'Ides of March': Should Hollywood cut back on political dramas?
The reception for "The Ides of March" this weekend was pretty much what you sensed it would be as the days ticked down to its release: Respectful but not effusive reviews, and ticket receipts that box-office reporters, ever the euphemists, described as coming in at "the lower end of expectations."
George Clooney's heart was certainly in the right place when he decided to turn Beau Willimon's play "Farragut North" into a film. "North" was well received on the stage, first in New York and then at the Geffen Playhouse. More to the point, its Howard Dean-inspired story at once served up a heavy dose of wish fulfillment, thanks to Clooney's idealistic lead character, as well as a level of blood-sporty realism that fit with our sense of, you know, how things really are.
And yet "Ides" seems bound for the same ephemeral status as so many other political allegories that have come and gone in recent years: "Man of the Year," "Swing Vote," "Bulworth," "Lions for Lambs," "Wag the Dog," "Atlas Shrugged," The Manchurian Candidate." They're movies that run the ideological gamut, yet most of them garnered middling reactions from both critics and the American public. And almost none of them have endured (with the possible, though only possible, exception of "Wag the Dog").
There are plenty of challenges to dramatizing Washington these days. Among the much-digested issues: Real-life drama can seem so outlandish that no scripted entertainment can match it, while winds shift too quickly for comments on the process to be relevant by the time a film comes out. There may or may not have been something novel in "Ides'" message about the toll the system takes on idealism years ago, before Barack Obama's presidency; there's not much fresh nearly three years into his term.
Compounding the problem, of course, is that most Hollywood studios don't want to take a stand that will alienate any part of the moviegoing audience. So a movie of any respectable budget -- even one from an avowed Democrat like Clooney -- will resort to making general, relatively toothless points about 'the system,' instead of specific points about one ideology or another. That's a kiss of death in a time when partisan politics run so high, and a little boring to boot.
And of course when scores of blogs and cable-news programs come at us all the time, we're wary of welcoming a new voice to the din, whether or not it has something interesting to say.
It's telling that about the only recent on-screen political entertainment that did matter was "The West Wing." Of course, as a TV series that was a very different beast, able to react quicker to what was happening in the real world, and also able to rise and fall with changing political developments over its many seasons on the air. Unlike moviedom, it wasn't forced to fire off one shot and call it a day.
Hollywood produces much that is ephemeral, so one more creation would hardly seem like its biggest problem.
But there's something slightly uncomfortable about watching another political drama come and go like a long-shot candidate in the Iowa straw poll. If nothing else, it sends a message of political indifference, even though, as movements from the tea party to Occupy Wall Street suggest, we live in a time of anything but.
And political dramas divert talent. Clooney made a meaningful and even influential movie about the changing role of the media with "Good Night, and Good Luck" in 2005. It was as well-intentioned and at times even as starchy as "Ides," but it stirred the conversation in a way that most Washington dramas don't.
Like politics, filmmaking is a game of resources. As a director and actor with clout and ambition, Clooney is a valued one, and it's fair to wonder if this is his best use.
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: George Clooney in "The Ides of March." Credit: Sony Pictures