Monday, January 30, 2012

The Ides of March

This weekend I watched Sony Picture's The Ides of March. This is my take on the politics and political maneuvering in the movie more than a movie review and as I will go over the plot in detail, to say that it contains spoilers would be a gross understatement.

The Ides of March
The movie takes us to Ohio days before the March 15th (the Ides, of course) Democratic Primary between George Clooney, the "good guy" favorite and  Michael Mantell, the opposition. On Clooney's team is a political veteran played by Philip Hoffman and the star of the movie, Ryan Gosling--a wunderkin political operator who is instrumental in running Clooney's campaign.

As Team Clooney is poised to win, Gosling gets a call from the other side's campaign lead Paul Giamatti--who wants a secret meeting with him in a restaurant. Against his better judgment he goes and is told that in Ohio's open primary the independents and conservatives are going to come out in force to pick Mantell over the Democratic favorite. Furthermore, the governor of Ohio, who will be very important, is in the bag for Mantell and Giamatti wants Gosling to switch teams and come work for Mantell.

Troubled, Gosling doesn't take the bait but also doesn't tell his boss, Hoffman that he's been to meet with the enemy. When the governor of Ohio both refuses to sign on with Team Clooney but also is told Clooney's whole strategy, this winds up giving it all to Team Mantell.

In the interim, Gosling sleeps with a beautiful intern and, over the course of covert romance, discovers that she, also, has slept with ... the very married George Clooney. And she needs 900 bucks for an abortion. Gosling takes her to a clinic and when he returns (telling her she's out of the campaign for good) he gets fired by Hoffman for disloyally meeting with Giamatti. Furious and vindictive, Gosling threatens to tear the whole campaign down. He goes to Giamatti only to be told he was played: Giamatti won't hire him now and never really intended to hire him in the first place (unless he'd jumped ship immediately). He just wanted to disarm the Clooney campaign.

When Gosling returns and goes to the intern's hotel room discovers she has committed suicide. He takes her cell phone--which has calls to Clooney on it--and successfully blackmails Clooney into both firing Hoffman (who was utterly loyal and prized loyalty above all else) and signing Gosling on for his presidency.

The film ends on a somber note with Gosling having 'sold his soul' but, probably, getting to work in the White House.

Was It Good?
It got a good score on the Rotten Tomatoes Tomato-Meter. I found it well crafted if kind of slow. Clooney always plays the same guy--and he's good as that guy--but he's still the same guy. It does get slightly old, I guess.

The Politics

President Clooney
One of the articles of faith amongst Republicans is that Hollywood is leftist. I have to say I find some truth to that. After all, Hollywood keeps making message films (Rendition, Lions for Lambs, Stop Loss, etc.) that "no one is watching." Furthermore, the presidents portrayed by Hollywood--and I'll include The West Wing in this group--who are heroic tend to be, to my mind, populist democrats. Arguing for things like term limits on politicians is a gimmie. Saying we need to get off of oil and on to clean power is only questionable if you cite global warming--if you bash the Middle East (and thereby Arabs) you get a strong sell across the spectrum.

Clooney is a left-wing Democrat's wet dream of a candidate. He's an atheist--something that, even within 20 years would never fly. He's got correct, soulful answers (for the left) on abortion ("I personally wouldn't do it but I'm not making that decision for anyone else") and he speaks strongly, eloquently and with Clooney's charisma.

I found that telling and even a bit naive. Real national-leader candidates are usually cautious about playing to the base. I suspect that the movie comes on strongly so that we'll buy him as not-like-all-those-other politicians and therefore be more shocked when it turns out he (like Clinton) was sleeping with the intern. We aren't: we're a little disappointed he's not killing people because it would make the movie more exciting.

 Operation Chaos-ish
The idea that the opposition would storm an open primary to prop up the weaker candidate is not new: Rush Limbaugh proposed/declared Operation Chaos. This was call for his listeners to go to open primaries and vote for Hillary to either keep her in the running as long as possible (McCain won't beat up Obama so she has to!) or even have her win. According to at least some poll watchers no evidence was found of this having any impact.

If Limbaugh--the most successful talk radio show in the world--couldn't do it there is no reason to think a whispering campaign could. Worse--or more naive--the idea that "traffic jams" could be staged and secret instructions could go out on a large scale without everyone knowing about it is ridiculous. In short, the whole "Clooney is going to lose Ohio and doesn't know it" angle seemed laughable. Now, the movie does mention Operation Chaos so you know they know what's going on--which makes me wonder if they assumed I would fall for it. I wouldn't. Enough fake traffic jams to effect an entire state's primary would send the whole opposition team to jail.

The Intern
They say the one thing you can never-never-ever-EVER do is sleep with the intern. "They'll get you for that." Well, yeah--the Republicans will. Ask Clinton, whom we're expected to remember ... and nod sagely about. We even get a loving Clooney-and-Wife shot just to set up how married he is.

I will assume we were to think of John Edwards and his bizarre affair on the road on his campaign. This kind of stuff does happen and, as we saw, the cover up does not involve rich, powerful men having the women disappeared (believe me: if Edwards could snap his fingers and have the woman he slept with gone, I'm sure he would've). With Cain we saw that even a good slate of allegations can bring down a campaign--even without proof.

So, fine: if political conspiracy thrillers want to predicate their bad behavior on sex? I'm good with that.

But did it have to be an intern?

The Play
Clooney, facing blackmail, has to fire his chief strategist and go with the brilliant but un-tested Gosling instead. He decides to do it (even though his logic, correctly, tells him that the blackmail threat isn't as strong as Gosling says it is). I did like that: even though Clooney could've called the bluff, he lost his nerve.

That's human--and real.

But I still don't think it'd have happened. Here's why: although campaign strategies are fairly straightforward a a high level (look at Romney's air and ground game) in practice they are fiendishly hard to execute. See how, for example, Gingrich fails to get on the ballot in each state--and fails to show up on time in numerous Florida venues. This isn't because the ballot requirements are harder than running a 4-minute mile--it's because getting 10k signatures and vetting all of them requires organization. It requires persistence and management.

The skill of administration is the skill of getting stuff done--making sure it happens. A bad-ass chief executive is not only very rare but, when the machine is in motion, very, very hard to replace. Turning over your chief of staff in the middle of a rough campaign would not simply be trading names on the door of the office. It would mean a stop-gap in which the coordination would be shot. Remember: when Clooney kicks Hoffman out of his car with a 2 minute conversation there is no transition. Gosling certainly does not know everything Hoffiman was doing: Gosling is up until 3:00 AM coordinating his own stuff next door to Hoffman who stays up until six. And then goes the next day on coffee.

When campaigns switch leaders it's a near-collapse. It's often irrecoverable once you're deep in the game. Yes: Clooney is up and expected to win the primary (and then the election as the Republicans "have no one")--but I think he'd be betting surviving-the-scandal vs. throwing his whole campaign up in the air and taking shots at it with a rifle. I think that calculation would've gone against Gosling if there was any doubt, which there was.

In Conclusion
I was a little bored and found The Ides of March a little naive and a little too willing to show us its "cliffnotes" versions of recent political scandals to try to gain credibility. I think it does show a pretty good depth of understanding of how a campaign works and it certainly paints its characters well. But if you want verisimilitude and insight? Watch Recount.

I'm hoping for better when Game Change comes out this year.

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