Based on the Beau Willimon play “Farragut North,” a political thriller set on the eve of the Democratic primary in Ohio, this feature starts out with promise but eventually fails to live up to it in the end.
Willimon collaborated on the screen version of his stage drama with Grant Heslov and George Clooney, who might have taken on too much as director and also star of this political piece filled with intrigue. Clooney plays Mike Morris, the liberal candidate (with a campaign poster that mimics Obama’s “Hope” artwork), whose slick delivery of carefully crafted statements regarding the death penalty, foreign oil dependence and other hot button topics has earned the loyalty of his press manager, young Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling).
The more jaded elder in Morris’ camp is Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) a veteran of political campaigns who knows all the tricks of the trade. But the other Democratic frontrunner has Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), a campaign runner on par with Zara who makes overtures to Meyers to jump sides.
Dripping with cynicism, this is a transfixing look at politics today, and what we learn is that not much has changed from the smoky backroom deals of yesteryear. The manipulation of the press through planted stories is key to the plot. This is executed mostly at the hands of a lone New York Times reporter (What? No one else is covering this story?) played by Marisa Tomei, who doggedly runs down each rumor without realizing she’s being played like a first-year journalism intern.
Added to the mix is a romance between Meyers and a campaign volunteer, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) whose youth belies her worldly attitude. Unfortunately, Wood and Gosling fail to fully connect as romantic interests. They flirt without generating any heat, making the intent of some of characters’ actions that occur later in the film questionable.
If the film feels unintentionally insincere, blame some of the actors for their choices. Gosling never feels right for the part. He lacks the wide-eyed innocence of someone who believes his guy “can really make a difference in people’s lives.” His cool demeanor just doesn’t say idealist.
Likewise Clooney, whose expressions say one thing while his mouth says another. It is hard to understand why this man wants to be president. Underplaying someone running for the land’s highest office is probably not a good choice for an actor, but it is the Clooney style.
Hoffman seems stuck in the role of curmudgeon after his glum take on Oakland A’s manager Art Howe in the recent “Moneyball,” and now channeling real life political consultant Bob Shrum, sans the trademark red scarf.
As a director, Clooney makes better choices, staging scenes that build in intensity without revealing too much. With a good sense of timing, he pieces the story together in a framework that takes it from stage to screen as well as can be expected, but even so it still feels anemic. I couldn’t help but long for the snappy patter of say, Aaron Sorkin, a dramatist who understands the realm of politics well enough to punch up the dialog a notch or two.
If this material feels familiar, it’s because it could be ripped from the headlines of any political campaign, so the cynicism found within rings true. Despite the weak ending, this is an intelligent movie that serious filmgoers can appreciate.