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[Welcome to the Fourth Wall, CHIRP's weekly e-conversation on cinema. This week's subject is the film The Ides of March. This edition is written by CHIRP Radio volunteers Kevin Fullam and Clarence Ewing.]
Clarence: Kevin, after watching The Ides of March, I want to ask you about two of the bigger names in Hollywood in 2017.
First, a summary: Based on the novel Farragut North, the movie stars Ryan Gosling as Stephen Meyers, a hard-charging campaign manager who is working for Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney, who also directed, co-wrote, and co-produced the film). Morris wants the Democratic party nomination for the upcoming presidential election but, as is made clear several times, he is a Man of Integrity who will not compromise his principles to win any election.
Meyers and his senior campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) are locked in a metaphorical chess match with Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the campaign guru of Morris’ main opponent, to see who can collect the last batch of delegates needed to get their guy a shot at the White House. As events unfold, loyalties are tested and secrets revealed in a way that addresses the question, how far are you willing to go to get what you want?
The dramatic arcs and tensions of this film seem quaint compared to the real-world political drama we all have front-row seats to on a daily basis. Overall, though, I liked this movie. It was well-written and directed, and the performances were across the board very good. I’d forgotten just how big a presence P.H. Hoffman is on screen. He left us much too soon.
The first person I want to ask you about is George Clooney, Hollywood Superstar. I never realized until I went over my Letterboxd account just how many of my favorite recent films have Clooney involved in some way, whether they are dramas (Good Night and Good Luck, Syriana, Three Kings) or comedies (O Brother Where Art Thou?, Ocean’s Eleven, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind). Even most of his films that aren’t great (Solaris, Burn After Reading, Leatherheads) have one or two interesting qualities.
To me, Clooney seems like a rare, soon-to-be-extinct breed in Hollywood, the major star who controls projects both in front of and behind the camera. But while folks like Tom Cruise go for grand-slam blockbusters in the Historical Epic or Science Fiction vein, Clooney seems committed to making mid-budget, intelligent dramas and comedies rooted in real-world scenarios and intended for adult audiences. Warren Beatty comes to mind as a similar kind of filmmaker, especially since both men aren’t afraid to inject their own political viewpoint into their work, making them the alpha-dogs of that much-maligned demographic group, the “Hollywood Liberal.”
The other person I want to ask you about is Ryan Gosling, Hollywood Superstar…? Gosling’s been in three of the four films we’ve discussed so far in our conversations. Even with the benefit of our Gosling mini-festival, I don’t get much of an A-list Clooney-esque vibe from him. I feel like he’s becoming his generation’s Christian Slater, a young, attractive presence with some charisma and exactly one gear, acting-wise (Slater the smirking Jack Nicholson wanna-be, Gosling the slick-talking frat boy). In Ides of March, Gosling’s various scenes where he’s directly opposite Clooney, Giamatti, and Hoffman really highlight the differences in skill and experience. Maybe La La Land might change my mind, but at this point it doesn’t look like there’s much difference between 2011 Gosling and 2017 Gosling, which wouldn’t be a huge deal except for how he’s being cast in every other film being released these days.
How do you feel about these two actors? Are you a “Gosling-er?” How about “Team Clooney?” Is there another actor or movie star working today who you hold in particular regard? And what did you think of the movie?
Kevin: I hadn't realized that Gosling was in our last three films until you brought it up! Perhaps that says something about his screen presence? I'll throw out three more Gosling films I've enjoyed -- Fracture, Place Beyond the Pines, and Drive -- but I wouldn't say he's a commanding figure in any of those, either. In the first two, he takes a back seat to Anthony Hopkins and Bradley Cooper, respectively, while in the third he doesn't utter more than a handful of lines in the entire film. Even if he does possess a bit of a single-note flair*, however, he always does seem to deliver the goods in a way that, say, Keanu Reeves (another modern star of limited range) does not. Score one for slick-talking frat boys over surfers?
[*Wasn't it Ebert who said something to the effect of, "the definition of a movie star is someone who plays themselves in every role?"]
While I've admired Clooney's acting chops, only Up in the Air and The Ides of March left any sort of lasting impression on me -- and the latter's hinged on a rather abrupt turn the film takes at around the 45-minute mark. It's that turn, where the film becomes much more focused on character than politics, that really sold me on Ides and Clooney's Governor Morris. Without it, Morris is essentially another white knight in the vein of President Jeb Bartlet of The West Wing, a show which never appealed to me primarily because of the lack of black-and-gray morality espoused.
Before I get back to Ides, you asked about whether there's another actor working today whom I hold in high regard? Absolutely. Jake Gyllenhaal. I'd put his recent works Nightcrawler, Prisoners, and Enemy against any other 21st-century trio in terms of acting range, with Nightcrawler in particular managing to accomplish the stunning feat of featuring a creepy sociopath (Gyllenhaal's Lou Bloom) as a riveting protagonist. Want more? Even if you've long since had your fill of Buddy Cop movies, I'd recommend End of Watch; Gyllenhaal helps carry the film, which mixes the done-to-death genre with a found-footage twist.
So, I mentioned in our opening conversation that I'm keenly interested in the depiction of politics in film, but that I especially appreciate films which also chase dramatic tension and/or humor over making a political point. No one likes to be preached to, and admittedly, I would think that even those who share Mr. Clooney's political positions (which seem to be completely in lockstep with those of his character, Gov. Morris) might find themselves rolling their eyes during several of Morris' early stump speeches in the film.
But ultimately, the film is about the game. (Or war, perhaps? Politics is known as "war by other means," after all.) Paul Giamatti has just two scenes as a campaign strategist for a Morris rival... and his Tom Duffy runs circles around the talented-but-inexperienced Meyers (Gosling) in a way that ultimately threatens to upend Morris' entire candidacy. Marisa Tomei pops in periodically as a cagey NY Times correspondent who seems like everyone's friend... until she has a lead on a damaging story. And Phillip Seymour Hoffman (now there's a guy with gravitas) delivers a diatribe near the close of the film about the only real "currency" in politics.
There's nothing special about the meat-and-potatoes of the story. A primary campaign, warring strategists, a scandal... we've seen this tale before. But I don't know that we've seen it this well-executed before. In my view, Ides of March is a perfect case of how the finished product is far greater than the sum of its parts.
Clarence, what are your feelings on political films in general? Any particular favorites? Did the recent bruising presidential campaign numb you a bit to the drama? (I originally saw the film when it was released in 2011, so at least there was more distance in that regard for me.)
Clarence: I think I have a definite bias toward the non-fictional when it comes to political stories. To this day, I have never seen an episode of The West Wing, House of Cards, Veep, Madame Secretary, Designated Survivor, or any other high-profile political drama, and I have no plans to do so. I think I also drifted off watching All the President's Men, the gold standard of political thrillers. However, I do find non-fictional political documentaries like Frontline's series The Choice endlessly fascinating. I think the last fictional political film I enjoyed was Barry Lyndon! In the coming years there's going to be plenty of material for fictional, semi-fictional, and non-fictional work based on what's going on in Washington.
I've only seen a couple of Jake Gyllenhaal's films (Brokeback Mountain and Jarhead), But I've enjoyed what I've seen. His sister Maggie is also an excellent actor. I've actually enjoyed the Keanu Reeves performances I've seen. He seems to know what his strengths are and he stays in his lane, acting-wise.
Ebert's comment about movie stars is spot on, and I think there's a direct parallel between the worlds of movies and Pop music in that regard. I think it was Frank Sinatra who became the first modern Pop star, one of the first performers many fans flocked to see because they wanted to see him rather than listen to a particular song. Beyoncé comes to mind when I think of who fits the description today.
As for movies, Brad Pitt seems to be one of the last of the iconic Movie Stars, and even though I think he's a fine actor, Ebert's comment really does apply to him. Pitt's best roles (Fight Club, the Ocean's series, Thelma & Louise) are the ones where he's literally playing Brad Pitt, an impossibly handsome figure who only exists on the silver screen. Even then, his recent roles have been lower-profile parts in ensemble dramas and non-blockbuster projects. Matthew McConaughey is the same way, esoteric car commercials notwithstanding.
No doubt, political films like Ides of March provide actors, megastars or not, plenty of opportunities for dramatic moments. Have any other recent political films made an impression on you? How about political films that aren't based in the US?
Kevin: So, All the President's Men (about the Watergate scandal) falls into the same category as our recently-discussed The Big Short. Where's the tension in a dramatization of such a high-profile event? (OK, the former was far more in the public's eye when it was originally released in 1976, but still... we're all pretty familiar with Watergate and Nixon, no?) However, I'll throw in Oliver Stone's JFK as an exception to this rule; I think it manages to escape this box due to the swirling questions surrounding the feasibility of Kennedy's assassination. But perhaps this film is actually more of a mystery rather than political thriller?
Also, I just saw Barry Lyndon within the last year or so -- I hadn't quite thought of it as a political film, but more of a rags-to-riches story? Perhaps we'll have to delve into that picture at a later date!
As far as recent political films, Eye in the Sky is one worth watching. What are our thoughts regarding drone attacks overseas? How much collateral damage are we willing to accept? What sort of psychological damage is inflicted on the soldiers who have to execute the attacks? And why isn't there a large public discussion about the merits of such a strategy?
You mentioned a fondness for political documentaries, which I share; I think they're even more powerful when discussing foreign cultures, since we're able to absorb them with fresh eyes that aren't clouded by our own bias and ideological preferences. The Gatekeepers is one of my favorites of the past few years -- it's a series of interviews with the last five heads of Shin Bet (Israel's version of the FBI) about their thoughts on their country's dealings with the Palestinians. The Act of Killing, which revisits the atrocities of the 1960s Indonesian revolution, would be another.
My favorite political documentary, however, is a little-known film called Please Vote For Me. It's a 52-minute movie about a third-grade race for "class monitor" (i.e. class president) in a school in China. What's fantastic about the film is that here you have a campaign between eight-year-olds in a culture devoid of Western democratic institutions... and yet it's still a microcosm of American politics. Alliances are made. Speechwriters are recruited (in the form of parents). Bribes are offered. PR tricks are employed. The message? People, no matter where they hail form, inherently know how to "play the game." Readers, you can watch it on Vimeo here.
[Did you see the movie? Want to add to the conversation? Leave a comment below!]
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