On election night in 2008, I was sitting in a theater in the Chelsea neighborhood watching a preview performance of Beau Willimon's political drama, "Farragut North," when the news of President Obama's election broke. During intermission, a member of the company announced the states that had been "called" so far, and after the final curtain, with the entire company lined up for their ovations, the audience was silenced and the Democratic presidential and congressional victory was announced. It seemed like exactly the right place to be just then, having just seen an engrossing show about a presidential primary campaign.
When I heard that "Farragut North" was being made into a movie by George Clooney, I was filled with anticipation. What I didn't realize was how thoroughly the material would be reworked. But the reworking really just opens it up a bit and adds the significant personal presence, missing from the stage show, of the actual candidate! Clooney, who collaborated with Willimon and Grant Heslov in devising the screenplay and who directed and stars as the candidate, has done a fine job of capturing the almost claustrophobic sense of the inside of a hard-fought political campaign that was what made the original play so emotionally involving.
He has a great cast to work with here. Ryan Gosling's impersonation of the young campaign spokesperson whose mistakes lead him into a morally compromising position with tragic results is superb. (John Gallagher, Jr., played that role in the stage production I saw. He has a very different sort of presence from Gosling, so the role was quite different as portrayed on the screen, but very effective in its own way.) Philip Seymour Hoffman absolutely nails every role he plays, and his portrayal of the campaign manager here is no exception to that. Paul Giamatti is also superb as the rival campaign manager who maneuvers to neutralize Gosling's character, and then is outmaneuvered because even the candidate makes mistakes! Marisa Tomei, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood and Max Minghella are all memorable in supporting roles.
The story itself, as told in this version, shows how morally compromised our political system is, and how backstage dealmaking can warp even the most idealistic, apparently well-motivated people. One of my facebook friends who also saw the film recently commented that he felt like he needed to take a shower afterwards… and I understand the sentiment. It is no pleasant to see an idealistic character transformed into an amoral, opportunistic stance… but then we don't really know how that turns out, because of the way the film ends. Indeed, I didn't fully understand how to interpret the ending until I read a plot summary after the fact. I think the last scene could have been filmed with a little less obscurity of the story line. I suspect this is one that will be interesting for repeat viewing when the DVD becomes available.