Whatever I know about American politics, I’ve learned from The West Wing.
I was a dedicated follower for years. I cherished every witty exchange in the corridors, I secretly imagined myself in the place of C.J. I got goose bumps and my eyes flooded with national pride whenever President Bartlet decided to made one his Big Speeches, and for a moment I forgot completely that I’m not an American Citizen. If someone had asked me to sign up as a campaign volunteer, I would have agreed in an eye blink.
Admittedly the US election system is still a bit of a mystery to me, with its intricate labyrinth of nominations and voting in several steps. But this doesn’t prevent me from feeling oddly at home in movies that take place in that political environment. After all the time I’ve spent stalking the imagined administration in the White House, I’m as good as a staff member myself.
For good and for bad The West Wing has left an imprint on me that I can’t completely disregard of, even if I should in the name of fairness. Any other effort to depicture political campaign making from a behind-the-curtains point of view will inevitably be compared to it. Is the dialogue as entertaining, are the strategy makers as cunning, are the ethical dilemmas as engaging, do I care enough to want to be a part of that world? Can they convey the struggle to balance ideals with the harsh reality in an interesting way?
The most recent candidate to be matched against The West Wing was George Clooney’s political thriller The Ides of March. This is a coming-of-age story about the assisting manager in the campaign for a Democratic candidate in the primary election inOhio. As the game between the opposing camps gets dirtier and his position is put at stake, we see him transform from a fairly idealistic (although not flawless) good guy into a shark.
So how well does it make in a comparison?
Well, as of actors I have very little to complain about. The line-up is great. George Clooney is no Bartlet, but he does have an aura that fits well for a coming president. Paul Giamotti and Philip Seymour Hoffman are fine in their roles as sharp fanged veteran campaign leaders.
The leading character is played by Ryan Gosling. Yes, that guy – again. The thing with him is that he’s at his best when he’s given the opportunity to remain silent, talking with his eyes rather than delivering regular lines. He was perfect for Drive. This role doesn’t suit him quite as well, but he’s doing fine. However I can’t help fearing that we’ll see a backlash eventually if he keeps appearing in movies at this rate. As much as I’m a Gosling fan, variation is nice.
But good actors isn’t enough to make it one of my favourite movies for this year. While it’s pretty polished and elegant on the whole, there’s something in the plot that doesn’t convince me.
I can’t talk about it in detail without giving away spoilers, but for instance I was a bit wondering at the event that initiates the whole story: Gosling meeting up with a campaign worker from the opposite team. Would that really be such a big deal?
I also had some issues with the pacing. I’m probably too influenced by the West Wing pace, but it felt really slow to begin with. And then when the action finally starts for real, with its twist and turns, it’s a firework that misfires and everything takes off at the same time. There’s very little room to fully understand what happened or to dwell on what it meant to Gosling’s character – what motivated him to act the way he did and what he thought and felt about the whole thing.
I loved the ending: open for interpretation, the camera resting on Gosling’s face as he’s walking through shadow and light. That shot is also what I’ll bring with me from this movie and which eventually bumped it up from a 3 to a 4 in my rating.
As for the initial question: yes, even the conversation is far from as entertaining, it’s probably on par with one of the best double episodes of The West Wing. But it sure doesn’t beat it.
The Ides of March (George Clooney, US, 2011) My rating: 4/5