martedì 22 novembre 2011

Confessions of a political mind

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A POLITICAL MIND: George Clooney takes about this latest movie The Ides of March

A few years ago, George Clooney joked that one reason he never seemed able to hang on to a girlfriend was that his idea of a great date was a few days at the Democratic National Convention. Obviously, he said, this was a turnoff. I didn't believe this for a second. What red-blooded woman wouldn't want to go and help Clooney work the room and get the numbers for a decent policy on Darfur?

But after seeing his latest film, The Ides of March, set in a succession of bloody back rooms during a Democratic primary race, you stop wondering about why the most attractive man in show business is mostly single.

''He loves all the rough and tumble of this stuff,'' says Paul Giamatti, who plays a campaign manager in the film. ''He gets off on it, the theatre and the drama of it, stuff like that. He definitely does.''

But judging by this film, Clooney's fourth as director, this appetite for politicking would have to be the visible tenth of some great iceberg of madness. Who could love the vicious business depicted here?

The story of The Ides of March is a classical one. Clooney directs himself as Governor Mike Morris, a charismatic liberal contender for the Democratic nomination battling it out with a Bible Belt conservative. Ryan Gosling plays his young press liaison officer, Stephen Meyers, alight with hope and belief and clearly heading for disillusionment. It is based on a successful play, Farragut North, which was written by Beau Willimon, an enthusiast not unlike Gosling's character. Willimon worked on the unsuccessful campaign of Democrat Howard Dean for the party's nomination in 2004.

He says that although the story is a concoction, there is nothing unlikely in it. ''I had worked on a number of political campaigns and the characters are fictional amalgamations of the hundreds of people that I ran across during those experiences,'' Willimon has said in interviews. ''But everything mentioned in the play in terms of breaking laws, manipulating the democratic process, the back-room dealings: that's all true ... playing by the rules of the game is not what gets you elected president.''

Clooney and his writing and producing partner Grant Heslov - with whom he collaborated on Goodnight and Good Luck,Leatherheads,The Men Who Stare at Goats and The American - were working on a script about Wall Street when the play was sent to them. They immediately saw that the competitive dynamics of this world were similar to those of high finance but were supposedly driven by higher ideals.

''It seemed like a fun world where you could ask some questions about morality,'' Clooney says at a press conference in London.

''If you do something to better your own chances, something that hurts someone else, is it worth it? Sometimes the answer might be yes. At one point on a moral scale, is something bad worth doing? Negative advertising, saying rotten things about the guy in office, bending the truth. If the right guy gets in and that election has consequences for huge numbers of people's lives, maybe it is.''

Farragut North is a Metro stop handy to a street full of lobbyists' offices in Washington; a great title for a play, Clooney observes, but too parochial for a film. By placing the primary in the film on March 15 - the middle, or ''ides'', of the month - he was able to give it a title that immediately suggests the timelessness of the struggle for power. Julius Caesar was warned to ''beware the ides of March'' by a soothsayer in Shakespeare's version of events; not that being forewarned and wary helped him to avoid being assassinated.

Clooney's father, Nick, a retired news anchor, ran unsuccessfully for Congress on a Democratic ticket in 2004. To lose was disappointing but it was the actual campaigning that embittered him. Some of the sleaziest scenes in The Ides of March, Clooney says, are from conversations they have had about his experience.

''There are hands you have to shake that you wouldn't normally shake,'' he says. ''It's unfortunate but that's the way it is. You can't finance your own campaign unless you're independently wealthy, so you end up having to make deals. I know there are deals made all the time for cabinet posts ... Right now, in the United States, 95 per cent of the people who win elections have the most money.''

Filmmaking is a business of compromise, too, of course. You drop scenes to save money, change dialogue to please an actor or shoot in cloudy conditions when you need the sun. There are money men to mollify; bigger films are run by power structures of executives.

''Every day brings a thousand decisions,'' Clooney says. ''But it's still a playground. If I've made a mistake, it doesn't cost 200,000 people their lives.''

He is often asked if he has any plans to run for office himself. As a political animal with the most mellifluous voice in Hollywood, he seems a natural. Clooney is more interested in ''telling stories''.

Moreover, he says, his life contains far too much rakeable muck to survive the attentions of opponents' fixers. ''I f---ed too many chicks and did too many drugs, and that's the truth,'' he told Newsweek a few years ago; he's said versions of this dozens of times. ''I'd start from the beginning by saying, 'I did it all. I drank the bong water.' Now can we talk about the issues? But that would be my campaign slogan: I drank the bong water.'' He has a point: that line's certainly not going to play in the red states.

Instead, he addresses those issues in a number of campaigns with NGOs, of which the best known is his activism on behalf of South Sudan through the United Nations and through his own Satellite Sentinel Project, which keeps cameras trained on the disputed border between north and south Sudan to monitor illegal troop movements and cross-border fighting. ''It doesn't hurt to go where people don't get enough attention and try to shine a light on them,'' he said recently on television.

But Clooney's value as a campaigner is not simply that he brings cameras in his wake. He also has a unique ability to talk in an entertaining way about things that are crushingly grim. Only Clooney could keep a David Letterman audience chortling through a 20-minute discussion about the Sudan. Clooney often says he counts himself lucky that he wasn't anything like a celebrity until he was 33; until he became ER's heart-throb, he was just a jobbing actor. Since then he has been able to keep the fame and the intrusions that come with it in proportion because he was old enough to understand that it was something separate from him. Even so, he found playing a politician a stretch in the other direction.

''You'd think actors have big egos. And they do,'' he tells his London audience. ''But the ego it takes to take all those good shots with your chin up. Politicians have a tremendous amount of ego to be able to do that. It's hard when the product you're selling to the entire country is yourself and you're selling the hell of out of that product, all the time. 'I'm better than anyone else in the room!' We have to have that and we need someone good at it but it was something really tricky to embrace.''

But are those few people who are good at it bound to be disappointing? Interestingly, he and Heslov were ready to make The Ides of March in 2008. Then Barack Obama was elected president. ''We realised we had to shelve it because everyone was in such a good mood,'' Clooney says.

It took about a year for the cynicism of Farragut North to return. Not that Clooney is cynical. Despite everything, he is still an honest believer. He sounds like one anyway. His great hope is that recent groundswells, even one as uncongenial as the right-wing Tea Party but also the newer Occupy movement, will eventually throw up candidates who represent real people and real positions, ''who aren't just saving their jobs or answering to a very minor constituency'', he says. ''I think that's going to change. It always does with us. It always has.''

In the meantime, there's lobbying to be done. That new girlfriend, Stacy Keibler, had better be willing when the next Democratic National Convention rolls around.

The Ides of March opens in New Zealand on February 16, 2012.

Watch the trailer

- Sydney Morning Herald

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