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‘The Ides of March’ / ‘Route Irish’

Political cynicism on Capitol Hill and in the war zone

by Giovanni Fazio

OK, my job this week is to convince you that “The Ides of March” is one of the best films you’ll ever see about politics and elections and the eventual disillusion we all come to harbor about both. But this task is complicated by the fact that I don’t want to spoil it for you in the least — and believe me, plenty of other reviewers out there will, so watch out.

What I can say is you have George Clooney (who also directs) as a Democratic presidential candidate, Ryan Gosling as his idealistic aide, Evan Rachel Wood as the too-friendly intern, Philip Seymour Hoffman as the seasoned campaign manager and Paul Giamatti as a rival candidate’s ruthless campaign boss. All are on top form.

Anyone who’s seen the clips will have noted Clooney as the telegenic governor running for president, and given the American tendency to elect celebrity candidates (Ronald Reagan, The Governator, et al), this film almost seems like a preview for a real-life run for office by the movie star. Indeed, viewers familiar with Clooney’s off-screen activism will recognize the unapologetically progressive views written into his character’s stump speeches, which present him as a kind of liberal wet-dream candidate, like a Bernie Sanders with Mitt Romney hair and an unimpeachable military-service record.

And yet … This is very much the first post-Barack Obama film: Just note the familiarly iconic campaign posters of Clooney’s candidate. “The Ides of March” captures the intense disillusion felt by many on the left — after Obama’s embrace of the Patriot Act and Wall Street — about the possibility of there ever being a candidate you can trust, someone whose promises last past that first Tuesday in November. (And conservatives who were less than thrilled with Dubya’s nation-building and deficit spending may recognize that feeling too.)

“The Ides of March” moves along briskly; it’s a slick drama looking at the ruthless machinations of a modern political campaign, and it features Gosling and Clooney — both quite irresistible stars to their respective demographics — fighting the good fight, to bring some, uh, hope and change to Washington. The film convinces you to buy into that illusion before the hammer drops.

By film’s end, the idealistic slogans of Clooney’s candidate — “Dignity matters! Integrity matters!” — ring hollow, shrouded in the darkest of irony. Clooney takes his ample personal charm — his very currency as a movie star — and uses it to show us how charm is just an act, how the most heartfelt words are, in the end, just a script. As an actor, he sees through politicians with a clarity possessed by few other commentators.

For a double dose of political cynicism, this month also sees the latest by England’s die-hard lefty director, Ken Loach. “Route Irish,” scripted by Loach’s longtime collaborator Paul Laverty, is named after the stretch of road between the Green Zone and Baghdad International Airport; this was the most dangerous 12 km stretch in the world for much of the last decade, subject to constant insurgent attacks and roadside bombs.

It’s here that Frankie (John Bishop), a British security contractor working for a Blackwater-like company, is killed in an ambush. Fergus (Mark Womack), his friend since childhood and fellow contractor, is inconsolable. After the funeral in Liverpool, England, he starts drinking too much and asking too many questions. When Frankie’s girlfriend, Rachel (Andrea Lowe), gives him a cellphone with some incriminating photos of murdered Iraqis on it, Fergus starts to believe that someone had his friend killed before he could reveal the atrocity.

Yet Fergus is hardly a reliable narrator, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and borderline alcoholism. Did Frankie’s contractor team fire on Iraqi civilians in self-defense, or was it cold-blooded murder? Was Frankie set up, or was he simply in “the wrong place at the wrong time,” as Fergus’ slick-suited boss puts it.

For the first half of the film, “Route Irish” is an excellent look at the free-fire excesses of contractors in Iraq (who were given immunity from prosecution by the American consul, Paul Bremer), and the lingering effects of the war zone on men who have returned home. Womack has a convincingly haunted look, torn with self-hate for having convinced his friend that work as a contractor, paying 10 grand a month, would be an easy score.

Yet when Loach’s films work, the politics seem to emerge naturally from the realities of his characters’ lives, as in “My Name is Joe” or “The Wind That Shakes the Barley”; when he fails, the political point-scoring seems more obvious, less intrinsic to the whole. Such is the fate of “Route Irish” when three-quarters of the way into the film we get a gratuitous and entirely unbelievable water-boarding scene that nearly wrecks it. The problem with Loach’s social-realist style is that while it invariably leads to great, believable performances, the fantastic sort of thriller elements that might work in a Hollywood movie (such as “The Hurt Locker”) seem sorely out of place.