(George Clooney, 2011)
Clooney follows his sober, earnest, meaningful work on Good Night and Good Luck with another sober, earnest, meaningful drama about politics and the media, only this time his conclusions are darker and more despairing, his style a little blander and less distinctive.
His film centres upon young campaign Organiser Stephen (Ryan Gosling), involved in campaigning for a charismatic, free-thinking Governor, played by Clooney himself, to receive the Democratic Presidential nomination. Stephen starts off idealistic and passionate, and this story basically traces through his political coming-of-age as he grows more and more disillusioned. In this regard, Gosling is fine casting, convincing as the starry-eyed young hotshot politico and skilfully suggesting the pain of his rude awakening, the slight smugness of his screen presence a good fit for the character.
It's a film filled with people in suits having intense conversations in dull, realist locations and makes plain Clooney's admiration for the smart, adult political films of the 1950s and '60s and the influence of a director like Sidney Lumet on his work. Here the direction is absolutely at the service of the script, giving it all a confined, intimate feel which is true to the theatrical roots of the piece (its an adaptation of the play "Farragut North" by screenwriter Beau Willimon), and placing the onus squarely on the actors and the words they say. The actors are uniformly strong; Clooney suggesting the complexity and compromise of even the most shining public figure, Evan Rachel Wood transforming what could have been a mere plot device into a character I doubt was on the page, and Max Minghella, Marisa Tomei and Jennifer Ehle all strong in smaller parts. Two supporting actor stalwarts predictably steal the film, however; Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti play rival Campaign managers, their visceral dislike obvious in an early scene, and each is magnetic and believable throughout. Hoffman's lack of vanity is as ever a strength, his belly hanging over his belt as he rants about loyalty and betrayal. Giamatti is more reptilian, proud of his endgame even as he laments his own cynicism.
Cynicism is the key feeling here. Politics is incredibly cynical, this film tells us. It is full of cynical people and it makes even the innocent cynical, if it doesn't destroy them. This cynicism is necessary, it's the only way to win, to make a difference. This slightly simple-minded thesis is perhaps the film's greatest flaw, alongside the scripts tendency to indulge in speechifying. Characters seem to line up to make long speeches at one another, many of them fine pieces of writing, but lacking the crackle of the back and forth dialogue exchange which dominates the film.
Add to that the sense that its all a little over-familiar, a little too easy, and a little middle-of- the-road, and Clooney's achievement in fashioning such a solid piece of grown-up entertainment seems lessened a little bit. But only a little. This is a serious, well-made film with something to say, and it's full of good acting and fine scenes, which in the modern climate of American cinema, is no small thing.