm not sure how we became Facebook friends, as I don't know him personally and I did not friend request him), he re-friended me and then later announced that he is running for president. So far, his posts are all opinions, and while I agree with his opinions, he doesn't seem willing to post his actual resume for people to look at. I'm kind of a traditionalist when it comes to politics, in that I believe that some experience and being in elected office matters, thus why I'm baffled that people take Herman Cain seriously. Just because I agree with you on politics doesn't mean I'll vote for you. The reason is because politics is a shrewd game and it takes someone who knows how to work the system to be successful (this is the reason why Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Bill Clinton were such good domestic-policy presidents or why Presidents Richard Nixon and George Herbert Walker Bush were great foreign policy presidents). So, I won't be voting for this Facebook guy, because if he couldn't understand that my "liking" Mitt Romney's Facebook page is not the same as me supporting him for president, then this guy does not understand nuance at all. Plus, if you're going to de-friend someone based on ideological conformity, then you really aren't fit to be president for ALL Americans. As the 2000 election showed, we are a 50-50 nation, split down the middle.
Who's up for a President George Clooney, someday? Personally, I don't think its going to happen. He even said so himself, because apparently, he has too many "skeletons" in his closet (in one interview I read, I believe Clooney even said that he had sex with too many people that it would present a problem). Well, that's probably a relief. He should keep making smart movies like The Ides of March and continuing his work in Darfur and other places. He can be a big influence from outside the political system. There is no shortage of up-and-coming politicians (such as Governor Martin O'Malley and Senator Scott Brown) to keep future presidential campaigns interesting.