The Ides of March (2011)

Never before has the second-oldest profession seemed quite as dull as it does in George Clooney’s The Ides of March.

ides-of-marchUSA
2*

Director:
George Clooney

Screenwriters:
George Clooney

Beau Willimon
Grant Heslov
Director of Photography:
Phedon Papamichael

Running time: 100 minutes

George Clooney’s The Ides of March is an adaptation of Farragut North, a play by Beau Willimon that focuses on a fictitious Democratic primary in the battleground state of Ohio.

The plot sees Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris running for the office of president of the United States. He has his campaign staff convinced he will be the next great hope for the nation, the one to “take the country back” – a phrase so hackneyed yet used with surprising regularity, and with even more suprising success, by political hopefuls – and he is neck-and-neck with his main Democratic contender, Senator Ted Pullman. When the race reaches the Buckeye State, it’s make-or-break time.

Although the genre of political films is varied, a lack of action is usually a bad thing, and so it is here. There are brief snippets of Morris’s interaction with potential voters along the way, a question or two during a debate or a town hall session, but by and large his positions and his personality remain a mystery to us.

Keeping in mind the title’s obvious, ominous reference to the fall of Julius Caesar (“Beware, the Ides of March!”), we wait for the storm to break over the head of the powerful Governor Morris. But instead of focusing on him, the film introduces his campaign team, headed by two top strategists: Paul Zara, the veteran campaign staffer and long-time supporter, and Stephen Meyers, the bright-eyed media whiz kid.

As expected in a film based on a play, the performances are all exquisitely modulated – in this case, to fit the dark mood of the narrative – and the actors sparkle in their restricted capacity. For Ryan Gosling, who plays Stephen, it’s a case of having nothing to do, but doing it rather well, while it is unfortunate that Paul Giamatti, who plays Pullman’s campaign manager, and Philip Seymour Hoffman, as his counterpart on the Morris campaign, get equally little screen time.

The characters have a lot of potential, but in the end each has only one big confrontational scene, providing us with a mere taste of what could have been, had Clooney worried less about his gloomy display case and more about the exhibit itself.

There is nothing wrong with a decision to focus on the campaign staffers rather than the candidate they represent: In The War Room, a documentary that traces Bill Clinton’s 1992 campaign for the White House, his strategists James Carville and George Stephanopoulos provided long stretches of electric energy and entertainment. By contrast, Clooney’s film feels positively catatonic.

The first half of the film, a full hour, is mere setup of Morris’s political ambitions and his firm shot at the nomination. There is much talk of delegates, primaries and endorsements, but little is of any immediate consequence, and, for much of the film, save an all-too-brief interlude with his wife in a limousine, we only see fragments of the man.

This setup is tepid, and it is easy to lose interest until the revelation, finally, that Morris has been misbehaving with an intern. This discovery leads to major disillusionment on the part of Meyers and an expectation on our side that the film might stake out Lewinsky territory. It doesn’t, and things quickly take a turn for the melodramatic.

By that stage, many in the audience will have fallen asleep. The dialogue is much more directed at a political pundit than the average viewer looking for entertainment at the cinema, and for almost anyone unfamiliar with the American political system, the film may at times seem decidedly foreign. Considering the offhand allusions to donkeys and elephants, talk about primaries and constant references to K Street, the dialogue would likely be too difficult to follow at important moments.

The Ides of March suggests voters will ultimately be let down by their candidate, which is not exactly a novel insight. Clooney, taking up the roles of politician in front of the camera and filmmaker behind it, lets down the viewers by making a film that is much less engaging than political races in the real world.

Stories We Tell (2013)

Sarah Polley’s semi-documentary seeks to tell the truth, insofar as it can be told honestly, even while openly admitting it is necessarily constructed and incomplete.

stories-we-tellCanada
4.5*

Director:
Sarah Polley

Screenwriter:
Sarah Polley

Director of Photography:
Iris Ng

Running time: 110 minutes

Not unlike the powerful 2012 Slovak film Nový život, in which documentary filmmaker Adam Oľha looked at the deterioration of his parents’ relationship with the help of archive footage from his childhood, Sarah Polley’s Stories We Tell builds an insightful film from the family’s Super-8 home movies.

The result is astounding, not only because of the breathtaking revelation at its core, but because the way in which it was constructed is pure genius: The film is intelligent, entertaining and informative, but we also come to realise that Polley’s decision to show how the film itself was made fits perfectly with her subject matter and in fact shields her from expected criticism, not least of which comes from the mouth of one of the main players.

Polley, a 34-year-old Canadian actress and director who has starred in My Life Without Me and The Secret Life of Words, among others, here traces her own life through the eyes of her father, her siblings and her parents’ friends and acquaintances. The goal is to get at the real story that involves her late mother, the only person directly implicated who does not provide her side of the events.

These events entailed a secret that became an open secret before it became a bomb shell. I can be general here without giving much away by saying that Polley was not the daughter of the man she always thought was her father. But who this other person was, and how she found him, is the domain of the film’s content, which you have to see for yourself to believe.

At first glance, it seems Polley approaches her subject matter very matter-of-factly, by interviewing all the parties who are still alive and quizzing them on what they knew and when they knew it. Their facts take the form of a story, necessarily tied to their own points of view and subjective experiences, but we get a very coherent and cohesive, allhough not entirely comprehensive, narrative that flows together and is fed by the words of all these individuals.

However, as archive footage accumulates of incidents that couldn’t possibly have been filmed at the time, or of which such footage would be incredibly hard to come by, we start asking ourselves whether Polley in fact staged some of the historical events she purports to portray with actual footage.

When Polley answers our question late in the film, it immediately becomes apparent why she shot her story in a way that is not strictly the domain of the documentary film. While her focus is always on her mother, and the strategy is to use as much material as possible, be it from the past or from her interviews in the present, Polley does eventually come around to examining her own role as storyteller.

Her parents were both actors; in fact, her mother, Diane, fell in love with Michael because the role he was playing at the time was strong and interesting. The secret Diane kept from Michael, about Sarah’s father, would also require her to play a role by pretending that her lie was the truth. But at one point a central character says his side of the story may contain elements that are misremembered but none that is a lie. That throwaway comment, as well as his objection to the director’s inclusion of other voices besides his in the story, makes us understand the film can only be the asymptote of reality (an old idea borrowed from film André Bazin), reaching toward it but never reaching it entirely faithfully.

Super 8 continues to signal reality very strongly to an audience for whom anything that resembles home video footage still evokes a robust feeling of truthfulness for the vast majority of viewers. That is, of course, what made J.J. Abrams’ monster film Super 8 both compelling and disorientating.

But when Polley starts showing us how the film was actually made, in a way that sought to enhance the storytelling potential of her work without any attempt to defraud the audience or misrepresent the story itself, it is a stunning moment of realisation that this is much more than just another documentary. It is a work that reflects on the possibility of finding truth in a work that is always already edited and therefore manipulated.

Stories We Tell has moments of fun and tremendous comedy scattered along the generally informal quest for truth, and even if we agree that no film can reproduce the past as it was, Polley has given future filmmakers a roadmap to engage the audience by deploying very sympathetic individuals and asking the questions we ask ourselves while watching the film.

Viewed at the International Film Festival Bratislava 2013