In portraying politics, cinematic cynicism isn't new. "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" featured Jimmy Stewart's saintly senator, but director Frank Capra also depicted a decrepit, corrupt Congress.
"The Ides of March" is even more dark, as it skips a happy, Capraesque conclusion in favor of an unflinching look at today's marriage of media, money and politics.
The movie's plot is about a decisive, divisive Democratic presidential primary. George Clooney plays a candidate whose positions (and posters) echo Barack Obama's 2008 "HOPE" campaign. But off the hustings he's a hustler -- less liberal and more libertine -- evoking "The Man from Hope," Bill Clinton. The inevitable candidate scandal unleashes backstage backstabbing that rivals the original Ides of March attack. Only this time everyone is Brutus, including Ryan Gosling as an intense, idealistic press secretary, and Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti as competing campaign managers.
If the movie's media manipulators seem familiar, it's because we've seen their archetypes before from Peter Boyle in "The Candidate" and Robert DeNiro in "Wag the Dog," to just name two. TV is in on the theme, too. "The West Wing" and "Spin City" revolved around spinning the press (and thus the public). And even TV's most honored drama, "Mad Men," began with Don Draper's presidential pitch for a young, savvy Navy veteran turned dynamic senator. (JFK? Nope, Richard Nixon. Oops.)
And in multiple cases of life imitating art, message gurus are part of the medium itself.
The 1993 documentary "The War Room" made Clinton's communications team of James Carville, George Stephanopoulos and Paul Begala nearly as ubiquitous as their boss. Carville's arguments with wife Mary Matalin, a GOP media strategist, are Sunday-morning routines (and "Saturday Night Live" sketches). Stephanopoulos has hosted ABC's "This Week" and "Good Morning America." And Begala is a constant cable commentator, just like Nicolle Wallace, who massaged messages for George W. Bush and John McCain.
Further blurring lines, journalists are often in on the game. Look! There's MSNBC's Chris Mathews and Rachel Maddow, CNN's John King, and PBS's Charlie Rose all playing themselves in "Ides." And the movie's marquee ad? Basically a prominent product placement for Time magazine, with its split image of Clooney and Gosling under the headline "Is This Man Our Next President?"
Movie stars playing campaign consultants -- and campaign consultants becoming TV stars -- are inevitable byproducts of money, media and politics. Expect more of it. This will be the first presidential race after the 2010 Supreme Court "Citizens United" case, which already spiked spending from $2.6 billion in the 2006 midterm to about $4 billion in 2010, according to Mary Boyle, vice president for communications for Common Cause.
"Citizens United is a huge, significant game-changer that will unleash unprecedented levels of contributions and undisclosed money, which is equally concerning," Boyle said.
Yet candidates need more than contributions: They have to connect. And so far, it hasn't been campaign cash, but candidate debates, that have been the defining dynamic.
Indeed, for some, money not only hasn't recently reflected popularity, it's been an inverse indicator. Rick Perry's campaign announced it raised a stunning $17 million in the third quarter. But debilitating debate performances have halved his poll numbers. Conversely, Herman Cain, despite more modest campaign coffers, has surged after standing out on stage.
To be sure, sometimes voters and donors do work in tandem. Mitt Romney, who was robotic in 2008 debates, has been livelier this year, and he's held steady in polls and donations. Conversely, Michele Bachmann's rise and fall was bracketed by her strong debate debut in June and her more recent postdebate, off-the-cuff gaffe linking the HPV vaccine with mental retardation.
Of course, debate performances are also often the product of real-life image makers now seen on the small screen. The fictional fixers on the big screen are influential, too: Gosling's character opens the film by doing a debate-stage sound check. He steps up to the mic and declares that his religion is the Constitution, an applause-getting line later mouthed by Clooney in the debate.
Whether Gosling is quoting Clooney, or vice versa, isn't made clear, nor even deemed consequential, in our "Ides of March" political era. Beware, indeed.
The Rash Report can be heard at 7:50 a.m. weekdays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. Follow John Rash on Twitter: @rashreport.