Back in the Clinton years, a friend moved to D.C. to become a Washington correspondent. Shortly after he arrived, the job fell through. When I called to ask how he was doing, he told me he was actually kind of relieved: "I realized that I love politics," he said, "but that I don't give a damn about government. It bores me stiff."
Aside from corporate lobbyists and (if this is not a redundancy) conservative think-tankers and readers of this magazine, the rest of America pretty much agrees. This certainly includes Hollywood, or Liberal Hollywood, as it's invariably termed by right-wing talk-show hosts who themselves earn as much as movie stars. People in L.A. whirred with excitement when Obama was running for president, but since he got into office, most of them have spent their time yawning--who dreamed the new JFK would be so boring? Of course, even at the best times, governing strikes movie people as possessing all the glamour of a paper-bag lunch at the Department of Agriculture.
There are, of course, exceptions. These days, we have George Clooney and Steven Soderbergh, friends and business partners, who not only have collaborated on entertaining hits like Out of Sight and Ocean's Eleven but have tackled such politically charged projects as Three Kings (Clooney starred), Che (Soderbergh directed), and their shared HBO series K Street, most memorable for all the starstruck Beltway insiders turning up on a show that was about as thrilling as a tryst with Harry Reid.
As it happens, Clooney and Soderbergh each have a new movie that talks, more or less directly, about American political life. In their different ways, both films tell us something about the current condition of what we might call Obama culture.
Of the two, you'd think Clooney the more likely to make a politically inspiring picture. After all, he's not only our best movie star--nobody's better at appearing warm and friendly while remaining aloof--he's our best liberal movie star. He's stalwart on Darfur, raises money for enlightened causes, makes hagiographic movies about the likes of Edward R. Murrow. And he's not egomaniacal about it. He knows when to stay in the background. He knew it would damage Obama's chances to be seen hanging around the campaign the way Warren Beatty once did with Gary Hart. All in all, Clooney's such a terrific spokesman, I've heard many people say that they wish he would run for president (you know, be our Ronald Reagan).
He may have had that fantasy himself. Certainly, he assumes that role in his new film The Ides of March, a potboiling parable (that he co-wrote and directed) based on Beau Willimon's 2008 play, Farragut North. Clooney plays Governor Mike Morris, an insurgent Democratic candidate for president who's like a suaver Howard Dean, one burnished with a few drops of John Edwards's toothsome smarm. In earlier eras, such an ambitious figure would have been tackled head-on, as Shakespeare did Richard III and Macbeth or Tolstoy did Napoleon (however poorly). But these are democratic times, which means that our political protagonists are usually not the Big Dogs. They're the ambitious functionaries who have to walk them--imagine Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, only serious. While Morris turns up on-screen only occasionally (one never even sees him in Willimon's original play), the story centers on Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), the campaign's brainy young communications director, who believes, or at least thinks he believes, that his candidate must be elected because America badly needs him.
Myers knows that Morris will wrap up the nomination if he wins the Ohio primary. But what if he doesn't? Trying to play all the angles, Myers is soon bouncing like a pinball among two veteran campaign managers (played with tousled canniness by Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti), a conservative Democratic senator on the make (Jeffrey Wright), an aggressive New York Times reporter (Marisa Tomei), and a sexy young campaign intern (Evan Rachel Wood) so naive she believes in her own worldliness. Topping it all off, Myers stumbles across information that could change the whole campaign. He must choose between advancing his career and doing the moral thing. Guess which one he chooses.
Like so many plays-into-movies, The Ides of March is a tad airless, yet it's also enjoyable. I'm a sucker for stories about the corruption of politics, even if we nearly always learn the same lesson about getting your hands dirty, or maybe I mean your knees. That's certainly the theme of The Ides of March, which is basically a story about how the people involved in political campaigns, even seemingly idealistic ones, do what it takes to get ahead, even if it means betraying common decency and their principles.
While personal corruption does undeniably abet political corruption, we hardly need Clooney to make this point at a moment in history when Americans look at politicians with unprecedented contempt. What we need is a political movie that might offer, if not a way out, at least a glimpse of something better. The Ides of March isn't it. In fact, it's a film about politics that has no politics. Governor Morris may stand for all sorts of progressive catnip, but the film isn't about him, what he stands for, or the tragedy that potentially great leaders feel compelled to engage in compromises that guarantee their leadership won't be great. It's about backstabbing, skullduggery, and scandal. Trust me, the secret Myers uncovers isn't ideological--it's not that some blogger has a tape of Governor Mike Morris drunkenly telling his friends that his lifelong dream is to turn the U.S. into another Sweden.
The Ides of March may be about an insurgent liberal Democrat, but its meaning wouldn't change in the slightest were it about, say, the communications director for Ron Paul. Indeed, I suspect Paul's followers might well enjoy the movie because, in its general disillusionment, it actually feeds the hard-core conservative belief that government is a disease, not a cure, and that those who talk up government are really in it for the power. Which makes the film dispiriting stuff coming from a good liberal like Clooney three years into a Democratic presidency that promised transformative change.
SURPRISINGLY, THINGS aren't so bleak in Contagion, the latest movie from Soderbergh. In person, he's as chilly as Clooney is charming, but he has a far more complicated mind--so complicated that it often feels slightly perverse. He seems to mistrust or disdain his considerable knack for making entertaining hits like Erin Brockovich, even if that's what most everyone (including critics) wishes he'd do. In fact, Soderbergh's a wild card. Who else would make a two-part, 260-minute, $58 million art movie that not only strips Che Guevara of his glamour but, pointedly eschewing drama, focuses on revolution's day-to-day slog? Lefty Italian directors like Roberto Rossellini and Francesco Rosi used to do that kind of thing, but I saw Che's premiere at Cannes and still remember Latin American critics gnawing their gizzards at what struck them as a weird new form of Yanqui imperialism: Soderbergh had appropriated their greatest hero of the last hundred years, then stripped him and his story of its romantic, world-rattling power.
This doesn't mean that Soderbergh is some kind of wing nut. The following year, he brought out The Informant!, an underrated comedy about price-fixing in agribusiness, whose informant hero, Mark Whitacre, deftly played by Matt Damon, has a split personality that lets him think of himself as a storybook hero even as he lies to the FBI and lines his own pockets. Without belaboring the point, Soderbergh's movie offers a sly dissection of today's hyper-capitalist personality, in which a guy can shamelessly, if not illegally, grab everything he can and, with no sense of contradiction, still believe he's one of the good guys. Like those investment bankers talking to Congress, Whitacre is stunned anyone might think him a villain.
Now comes Contagion, which at first blush appears to be another paranoid look at globalization. Indeed, it begins with a Chicago businesswoman played by Gwyneth Paltrow contracting a virus in Hong Kong. Within minutes, she's dead, and the delight of audiences at seeing her killed off so quickly and hideously actually makes you feel bad for her. It also makes you wonder which other prize-winning member of the cast will croak next: Matt Damon? Kate Winslet? Bryan Cranston? Marion Cotillard? Yet just when you think you might be watching another Outbreak--remember that mid-'90s thriller in which Dustin Hoffman battles an Ebola-like virus?--the movie reveals itself to be something different. Contagion is less a thriller than a medical procedural that takes us step by step from the beginning of an epidemic to its end.
That's odd enough for a studio movie, but as Contagion goes on, you realize that it's doing something so rare as to be groundbreaking. Ever since the '60s, Hollywood has tended to treat U.S. government employees as bad guys--CIA assassins, heartless immigration officers, those mean NASA scientists who try to snatch E.T. (The great exception in recent years, of course, has been the military.) In contrast, Soderbergh's film shows how a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention team headed by Laurence Fishburne, working alongside the World Health Organization (and other one-worlder sleeper cells), goes about stopping an epidemic even as the public panics, the media goes bonkers, and Big Pharma doesn't have a clue. These medical officers do what they need to do--risking, even sacrificing, their lives--in order to set things right. They don't always behave impeccably or according to protocol, but they are the good guys. They're certainly superior to the film's nastiest piece of work, a skeevy San Francisco blogger played by Jude Law who attacks the CDC's statements and talks of corporate conspiracies, all the while advancing his private agenda.
A film about government that is sneakily political, Contagion may be the purest expression of Obamaism I've seen on-screen, and not only because the fight against the epidemic is being led by a tamped-down African American (Soderbergh is smart enough to grasp the resonances of casting Fishburne). Rather than revving us up with fears--Globalization is evil! A killer virus is on the loose! Inoculations are worse than the disease!--the movie plays out its scenario matter of factly. Far from laying on the Hollywood melodrama, it's detached, rational, and while highly involving, also deliberately unexciting. The phrase that comes to mind is "no drama."
Like Obama, albeit more persuasively, Contagion expresses faith in public institutions at a time when too many people want to gut them. Conservatives insist that government can't do everything, a point any sensible person would concede, then make the mistake of thinking this means it can't do anything. Well, for starters, Soderbergh's film suggests, government can hold things together during an outbreak of a deadly virus. In case of an epidemic, the CDC can and will do more to save you than the executives at Pfizer or Merck (whom we imagine--don't we?--hopping on their private jets to the Seychelles before the authorities can shut down the airports).
Back when he still had some optimism left, George Orwell used to argue that pessimism is reactionary because it makes the idea of improving the world seem impossible. By this standard, Contagion is a far more progressive picture than The Ides of March, both in its outlook and also in relation to its context, the onrushing election, which, only four years after an apparently transformative presidential victory, now looks to be the truly decisive one. Where Clooney's movie reinforces the prevailing cynicism about political life, Soderbergh's offers a glimpse, however modest and uninflected, of why government matters. I'm not sure it's a verdict on Obama's first three years, but it's spooky that the movie about the killer epidemic is actually more utopian than the one about the Democrats' idealistic front-runner.