Running for Office in Movies

by A. Jay Adler on October 17, 2011
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The Candidate

The Candidate (Image via RottenTomatoes.com)

Within the political film genre, a sub-genre is the film whose focus is the run for office. Films outside that sub-category, from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to All the President’s Men, offer similar lessons about American ideals and worldly reality, but what they offer are insights into established reality – the national establishment, the now long-existent nation – what we may believe of it and what it really is. The campaign film, however, is naturally regenerative. It offers the cycle of life. We get to try again, we get to believe again, we run again. Hope springs. Keep hope alive. Yes, we can.

Having already written yesterday of Walter Huston in Gregory La Cava‘s 1932 Gabriel Over the White House, it seemed only proper to keep up with the genre and view the latest in the sub-genre, George Clooney‘s The Ides of March.

The film’s review’s have been mixed at best. The casting is outstanding, and the cast delivers on its promise, with Paul Giamatti a further standout in his supporting role. Ryan Gosling continues to deliver easily concentrated, physically quiet performances. In the final scene, he is, without gesture, simultaneously, cynically hardened to those around him and deeply hurt for the audience. As a film actor, the world is currently his oyster; let’s hope he has control of his appetites.

The mixed reviews rightly observe that Ides has no new insights into well-known issues. Thus a certain ho-humness in response. What none have reflected on is what it means for this to be so. Some have even claimed a somewhat outdated quality to the film’s central sexual scandal, which is a peculiar take given that John Edwards’s trial is ongoing. The film is profoundly cynical, and the critics find it tiresomely old hat. Right as critics may be to find the film so, consider, among all the contention that swirls around us now, that we are so inured to to so corrosive an understanding of our civic apparatus and nature. Ho hum.

In Gore Vidal‘s classic The Best Man, we get the principled candidate brought to confront the dirty business of his business. He is brought lower by it, but he still retains some integrity. He is not what he has to play in. In Robert Redford’s The Candidate, the idealist confronts no melodramatic scandal or agonizing moral choice as in Best Man or Ides; rather his ideal nature is chipped away in pieces by the process. Still, in both films, the decent man, no longer carved in marble, remains a decent man. He is sullied and humanized, brought down from his perch, but we are all maturely prepared to accommodate that truth. The old gods are dead and the new gods are strikingly human in their excellence and their flaws.

The best expression of this vision is Primary Colors. We do not begin in that film with a paragon. Jack Stanton is a charismatic politician, not an candidate of idealized integrity, and the film’s complex revelation, in its climax, is neither the candidate’s fall nor his retention of some measure of his former integrity. What Stanton tell us in the closing scene is not that he plays hard politics from ambition alone, but that he believes it is necessary, given the process, to do good. And he does wish to do good. This claim is not the end of a discussion, but the beginning of one, and it is the most complex vision of the political process we have been offered.

In contrast, The Ides of March, to match the apparently commonplace cynicism of its American-citizen viewers and critics, is strikingly cynical to a depth beyond these other films. It is a mainstream Hollywood production, cast with the best of American actors, directed by and starring one of Hollywood’s best-known and most admired liberals. Yet in this film, the idealized candidate retains no measure of integrity. The surprising vision Clooney offers is that even the apparent white knights of liberalism are, cornered, personally small and lurking menacingly in the shadows to save themselves.

AJA

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