Believe it or not, even though this is directed and written by George Clooney (with Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, based on his play), this is not an ideological movie. Clooney plays a Democrat politician, Governor Mike Morris, running for the Democrat nomination for President. The setting is the race for the Ohio primary. Morris mouths all the same idiotic platitudes all today’s Democrats parrot, like “the rich must pay their fair share,” and “we have to get out of paying for all the oil in Saudi Arabia,“ and stuff like that. Since this is a Democrat primary one never hears the illogic of these litanies, like the fact that the top 10% of income earners pay 72% of all income taxes, so what do Democrats determine to be their “fair share?”
But, fortunately, this isn’t about politics. It’s about the process, not unlike Robert Redford’s 40-year-old film The Candidate (1972). Unlike that film, however, the protagonist is not the candidate (Redford in that film, Clooney in this). It’s about the managers of the two campaigns, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). The actual protagonist is Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), Zara’s 30-year-old idealistic top assistant.
It’s an extremely well-written script with twists rivaling the best thrillers, and in the end, that’s what this is, a thriller. Clooney directs with a deft touch, bringing the film in at an appealing 96 minutes, greatly helped by wonderfully atmospheric music by Alexandre Desplat, and tight editing by Stephen Mirrione. Evan Rachel Wood also contributes a fine performance in a key role.
The main criticism I have of the movie is that Director of Photography Phedon Papamichael inserts far too many ECU’s (Extreme Close-Ups) to suit my taste. The first third of the movie is full of them. He finally pulls back for more normal shots. Here’s what a good friend of mine who is a DP told me after reading my original review:
…framing and editing is ultimately the responsibility of the director…no doubt the DP and director shot various focal lengths of each character in each scene…the editor with the direction of the director decides which shot to use in the movie, the DP has absolutely no say in it, especially in a film of this budget and with these stars. If you watch “Michael Clayton” again, you will see Extreme Close-Ups of Clooney throughout the film…he is THE MOST vain actor working today…he’s the one who loves those close ups…and it’s his call in every film he directs.
The film captures the cynicism not only of hypocritical candidates like Morris, who isn’t close to what he appears to be from the campaign rostrum, but of the managers who run most political campaigns.
The acting is exceptional throughout. The game I played when I came out of the movie was to try to determine who among the main cast, Gosling, Clooney, Hoffman, and Giamatti, all of whom gave award-deserving performances, was the best. And that’s a tough call, so good were they all. I did, however, make a choice…
All through this long, boring, convoluted, confusing, feeble attempt at an historical epic, I kept thinking about Serge Eisenstein’s long, boring, convoluted, confusing feeble 1938 attempt at an historical epic, Alexander Nevsky, which was a Soviet Communist propaganda film, trying to latch onto the 13th century Russian hero as an early communist. I didn’t think that Jackie Chan would be involved in a Chinese Communist propaganda film, but there it was in the final graphic at the end of the movie that says that the Chinese Communist party is “following the spirit of Sun Yat-sen.” Talk about ridiculous! Sun Yat-sen was for free elections, a democrat. The Chicoms run a brutal dictatorship; freedom is discouraged, to put it politely. This raises a troubling question, to wit: Is Jackie Chan a supporter of the Chinese Communist dictatorship?
But, propaganda aside, this is a horrible film. It starts with a scrawl that is supposed to explain what is going on in China in 1911 as a setup for what follows. But the scrawl is in white and the background is in white, resulting in a scrawl that is impossible to read. It goes downhill from there, like being filled with innumerable unidentified battle scenes. What battles we’re watching is never told, and they appear throughout the film like clockwork.
Worse, there are long scenes of Jackie, who plays Revolutionary leader, co-founder of the Kuomintang and the Republic of China, and Yat-sen confidant Huang Xing, and other characters in the film looking and thinking. There’s one long, almost interminable surrealistic scene of Jackie walking down a bunker with no sound, but the audience can see battle mayhem occurring all around. What battle is this? Where is it? What’s the point of the battle? No clue. But Jackie keeps walking and the camera keeps zooming in on Jackie’s face apparently to reflect that the man can, in fact, think.
All the actors seem to have graduated from the Sean Penn school of acting because there are lots of crying scenes, but nary a tear. Many scenes are actually laughable.
Directed by Zhang Li, Chan has a credit as “General Director.” He should rethink this and have his name taken off the credits. Maybe they can loop someone in to play his character. This will do his reputation no good, although there’s not really much to harm here because he has a string of rotten movies to his credit.
Sun Yat-sen (Winston Chao) is shown as basically a Chinese doctor living in San Francisco whose only contribution to the Revolution was to go to Europe to convince the European banks to not give a huge loan to the Qing Dynasty for the ostensible purpose of saving their railroad, but would, in fact, be used to defeat the Revolution. That’s a calumny.
This movie doesn’t deserve all the time it would take to point out all its flaws. Suffice it to say that it’s an embarrassment to all involved. Sun Yat-sen and his revolutionaries deserve much better than this clumsy agitprop. In Mandarin.