In the spirit of The Best Man (1964) and The Candidate (1972), George Clooney brings us — as director, star, and co-screenwriter — a film about an idealistic Democratic candidate who’s almost undone by compromises and dirty politics. And while the hero’s no innocent, the real villain remains offstage — stage right, to be exact.
Pennsylvania governor Mike Morris (Clooney) is running for president in a tough Democratic primary race in Ohio, which will almost certainly guarantee him not only his party’s nomination but also the presidency should he prevail. Why the presidency? That’s the really interesting part of this deeply flawed, narcissistic film.
Morris is running against a guy named Pullman, who at the beginning of the film is needling Morris in debate about how “religious he is.” Morris insists that he is neither a Christian nor an atheist, Jewish or a Muslim. His religion is the U.S. Constitution — his faith, in America (shades of Glenn Beck!).
And what are some of the fundamental doctrines of the U.S. religion, as professed by Morris? Bring the troops home. Gay marriage. Getting the wealthy to pay their fair share. A green future. Making America the No. 1 in technological innovation — presumably by breaking it of its addiction to foreign oil — not by drilling here, needless to say. (WARNING: Spoilers ahead!)
Got it. No left-liberal issue goes unchallenged by this campaign. So what’s the problem? Well, Ohio has an open primary, one in which Republicans intend to vote in droves for Morris’s opponent, because Pullman is perceived to be the more vulnerable candidate. The GOP is simply afraid of running against Morris.
Hah? Why would Republicans be afraid of running against a hard lefty? Don’t solid conservatives usually hold their own in stark ideological match-ups? Doesn’t a softer, gentler version of a conservative pose more of a political threat?
But that’s part of the conceit of the film. An unabashed progressive is every Republican’s nightmare, supposedly. And Morris is that — unwilling to make the kinds of compromises that have hamstrung Dems in the past.
That is until Morris is forced to. I won’t bore you with the narrative logistics but one of Morris’s campaign managers, Stephen Meyers, a feisty young Turk played with gusto by Ryan Gosling, is wooed by the Pullman camp (represented by Paul Giamatti, who manages to make Slick Willie look like St. Francis). What Meyers doesn’t realize is that he’s being played, and when he learns that a Morris-for-President intern is pregnant and the inseminator in chief, namely Morris, refuses to own up, Meyers soon finds himself a man without a campaign. Until he learns how to play the game and use the secrets he has obtained to his professional advantage.
There’s an abortion, and a suicide, and the Messiah-King is forced to compromise by bringing a guy onto his ticket whom he despises lest his little “problem” leak.
The moral of this story: the Religious Right and the damn Republicans who cater to it are responsible for sullying politics and making infidelity and abortion issues at all. According to this construal of recent American history, once the Reagan Revolution had wrestled control of the GOP away from the likes of Nelson Rockefeller and Jacob Javits, guaranteeing real two-party contests and not merely one party with two left wings, the Republic was doomed. Religiosity became the hallmark of a candidate’s trustworthiness, supposedly, and real “progress” — read thoroughly de-Christianized statism — became difficult if not impossible.
Don’t you see: the Morrises of the world have their needs, and whether or not they dip their wick in the occasional 20-year-old while a dutiful wife endures the travails of a long campaign slog should be irrelevant. The issues are all that matter. But the self-righteous Right has made character, namely moral character, matter in a way that those worldly wise Europeans, for example, would find risible. And they have managed to do this by appealing to explicitly religious values.
Clooney plays the role of the brighter-than-the-country-deserves pol with a cool, in-control demeanor, carrying himself like a cross between Adlai Stevenson and Frank Sinatra, making the character’s appeal easy to understand. But there’s little depth to the portrayal, and the film really belongs to Gosling and to Philip Seymour Hoffman, the senior campaign guru for whom loyalty is the key identifier of character. He is not above the necessary compromises if it means beating the meaner, tougher, more disciplined Republicans. Too bad his candidate’s religion rates loyalty among the lesser virtues.
Despite the film’s pretensions to being “balanced” about how politics have gone wrong, don’t doubt for a minute that one side is not only “wronger” than the other; its mere presence is an ever-present threat. After all, how will our democracy ever come back from the brink so long as there are two distinct parties to confound the easily beguiled masses?