Geoff Pevere: Running on Hope

America needs its innocence, even if it knows the very idea is a crock. But that’s also why it needs its movies: to reinforce the mythology of innocence lost, and to remind everybody how the system sucks the souls of the innocent like a thirsting vampire. Only the undead survive.

Weirdly enough, there’s hope in this, because the mere reiteration of the myth insists we get angry at the ubiquity of corruption, and where there’s anger there’s always the possibility of mobilisation for change. And that’s always inspiring, at least until the mobilized start to feel the old dampness creeping in. So the story is spun again: beware ye innocent, for the vampire thrives on your hope.

This is the story told in The Ides of March, George Clooney’s movie about how a crack young campaign prodigy (Ryan Gosling) is systematically disavowed of his optimism and idealism by the process of maneuvering his Mitt Romney-handsome but Barack Obama-principled Democratic candidate (Clooney, in a nicely chilly performance) into White House electability. At first it seems simple, as movies insist it always at first does: Gosling’s thirty-ish tactician is convinced his man is not only the best man but the right one, and he stands by the man’s refusal to compromise on any of his ideals. But the worm begins to turn once Ohio begins to look lost to the other Democratic frontrunner, who happens to be drawing a lot of Republican support because the GOP is convinced that he’ll flame out like Icarus if he takes the state.

And so the games begin. Back-room machinations abound, and there is nothing to do – no move to make, no plan to implement – that doesn’t involve the compromise of principles in the name of securing victory. At first, Gosling’s whizz-kid manipulator is resolute in his commitment to the purity of the cause.  But that he’s so good at his game is exactly what leaves his neck so tantalizingly exposed to the vampire. After being offered a gig in the opponent’s camp, he reports back to his own camp that there’s intrigue afoot. But he can’t see what everyone else does, and what we have suspected from the beginning: a stain has been planted on this snow white soul, and once there it can only spread.

The smartest thing about The Ides of March is how involvingly and meticulously it tells the tale of the process by which even the most confidently and even arrogantly uncompromising of political players eventually winds up with shit on his shoes. The arena is full of it, and there’s no charging in without stepping in it. In case we miss the connection, there’s even a conspicuously visible campaign poster of Clooney’s that  nakedly cops the Obama ‘Hope’ image. For this is the story of what happens when you run on hope and hope alone. You end up hopelessly vulnerable to compromise and arrangement-making, because the only currency you’ve got is traded for power. By the time you get to the top, you’re spiritually overdrawn and perilously in debt. Hello 2012.

As much as we’ve all seen this story before – I don’t think there’s any political movie since John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln that hasn’t had corruption as its primary conflict – it gets a mostly riveting re-telling in The Ides of March: Clooney is obviously a fascinated student of the bear-pit shirtsleeve savagery of contemporary American power dynamics, and he fills the movie with the kind of stubble-to-stubble hotel suite showdowns that permit his cast to unravel with palpitating urgency. Philip Seymour Hoffmann is especially superb as the chief campaign strategist who blows Gosling out of the game on charges of high treason, and the gradual hardening of Clooney’s teflon sheen into steel-plated armour is a grimly calibrated spectacle in itself. Then there’s Gosling, an actor who’s smart enough not to play his character as a complete innocent but as a cocky, overly self-assured new-kid-on-the-block strategist, which only makes his slow and certain slide to the dark side that much more harrowing to behold. It’s one thing — and a relatively easy thing — to watch innocence extinguished, and quite another to see intelligence so completely soiled by self-interest.

But I’ve got to say this, because there’s nothing more aggravating than seeing a movie that’s so smart and sensitive in some regards and so bluntly dumb in others. If there’s a big stain on The Ides of March, it’s in the way it treats all of its female characters – and I do mean each and every one – as nothing but a mere plot device or mechanism for the exchange of power between the males. Most egregiously, this is what occurs to the intern played by Evan Rachel Wood, who seems to exist only to represent the corruptibility of the men she works for, and whose character finally ends up being used by the movie in exactly the way the men use her: to be jumped and dumped. In a movie about the limits of fairness, the ruination of idealism and the limits of justice, this is a critical and almost crippling oversight. There’s an entire world of power presumptions ignored by the film, and there’s nothing innocent in that. The most insidious forms of corruption are those we aren’t even aware of.

We now have an email address where all of us here at Don’t Believe a Word I Saycan be contacted: dbawis@rogers.com Please use it to ask questions, tell us what you’d like to read about, links you’d like to share, and let us hear what you have to say.

Geoff Pevere has been writing, broadcasting and teaching about movies, media and pop culture for over thirty years. He just can’t help himself. His column appears every Friday.

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