Monday, November 07, 2011

The Ides of March

George Clooney, Hollywood's meridian liberal, offers a story about a liberal politician making a run for president.  This could be good, or it could be insufferable.  (The presence of Philip Seymour Hoffman is a reasonable guarantee that it won't be too insufferable, though).  You think you're going to get something like Bulworth, where the hero's progressive views are met with disapproval by party bosses and rich donors alike, but stimulate popular enthusiasm.  Or you think, as the ambiguous title invites you to, that there's an assassination in the post.  And indeed the movie obliquely alludes to this possibility - there's a brief, tense 'Wellstone' moment as the candidate, Governor Mike Morris, and his advisors sit in a small jet air craft passing through turbulence.  There are other allusions - a dead intern, redolent of Chandra Levy, perhaps.  If the CIA doesn't off him, if his donors don't hang him out to dry, if the media doesn't destroy him, maybe someone will frame him.  Somehow, our liberal lion will be sacrificed to the Christians.  But no.  

At a simple didactic level, this film is closer to The Candidate, where an intelligent, principled reformist allows his campaign to be corrupted, dumbed down and pulled to the right in order to win.  But that's not really the basis for two hours in the cinema - not for my money.  And indeed if this film were reducible to its explicit politics, it would be fairly appalling.  This is often the case with Clooney films.  Up In the Air, for example, was a deeply conservative movie whose argument was that only families provide the durable emotional and financial bedrock that allow people to survive unemployment.  Syriana was critical of the neoconservatives and the oil companies, but its hero was a fairly repulsive CIA agent.  So, consider the elements of the candidate's appeal: the unproblematised liberal nationalism (we want America to lead the world again), the imperial chauvinism (we fight the war on terror by not needing "their product", which is oil), the hypocritical populism (the governor attacks the rich for not paying their dues, but his own wealth, the fact that rich people dominate the political system, is not seen as being problematic).  This is 'Obamamania' reheated, without the story of racial redemption.  In fact, on that subject, the film's racial politics are reprehensible.  The only major black character is a Senator played by the excellent Jeffrey Wright, who is depicted as the basest, most reactionary snake oil salesman - in some respects, he's like a cross between John Bolton and (the fictional) Clay Davis.  As I say, if this was all there was to the film, there would be little to admire.

The core of the narrative is the 'corruption' of Ryan Gosling's innocent, idealistic, blue-eyed, K Street consultant employed by the campaign who, we are led to believe, is not a completely cynical, self-serving piece of shit.  He is a believer.  He thinks Morris is the man who will make a difference.  A wised up columnist from the New York Times tells him that he's an idiot, that the presidential race will make no difference to the average working "fuck", that the only real difference it makes is between him working in the White House, or going back to K Street to work for a million dollars a year.  He demurs, charmingly.  Events, which we won't describe in any detail here, lead the cornflower-eyed sap to revise his idealism, and realise that the drive for success has led both himself and the candidate to compromise themselves, and undermined the progressive content of the campaign.

Again, so far so boring.  We have heard all this before.  We've heard some of it from Joe Klein.  There's very little of political substance here.  For many who watched and enjoyed the film, it was yet another sermon about the corrupting effect of politics on integrity.  If only we had a better media.  If only the political system didn't smile on the ruthless.  The liberal lament.  And indeed they wouldn't be wrong to see all that.  And ultimately, this has a tendency - if pushed to its conclusions - to collapse into the patronising argument that the average working fuck is at fault for being so suadible.

What I think makes the film a bit more interesting is the way it works as a deflation and desublimation of its own 'Obamamania', or rather of the elevating liberal discourse that Obama has mastered.  At the start of the film, the basic liberal assumptions are in place.  We have a charismatic liberal hero, someone who can make the difference, if only the media and the Republicans can be fought off.  The system can be made to work for the good guys - Democrats, as far as this film is concerned - if only talented hucksters will come to their aid.  By the end of the film, none of these comforting ideas have been directly contested or challenged: this is not Brechtian film-making.  Rather, they are simply cast in a new light in which they appear to be worthless.  It's not that the progressive potential of the campaign has been betrayed; it's that it was never there.  The impoverished tropes of idealism, integrity, re-taking this country, etc., are just so much sublimated avarice, the language of bourgeois esurience levitated to the plane of 'the general interest'.  And it's the affective level on which this case is made; it is only a shift of perspective that transforms dutiful conscientiousness into pitiless, self-serving ruthlessness.  After which, the cynosures of Democratic liberalism, which Clooney undoubtedly believes in wholeheartedly, leave a sour taste on the palate of the working fuck.