Just as Kathryn Bigelow was lucky enough to be working on Kill bin Laden when Osama bin Laden was killed, George Clooney must be thanking Anthony Weiner for providing the year’s requisite political scandal in time to make the long-delayed release of his adaptation of Farragut North, a play about a political scandal now titled The Ides of March, seem spicy and relevant. My concern about The Ides of March is less about whether it will say something unique and clarifying about political sex scandals or male infidelity, which I think it almost certainly won’t, than whether it says something unique and clarifying about political work.
One of the things I’ve found interesting about living in Washington, DC is the alternate regard and disgust for folks who work as high-level staff on political campaigns. Obviously there’s something mercenary about folks who work cycle after cycle, and it’s worse for folks without clear ideology or policy priorities, like Dick Morris and Karl Rove. But there’s also something sentimental about folks who keep looking for the perfect candidate through disillusionment and defeat. All of which is a long way of saying that if you want to understand politics, understanding politicians, the will to run, the insane and necessary disregard for structure and tradition that get in the way of real change that’s the only way you can convince yourself you’ll accomplish anything, is part of the equation. But understanding campaign staff is critically important, too.
And far too often in our political pop culture, staff are sidelined in favor of an obsessive focus on the candidate or elected official, as if ultimate power really lies with them. What Primary Colors gets right is that uneasy space between the things campaign staff control and the things that they don’t, a candidate who will deliver a killer line on queue during a debate but won’t stop fooling around, what it’s like to build campaigns out of string, spit, old ladies, and kids taking a break from college. And I think that’s why In The Loop and The Thick of It work as well as they do—there’s something delightful about ripping the veneer off politics and revealing the scabrousness and naivete in the clockwork. Same with State of Play: one of the best moments in the serial is when the unfailingly polite press secretary, after getting punched in the face, sneers at the MP who’s slugged him, “I wouldn’t have the arrogance to represent a constituency.”
There are very good people playing Clooney’s staff in The Ides of March, most importantly Ryan Gosling and Philip Seymour Hoffman as communications director and campaign manager respectively. It’s more a question of what they’re going to have them do in those positions. If they are, respectively, an idealist who has his illusions shattered and a Hard-Bitten Veteran, I am going to be very bored.