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George Clooney hopes 'Ides of March' scores political points

The actor's film combines his professional and political interests, and he thinks the film will appeal to both Democrats and Republicans.

September 25, 2011|By John Horn, Los Angeles Times
  • Gov. Morris (George Clooney, left) addresses supporters after receiving Sen. Thompson's (Jeffrey Wright, center) endorsement; Morris' wife, Cindy (Jennifer Ehle) and their daughter (Talia Akiva) stand by in the movie "Ides of March."
Gov. Morris (George Clooney, left) addresses supporters after receiving… (Saeed Adyani, Columbia…)

The Dow Jones industrial average was plummeting and President Obama was on the air, seeking to calm the nation and the markets. Inside the Studio City offices of his production company Smoke House, George Clooney searched the TV screen, looking for the charismatic senator the actor had supported in the 2008 election. But Obama this August morning looked defensive and a bit gassed; life in the White House, it seemed, was grinding him down.

"I think he's getting beat around," Clooney said, the way a Little League dad might cheer on a son struggling on the pitching mound. "He should go after the S&P for the credit downgrade."

For better and often for worse, actors have dabbled in politics and causes, but few have shown the kind of sustained and informed interest and commitment — on- and off-screen — that Clooney has.

In his new film, "The Ides of March," Clooney plays a liberal presidential candidate. As a director, he previously celebrated the power of a journalist crusading against McCarthyism in "Good Night, and Good Luck," and as an executive producer he explored the corrosive influence of lobbyists and spinmeisters in the HBO series "K Street." He also had a front-row seat for his father's 2004 U.S. House campaign in Kentucky, which ended in disappointment.

Last week, the 50-year-old actor traveled to Hong Kong to promote his Sudanese human rights effort, the Satellite Sentinel Project, to a global investor conference. He's addressed the United Nations about Darfur and co-founded an aid organization, Not on Our Watch.

He's been asked numerous times about running for office himself. But even with his intricate understanding of political tactics and rhetoric (or perhaps precisely because of that knowledge), Clooney said he would rather play a candidate than be one.

"I don't wake up in the morning and say, 'I wish I had President Obama's job,'" Clooney said.

"Every two years, somebody tries to bring my name up and talk about politics in the real world — 'You should run for governor!'" he added. "I'm not getting in politics. I have no interest in politics — because of the compromises you have to make. I don't have to make those kind of compromises when I get to go to the Sudan or Darfur. I get to come back and sit down in front of the Security Council at the United Nations and say, 'This is right, and this is wrong. Now how you deal with it, I don't know, but this is right and this is wrong.'"

Still, "Ides of March," loosely adapted from Beau Willimon's off-Broadway play "Farragut North," offers a particularly ripe opportunity for Clooney to meld his professional interests and his political ideals.

On one hand, the political thriller is a vehicle for Clooney (who directed and co-wrote the movie) and longtime writing and producing partner Grant Heslov to fulfill their wishful thinking about how a stand-up Democrat could walk and talk. But it also takes a hard look at the personal price of politics and its inevitable betrayals and compromises. The film's ultimately pessimistic take may surprise some, given that it comes from a hopeful liberal such as Clooney.

Clooney's Gov. Mike Morris is poised to take the Democratic nomination with a platform so uncompromisingly left-leaning it might make Fox News commentators burst into flames. He opposes the death penalty, foreign military intervention and even internal combustion engines and supports gay marriage, mandatory national volunteer service and higher taxes for the richest Americans.

Amid the critical Ohio primary, the governor's campaign team, led by Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and underling Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), must fend off the cutthroat tactics of Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who's calling the shots for the governor's hard-charging opponent, Sen. Pullman. Drawn into a relationship with the sexually assertive and well-connected campaign intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) and confronted by a secret that the governor has harbored, Stephen is forced to make a momentous decision about his loyalties, his ambition and, most important, his principles.

The "Ides of March" title, which translated from Latin means March 15 in the Roman calendar, refers not just to the approximate schedule of the Ohio primary but also to Shakespeare's "Julius Caesar," the exact date when Caesar's friend and adviser Marcus Brutus joins a group of conspirators in assassinating the Roman leader.

"It's about a character who starts out one way and ends up completely having sold his soul," said Heslov. "So, yes, we are stealing from Shakespeare." Added Clooney: "There's old-fashioned themes of betrayal here — betrayal by your friend, betrayal by your enemy."

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