Starring: Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood
Running Time: 101 min.
★★★★ (out of ★★★★)
Is there any better casting than George Clooney playing a liberal Presidential candidate? If the actor ran right now he'd probably win and you'd have problems convincing me he'd be any worse a choice than the other available options. Having also wrote and directed the timely political thriller The Ides of March, he knew the right role to give himself. As expected, he smoothly plays Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris like it's effortless. But the film's not about him. At least not completely. It's about his press secretary Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), who starts off as an idealist and ends up as someone else entirely. We kind of know that's where we're going but the real thrill is in how Clooney's airtight script and precise direction masterfully turn the screws to take us there. It's a step-by-step examination of how someone becomes corrupted and why our political system is so broken. It's a stretch, but not unrealistic, and I believed if something like this were to go down, this is how it would and these are the kind of bad decisions people make that allow it to happen.
Two such decisions send the story spiraling out of control and they're easy to justify because the characters making them are smart. The first starts with Gosling's Stephen receiving a phone call from rival Presidential campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) trying to woo him over to their side. And for good reason. He's the best. It's a tempting offer since Morris' Presidential campaign is struggling and they're about to lose Ohio. An Obama-like idealist to his core (or so it seems at first), Morris refuses to compromise his beliefs to get elected, which makes one wonder how he got into politics at all. Topping the list is his refusal to court the potentially election-clinching endorsement of Sen. Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), which does come at a price. Stephen's on a sinking ship and knows it but his loyalty to Morris and senior campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) won't let him jump. But the opposition's interest in him is undeniably flattering, resulting in a fleeting moment of weakness that has disastrous consequences.
The second mistake involves a young, connected intern named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) with whom Stephen becomes romantically involved. Only that's not the mistake. It's unwise, but the real mistake is hers. And it's a doozy. From there, the plot, with all its twists and turns, unravels and a reporter (Marisa Tomei) threatens to bust it wide open in a welcome return to the days in movies where journalists wielded considerable power. At one point Giamatti's character states that the problem with Democrats is their refusal to be like Republicans. They won't get down in the dirt and sling mud. But corruption crosses party lines.
A while back Clooney revealed his 100 favorite movies and now he's directed one that's an interesting companion piece to that list, recalling similarly themed political/conspiracy thrillers of the '70's like The Parallax View and All The President's Men. It's not surprising a smart, engaging film for adults would underperform at the box office right now, but that critics would use it as a punching bag is, with more than a few disparagingly referring to it as a glorified TV movie. I don't get that at all, even if it may be more a compliment considering the healthy creative state of television these days. It could be because it covers a topic that's often explored on the small screen or that the revelations in the film aren't shocking per se (though one did blow me out of my seat), but instead meticulously constructed and executed, like a chess game with its pieces moving across the board. And all the players are perfectly utilized.
Given the banner year each had it's no surprise Gosling facing off against Clooney on screen yielded such successful results, making Gosling worthy of competing against himself for a Best Actor Oscar if that were allowable (and now I'm thinking it should). In a way what he does here is similar but completely different to his more muted, intense performance in Drive in that he's playing a cool, calculated character suddenly rattled threatened by circumstances exceeding his grasp. It's a difficult role, but he expertly sells the tricky transformation from idealist to cynic. Giamatti and Hoffman are two of our finest contemporary actors, but they could have easily been marginalized in an ensemble like this. Neither are, with each at the top of their games making essential supporting contributions on which the entire foundation of the story rests. Evan Rachel Wood is tragically tremendous as the doomed intern in way over her head.
I'll admit to laughing a little when Clooney's script (adapted from Beau Willimon's 2008 play Farragut North) was nominated for Best Adapted screenplay thinking it was just another way for the Academy to pat their favorite movie star on the back. But he deserves the praise, streamlining a complicated narrative into a clean, concise cinematic experience free of any excess fat. Technically speaking, it's perfect. Consider it the Michael Clayton of political thrillers, right down to its chilling final image. If that film marked the turning point for Clooney as an actor then this is his as a director, easily surpassing all his three previous efforts behind the camera which were solid, but dry. There's nothing dry or slight about this. Here's a movie with something important to say. The political system may be broken but those engulfed in it should look no further than the mirror to determine what's most in need of fixing.