Hollywood and politics don’t mix

With his new thriller, The Ides of March, George Clooney shows Democrats can be personally flawed, too - just like his film.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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It’s no secret that celebrity endorsement has begun to take an increasingly important role in the US electoral process and the drawbacks of this are pretty evident. Not only does it risk reducing the proceedings to a mere popularity contest, but the passionate celebrity backing given to Barack Obama in the last 2008 election promoted a very narrow idea of what constitutes political change.

Obama’s campaign was spoilt for choice in terms of support from the cream of acting and musical talent, with everyone from West Wing star Martin Sheen to rapper Jay-Z publicly voicing their support for the Democratic candidate. However, the way in which this host of liberal celebs joined arms to scream ‘Yes We Can’ seemed to suggest that political upheaval could be achieved by merely shirking one mainstream party in favour of another.

Following the election, interviews with Obama’s celebrity fan-boys perpetuated a false feeling that the country had arrived at some hallowed place in which the pressing issues of welfare, race relations and foreign intervention would simply fall away now that the fabled one was in office. Furthermore, even the reaction of conservative celebrities to Obama’s election maintained the idea that, with one election, the world had irrevocably changed. Right-wing media figures like Donald Trump and Bill O’Reilly presented Obama as a veritable threat to Americana, speculating about the details of his birth certificate and his possible socialist affiliations. Of course, both sides failed to recognise that this was, after all, just another election of yet another president.

Bearing all this in mind, it would be fair to assume that The Ides of March would be an unenlightening and self-congratulatory piece of liberal Hollywood propaganda. Not only is it produced by, directed by and starring George Clooney – a strident supporter and personal friend of Obama – but the film centres on the presidential campaign of a squeaky-clean and ‘socially progressive’ Democratic candidate.

For much of the film’s opening half this appears to be the case. We are introduced to hunky spin-doctor Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) who insists that he only plays dirty if he believes in the cause. The cause he believes in is Mike Morris (George Clooney), an atheist Democrat, who wants to tax the rich and make petroleum a controlled substance. In short, he is a liberal wet dream.

On the eve of the Ohio primaries, Meyers is approached by Morris’ opponent and asked to switch sides. Yet just as you think this will be a tiresome competition for Stephen’s soul and allegiance, The Ides of March does something rather refreshing. It demonstrates an often overlooked fact in Hollywood: Democrats can be bad people, too.

Having rejected the opportunity to defect, Meyers stumbles across one of Morris’ dirty secrets, leading him to question if there is indeed anyone in politics who is truly incorruptible. From here on out, the film challenges the idea that underhandedness is the sole realm of conservatives and that beneath superficial differences, politicians are rather alike. However, as welcome a turnaround as this is, it remains a pretty unoriginal moral on which to anchor an entire story and there is unfortunately very little else here to sustain viewers’ interest.

Clooney takes a discernibly sober approach to the political thriller, and whilst this is somewhat commendable, the complete lack of any original insight leaves one yearning for the excessive twists and turns that the genre usually entails. Furthermore, whilst Clooney and Gosling are predictably competent and Paul Giamatti is fantastic as Machiavellian campaign manager Tom Duffy, the cast nevertheless struggle to keep the film afloat.

Obama’s campaign, and the celebrity endorsements which surrounded it, put a lot of emphasis on symbolism. He was not your average Democratic candidate appealing to the nation on the basis of a particular policy platform. No, he was above all else the embodiment of an idea. He represented a zenith of tolerance and progression and, in just being elected, he had already changed the world forever. The fact that the 2008 election produced the first African-American president is no trivial matter, but the suggestion that the very idea of Obama held some sort of metaphysical power only inspired a lot of false hope, which Obama, the man, would never be able to live up to.

While The Ides of March should be applauded for unpicking this sort of liberal complacency, there’s no escaping how sophomoric this political fable really is. As ever, it seems Hollywood and politics just don’t mix.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

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