Beau Willimon’s 2008 play Farragut North, about the cynical choices of a young political press spokesman, gets a Hollywood makeover that expands, but doesn’t necessarily improve it.
Director/co-star George Clooney’s film adaptation, “The Ides of March,” opens today. Like the play, the film is never less than gripping, despite its flaws — a moral train wreck from which you can’t look away. And it follows the play pretty closely for nearly two-thirds of the narrative arc. It then diverges into even higher melodrama and turns the finale from an individual’s moral downfall into a universal swamp of mendacity.
Washington area theatergoers may have seen Farragut North at the Contemporary American Theater Festival in Shepherdstown in 2009, or in a fine, intimate staging this past spring at Olney Theatre Center.
Willimon’s play first bowed off-Broadway in a short run in November, 2008, and caught Clooney’s attention as a film-worthy idea. The young playwright based the glib drama on his and his friends’ experiences working in political campaigns in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
What Willimon came away with, based on his play, was the chilling sense that idealism too easily evolves into bare-knuckles cynicism for gifted young political operatives these days.
Stephen Meyers (excellent Ryan Gosling) is a smart, not-long-out-of-college hotshot who handles press coverage for Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) on his primary campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. His moral compass never his strongest trait, Stephen (whose last name is “Bellamy” in the stage play), is eager to believe his own notices and reluctant to go out on a limb for anyone but himself.
He breaks what a college roommate of mine used to call The Eleventh Commandment: Thou Shalt Not Get Cocky.
Stephen beds a pretty college-age intern working on the campaign (Evan Rachel Wood) and tries to keep it casual — so casual that while on the phone with his boss, campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), he ascribes the sound of her voice in his hotel room to “the maid.”
(The casual sexism and diminishment of female characters as practiced not only by Stephen, but by candidate Morris and the entire male-dominated campaign machinery, feels so integral that it’s hard to tell whether director Clooney is remarking upon it, or just accepting it.)
Next, Stephen lets himself be flattered by another politico, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), manager of the opposing campaign. When Duffy tries to recruit him, Stephen says “no,” but hesitates too long before reporting the conversation to Paul, a deceptively shlumpy chain-smoker who prizes loyalty above all.
It is at this point in the story that Clooney as director and co-screenwriter (teamed with Grant Heslov; Willimon also gets a screenwriting credit) chose to depart from much, but not all, of the play’s final act.
FOR THOSE WHO INTEND TO SEE THE FILM, SPOILERS ARE COMING: From the beginning, the movie lets us meet the candidate, who is only referred to in the play. Clooney’s Morris is a charming, brainy secularist, who cites the U.S. Constitution as his religious text. He has a sweet relationship with his briefly shown wife (Jennifer Ehle) and seems like a standup guy.
But Clooney et al. could not resist mining all the juicy recent history and hijinks of Democratic office holders, candidates, interns and others — affairs, out-of-wedlock children, and lies, lies, lies. And so the Farragut North plot rips more sexy, scandalous stuff from the headlines than perhaps it should have. It becomes lurid.
It is not unusual for a director to “open up” a film that’s based on a play to avoid staginess by trimming dialogue and taking the characters outside the confines of whatever rooms the play unfolds in.
Clooney and his team do all of that — aside from campaign headquarters and hotel rooms, there are streets and bars and a bumpy (albeit fake-looking) plane ride.
What’s really changed between Farragut North and “The Ides of March” is the message. The play traces the moral downfall of a youthful protagonist felled by the tragic flaw of hubris. He brings one or two behind-the-scenes people down with him, but it’s really his downfall. He a pariah at the end, still trying to manipulate his way out of trouble.
In “The Ides of March,” the youthful antihero’s moral downfall takes a different turn. BIG SPOILER ALERT: Stephen’s actions result in a tragedy, and his response is to move beyond whatever scruples he may have remaining and opt for self-preservation at all costs — betrayal, blackmail, and he triumphs. He eases right into the political power structure, and the candidate, for all his high moral talk, barely blinks.
“The Ides of March” is a pretty crackerjack entertainment, even as it tells us we’re doomed.