In an alternate world known as Ohio, in the days before an imaginary contest called the Democratic presidential primary, candidate George Clooney commands the microphones, saying many things that Nation readers dearly want to hear. He endorses secularism, abortion rights, renewable energy and renewed manufacturing; he lambastes militarism, fossil fuels and fearmongering. Not since Orson Welles took to the stump for FDR has a movie star delivered the Popular Front message with such roguish swagger and basso fluency—and Clooney, unlike Welles, is in shape. Set aside for a moment the unlikeliness that a candidate who articulates these positions might win the presidency. (With Clooney at the podium, disbelief suspends itself.) The greater improbability is one that has actually come to pass in the world of commerce. Columbia Pictures has released The Ides of March, a movie that blithely writes off millions of potential ticket buyers who will not assent to a description of Republicans as tightly disciplined filth.
How to explain The Ides of March, if not as art then as a business proposition? First, I acknowledge that Clooney—by all appearances a smart man, and a principled one—has amassed enough power to be the producer, director and co-writer of his own movies, as well as the box-office draw. I also note that an industry faced with steadily declining theater admissions and a welter of new distribution channels is ever more willing to engage in niche marketing, even when the niche is us.
Mostly, though, I observe that the wish fulfillment of polemical drama gets sideswiped in The Ides of March by the imperatives of trite playwriting, sending both of them spinning into an intersection blocked by the tractor-trailer of realism.
The collision damage report must therefore begin with the screenplay and its origin in the Beau Willimon play Farragut North. The Ides of March makes some efforts to open up this source material by offering views of brown-brick downtown Cincinnati in late winter. (These shots are also an auteurist gesture; we’re seeing the landscape of Clooney’s youth.) Otherwise, though, the film remains enclosed in Willimon’s theatrical conventions, advancing the plot through a succession of two-character confrontations. People may try to deceive one another during these set-to’s, but the characters never deceive themselves about their motives, never struggle to discover what they think and never fail to instruct the audience, loudly, about the next point to be understood. The advantage of this time-tested expository scheme is clarity. The disadvantage for The Ides of March (other than a tendency to produce screaming matches with metronomic regularity) is an emotional divorce between the dramaturgy and its purpose, which is to lay bare the hypocrisy of people who really don’t conceal much.
Chief among them is the central character: not candidate Clooney but his hotshot young press handler, played by Ryan Gosling. Suddenly as omnipresent as Jessica Chastain, Gosling brings to this character virtually the same mannerisms that you see when he plays the wealthy womanizer in Crazy, Stupid, Love and the lonely, sensitive criminal in Drive. His diction is that of a street punk. (While projecting no particular ethnicity, Gosling makes every word sound like “putz.”) His lean build is coiled and potentially menacing. But the narrow, delicately modeled face (perpetually shadowed by a one-day stubble) contradicts the tough-guy image, especially when Gosling looks off to the side, brooding and dreaming, instead of facing the person speaking to him, or when he produces his signature tight-lipped grin without preparation, out of a deadpan, and quickly hides it again. By making the same persona work for three dissimilar characters, Gosling demonstrates not that he’s without resources but that he’s a star—a point that Clooney, as director, has cleverly underscored in The Ides of March. Just as the campaign’s media handler comes to supplant the candidate (I reveal theme, not plot), so is Gosling allowed in his performance to supplant Clooney as leading man.
This substitution is the first thing to happen in the film, as Gosling tests the podium that Clooney will use in a debate. Looking ashen without makeup, he stands in the glare where the candidate will stand and in a careless tone bleats some of the applause lines the candidate will soon bellow, not hesitating to mock them in the process. Within a few minutes of this scene, the media handler will profess his deep and rather unprofessional belief in the candidate, proclaiming him to be the one figure in politics who will change people’s lives; but an alert viewer will know better than to take this declaration at face value, since it’s addressed to one of the journalists who are supposed to be handled. Besides, by this time you’ve seen how the candidate, at the close of the debate, had looked imploringly toward the wings of the theater, hoping to see Gosling give a thumbs-up. The movie has hardly started, and already you know who’s in control.
It’s a control that seems more posited than dramatized. For a supposedly brilliant schemer, the handler turns out to be oddly obtuse; and Gosling, in playing him, never hints at the workings of an intelligence beyond the ordinary. (If you want to be persuaded that a star is thinking things through in real time, watch Brad Pitt in Moneyball.) Still, Gosling has shrewdness to spare glinting in his eyes, and his nervous energy seems to guarantee that he will come out a winner. It’s good fun to watch him slice his way through scenes, brusquely attempting to convert everyone in sight into his instrument; and yet there’s a limit to this pleasure, since the plot manifestly requires the sort of crisis to be found in a hundred other inside-politics movies. Once more, the mask of ideals must be stripped away to expose the face of cold egotism—but how shocked can we expect Gosling to be by this revelation, how disillusioned, when his own cynicism has been obvious from the start?
Like an ungainly hybrid of State of the Union and Wag the Dog, The Ides of March tantalizes you with the righteous satisfaction of hearing Clooney’s oratory and the diabolical glee of watching Gosling’s machinations, but then it pulls back on both types of entertainment, just to achieve a simpleton’s version of moral complexity. Virtuous characters must never turn out to be as good as they seem; manipulative ones ought to have been better than they are. Says who? For the sake of observing the rules of stock fiction, The Ides of March delivers not one but two insufficiencies.
And then, worse, it gives you too little of the quality that is its strongest claim on your attention—its purported realism.
I like The Ides of March for pretending that the Republicans would be terrified of candidate Clooney. I resist the film, yet I forgive it for pretending that campaign consultants rather than campaign funders are the people chiefly responsible for poisoning our political life. (For a more accurate picture of what makes America run, watch Moneyball.) But I cannot forgive The Ides of March for pretending that a character who needs to keep a low profile would simply drive up to a Cincinnati abortion clinic and walk through the door. Where are the bullies shouting on the sidewalk? Where are the picketers with their bloody signs and cellphone cameras ready to record the face of a baby killer? Ohio has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the country and some of the most vehement abortion foes. And yet a film that wants audiences to feel it’s in touch with American reality—including the struggle over abortion rights—conveniently forgets what happens on the street every day.
I come back to the handler’s assertion that candidate Clooney would make a difference in people’s lives. It seems to me that Clooney the moviemaker wants to do just that. I respect him for it, and despite the shortcomings I find in his new production, I hope people will see The Ides of March. It is not an actively bad movie (like, for example, Sarah’s Key). It is just a little too confident about its courage, a little too timid about its handling of convention, and so loses track of something that political movies would do well to keep in mind. Politics is ultimately not about electoral jockeying or legislative shenanigans but about the way people live on street corners—the ones that the filmmakers pass by, or sometimes careen into.
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Let’s talk about the way Nathan Harris lives. In the summer of 2009, as a 25-year-old sergeant in Echo Company, 2nd Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment, he was dropped by helicopter into a Taliban-controlled area of southern Afghanistan, where within hours his platoon was taking heavy fire from all sides. He survived that fight and another six months of engagements, but only days before the end of his tour he fell into an ambush that left him close to dead, his right femur shattered and much of his right hip blasted away. Several surgeries later, Harris was helped off a bus in his native North Carolina, returning at last to his wife, Ashley. He brought with him a wheeled walker, a Ziploc bag full of pills and a head boiling with frustration, resentment and bloody memories.
Harris’s struggle to adjust to his new circumstances, and the lingering presence in his life and Ashley’s of the events that tore him apart, are the subject of Hell and Back Again, the first feature-length documentary by the photojournalist Danfung Dennis. Thanks to resources that are both personal and technical, the film gives an astonishingly close view of the Harrises’ lives. It brings you along on their shopping trips and visits to the hospital, as you might expect, but also takes you into their living room (at a moment when Nathan is threatening a game of Russian roulette), their bedroom (where he tries to settle comfortably beside Ashley for the night) and even, seemingly, into his mind. Technically, this intimacy was possible because Dennis rigged his still camera to function as a digital video outfit, allowing him to operate as a one-man crew with first-rate but unusually unobtrusive equipment. Personally, he was able to get so close to his subjects because he had been under fire with the 2nd Platoon of Echo Company from its first day in the field, so that Harris had come to regard him almost as a marine. When Dennis came to North Carolina to record the story of the re-entry, he wound up living with the Harrises.
This may have been a little more than Ashley had bargained for, considering she was coping with an armed husband who was on the edge of addiction, by turns sullen and feverishly talkative and apt to double over at odd moments, clutching his head. No wife is ever trained for such situations, let alone while living on camera, so I marvel at Ashley’s strength and self-possession, while noting that she remains an unexplored character in the film. Nathan, by contrast, is explored in depth—or at least Dennis gives you the illusion of doing so, by means of cutting between present moments in North Carolina and past scenes in Afghanistan as if showing you the man’s thoughts.
It’s a questionable method, of course; but it’s also highly effective, because of the expertise of Fiona Otway’s editing and the awful power of the material Dennis recorded. In the Afghanistan scenes, you get terrifying, pixilated, belly-down images of battles interspersed with views of encounters that were in a way even tougher—as when a captain asks a village elder what the Marines can do to help and is told, bluntly, “Leave.” With these scenes as the background, you get the North Carolina images of a man who joined the Marines at 18 because “all I wanted was to kill people,” and who is now learning, while still young, to resign himself to a life of pain and physical limitation.
Hell and Back Again is in its premiere theatrical run at Film Forum in New York City. It follows Film Forum’s premiere of You Don’t Like the Truth: 4 Days Inside Guantánamo by Luc Côté and Patricio Henriquez, a documentary based on surveillance videos of the 2003 interrogation of Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen who was captured in Afghanistan at age 15 and imprisoned (on evidence that has never been tested in court) for having killed a US soldier. Two sides of one terrible story; all praise to Film Forum for telling them both.