Ominous But Not Really
Films about the American political process can be a mixed bag. The good ones are often about the perils of believing in the process or satires, while the bad ones are the ones that get preachy. Things that are compelling to the imaginary politically enlightened film audience in America tend not to carry as well to the other anglophone nations. This is because America, as a fellow-English speaking nation, will always wield too much cultural mass in the anglophone world. But that is by the by. In most part, films about the American political process end up like ‘Primary Colors’ where you are front and centre to see the theatre of it while the principle of things are shown to be malleable to the point of fluidity. And then somebody gets preachy.
So it is with a bit of trepidation one approaches ‘Ides of March’, after all you expect George Clooney to deliver something that stands up or something.
What’s Good About It
The good news is that the film is a lot more nuanced than an indictment of the process or the condemnation of the hypocrisy or the critique of the failures. The film comes way after films like ‘Wag the Dog’ and ‘The Cadidate’ and ‘All The President’s Men’, so there is a crisp concise feel to the narrative that hones in on a couple of mechanical aspects of a campaign.
The limited theatre of the concern makes the film more intimate when such a public operation as an election campaign could easily lose focus. What is also good is that the film isn’t about morality – it’s not really interested in questions of morality. It is more interested in the questions about frailty of the process where all kinds of influences can alter the course of a campaign. I wouldn’t say they were ethical questions, rather, the film’s relationship to politics and probity is deeply engaging and keeps us sucked in.
As films based on plays go, the dialogue in this film is not as baroque as something like ‘A Few Good Men’ or ‘Death of a Salesman’. This is a good thing because it keeps the film simple.
What’s Bad About It
The film is a little short on consequences for actions, and setups for why people do what they do. The Paul Giamatti character’s machinations are interesting, but they’re under-developed from a plotting point of view. It’s also hard to believe that a meeting between the main character and the Giamatti character could lead to such a fallout as we see on the screen. Everything is perfectly explicable to the audience so why wouldn’t it be so for these smart characters?
The film is also positing a thirty year old can suddenly become a campaign manager for a Presidential election. That might be true for some, but it’s absurd when you consider figures like James Carville and James Baker. Surely it’s the kind of position that demands a wily sort of wisdom, much more than smarts with the media. In that sense, the story seemed a bit far fetched.
You also expect the film to talk about much bigger things than it ends up talking about. As political films go, it’s a much smaller film than some others. It’s about as insightful as ‘Dave’.
What’s Interesting About It
It’s really only since the Bill Clinton Presidency that we have had to consider interns as sex objects. Yes, I say that with tongue firmly in cheek. Still, the line goes, “you broke the cardinal rule. 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.”
It’s a really witty line, but it’s also way too pithy.
The more interesting thing about interns is that they’re volunteers who put in crazy stupid hours for these campaigns for no money. Only in America could such slave labour fuel presidential politics. One imagines Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum and Barack Obama and the Clintons all have and had these work-for-nothing slaves running in and out of their election offices. The end point f such careers seem to be 750k p.a. consulting jobs on Farragut Ave. and that’s where the story is meant to be.
Somehow we’re all blinded by the candidate to see the process itself runs on this kind of exploitation, but I’m probably the weirdo watching the film thinking, there’s something really wrong going on there.
Loyalty As Currency
Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character Paul makes a big speech about the value of loyalty in politics. The film itself couches it in ambivalence (which is great because there’s so much hypocrisy going on) but it opens up an interesting point about politics. It explains how party politics works if everything in politics could be reduced to loyalty ties. My own view is that it does not, that policy and commitments and fulfilment of the commitments plays equally as large a role as loyalty – but the thing about insisting on loyalty sheds light on exactly why party politics seem to drift away from issues of policy towards issues of ideology (or faith) and perception. It could be said that if you’re in politics and you bang on about loyalty first and last, then you’re the least likely politico to be working on policy. These guys exist – like Graham Richardson – but it’s not as if it even begins to capture the scope of politics.
This is why it’s interesting in this film that loyalty is repaid with expedience and Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character finds himself on the outer, heading into retirement.
Politics As A Game
The other notable observation about politics in this film is the idea that the campaign is like a game, and when you fuck up, you have to leave the board, you lose the right to play on the field. It’s an interesting construct that helps this narrative along – and it may even be the kind of pithy observation made by some apparatchik working in DC, but it is exactly the sort of construction that subtracts power from the process rather than add to it.
The point about the politics of Presidential elections is that it is farthest from a game. I’m not saying that out of piety, but more a wry note that in a world that could deliver us a fuck up like George W. Bush for two terms, surely Presidential elections are a lot more grim than any old bloodsport. The stakes aren’t yours or my participation in the game, but yours and my own fate under what kind of knucklehead gets to hold the nuclear authentication key to start a nuclear Armageddon.
Does Democratic Process Make The World Fairer?
This question popped into my mind as I watched this film. It’s a weird question because it’s assumed that it would and should be fairer, but there’s something about the privileged and entitled class of America competing to put their man into the White House that strongly suggests a fairer society couldn’t be furthest from their minds. George Clooney’s character gets to say a whole bunch of cool things you wish a real candidate would say candidly (pun intended, because it shouldn’t be); yet it is blindingly obvious all the major participants come from privilege and money.
I know the communist block wasn’t exactly a mertiocracy or a success, but you wonder if the American political process itself is so much better than the politburo of old. Or for that matter, whether people really want fairness in their world. After all, if there weren’t the help, who do we get to feel superior about?