Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
Matthew 16:26 KJV
Based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, this is the 4th film directed by George Clooney. He also co-wrote the screenplay (with Grant Heslov and Willimon), and stars as the fictional Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), a liberal Democrat running in an Ohio primary for President of the US. His rival, a conservative Democrat, just might win, so Morris is anxious to secure the endorsement of popular Sen. Thompson (Jeffrey Wright). As Ohio goes, so goes the campaign.
Although Clooney plays the presidential contender, the focus of the film is on Ryan Gosling’s character Stephen Meyers, the campaign press secretary who idolizes Morris.
Morris in his speeches hits all the bases loved by the idealistic liberal, so when Stephen tells Ida (Marisa Tomei), a veteran reporter for The New York Time, “This thing, it’s got me starry-eyed again. It’s reminded me of why I got into politics in the first place,” we suspect that he might be headed toward disillusion. You know, much like Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith who so idolized the senior senator from his state, a senator known as “The White Knight.” However, this is definitely not an updated Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, nor is it like an episode from West Wing. This political drama in which the characters must decide between the high road and the low road starts out like these two, but soon follows the trajectory of a cynical but engrossing morality tale.
After Stephen engages in sex with a campaign intern named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), he learns from her a dark secret, one that draws him into trying to fix the damaging consequences of her act. He also naively accepts an invitation to meet with Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the campaign manager for Morris’ rival, and thus becomes open to pressure from the reporter when she learns of this.
The opening half hour of the film, as we listen to Gov. Morris’s high-sounding campaign rhetoric, made me thing of the opening moments of an even darker film, David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. That film begins with a series of shots of the perfect suburban neighborhood. All the houses look neat and tidy, and the lawns are carefully mowed and trimmed. The camera then takes us beneath the surface of a lawn, and we see all manner of corruption and fierce insects, thus unforgettably showing us that we should not judge by surface appearances, literally in this case.
Clooney’s film is like Treasure of the Sierra Madre or A Simple Plan, tales in which a fairly decent man strays off the straight path and descends into moral darkness. When Stephen is dismissed because of the indiscretion of meeting with Duffy (the latter trying to lure him to join his side), he must decide whether or not to use the information about Morris to force the latter to hire him back as the replacement of campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The film’s title, of course, brings to mind the conspiracy in Shakespeare play Julius Caesar, the difference being that assassination today takes on a less violent form, but is nonetheless still part of politics.
It is debatable as to whether this is just a deeply cynical take on modern politics, as many reviewers see it, or, as I prefer, being an admirer of George Clooney’s activism, a cautionary morality tale. Given the last shot in which the camera lingers for an extraordinarily long time on Ryan Gosling’s face, I think the latter is correct. Jesus’ warning about gaining the whole world (or in this case, the Presidency and a high position in politics) is always timely. Because the film does not really deal with partisan politics—it takes place entirely within a Democratic primary campaign—a church group could find plenty to discuss during the ongoing real life Presidential campaign.
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