It has been foretold
Great cast looks good in suits in intriguing, but thin political drama
The title evokes Shakespearean tragedy, but this film adaptation of a play called Farragut North is more along the lines of a topical behind-the-scenes political drama. Betrayal and political scheming are part of the mix, but parallels with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar are otherwise very far-fetched.
George Clooney, who directs and plays a key role here, co-wrote the screenplay/adaptation with longtime collaborator Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, author of the original play. What results onscreen is neither Shakespearean nor stunningly revelatory, but it does make for a modestly engaging tale of political in-fighting in the age of year-round media-saturated electioneering.
The basic setting is a Democratic presidential primary in which a liberal Pennsylvania governor (Clooney) is the apparent front-runner. Clooney, of course, looks suitably “presidential,” but the main dramatic focus is on the campaign’s managers—his own (Philip Seymour Hoffman), his rival’s (Paul Giamatti), and especially one Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), the ostensibly idealistic political handler who is press secretary for the Clooney character’s campaign.
The Gosling character is a canny and even zealous spin-doctor, and his story gets several provocative complications—an oblique power struggle with his immediate superior (Hoffman), some treacherous dealings with the rival manager (Giamatti), and an improbably Byzantine entanglement with a sexually adventurous intern (Evan Rachel Wood). Despite the current-events buzz of the early scenes, Myers’ path from gifted political operative/mouthpiece to Machiavellian king-maker becomes the story’s central focus.
Myers’ centrality in the first and last moments of the film underlines the character’s primacy in all this, and (here as in Driver) Gosling is very good at evoking an intensely focused but ultimately enigmatic personage. Unfortunately, the topical urgency and political potential of the initial premises get diluted, if not entirely marginalized, in the process.
Clooney and company seem to have gotten somewhat trapped among conflicting aims on this project. Apparently they’re trying to make a socially relevant drama that is also commercially viable, at the same time that they’re “opening up” and broadening Willimon’s stage play but not really altering its basic trajectory. The very fine cast, which also includes Marisa Tomei as an unctuously deceptive journalist and Jeffrey Wright as a shamelessly power-hungry senator, gives its best, but in the end there’s no covering for the script’s deficiencies with character and theme.