Two recent films—George Clooney's The Ides of March and J.C. Chandor's Margin Call—plunge us into the backroom deals of the high and mighty. All too often, these movies show us, the high and mighty are also the low and petty. Both films feature dream casts and long stretches of high-intensity dialogue, but only one persuades us of the overwhelming, poisonous importance of the skullduggery it portrays.
As befits its title, The Ides of March takes us to Cincinnati in the days leading up to a March 15 Ohio presidential primary. Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is the shrewd yet idealistic assistant campaign manager to the front runner, Pennsylvania Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney), who declares that he has no religion except the United States Constitution. (It's impossible to imagine any candidate getting very far in an American presidential primary after making a statement like that, but I'll let that pass.) As Meyers tells New York Times political reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), he's not only on Morris' band wagon, he's drunk Morris' Kool-Aid. Morris, Meyers believes, is the man who will save America, the only candidate who deserves to attain the Oval Office.
However, several things are about to happen that will leave Meyers not only questioning everything he believes but fighting for his future in politics. Some of them have to do with the continuing war of dirty tricks between Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Meyers' boss on the Morris campaign, and Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), campaign manager for Morris' chief opponent. The more dire events are connected with Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), a beautiful young Morris campaign worker whose father happens to be the ex-chairman of the Democratic National Committee. Without going into detail, the next two days of Meyers' life turn him into a far more dangerous man than he even imagined could exist.
The screenplay of The Ides of March—written by Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, from Willimon's play Farragut North—is definitely in the cynical tradition of American political thrillers. The cast is hard to fault, and—in the instances of Hoffman and Giamatti—approaches greatness. Clooney knows how to pace a film, and how to structure a scene for maximum suspense: perhaps the most unsettling scene in the movie is a long shot of Morris' limousine, which Zara has just entered to chat with the candidate.
If acting and direction were all it took to make a great movie, The Ides of March would be a masterpiece. Unfortunately, a movie has to keep viewers involved, and The Ides of March—for all the cold-blooded chicanery it portrays—leaves the audience on the outside looking in. The story feels slight and clichéd, and no character in the movie wins the slightest bit of our sympathy. In the end, The Ides of March has nothing to tell us except that politics is dirty. It's as if Clooney & Co. didn't trust viewers to read or watch the news. To be fair, perhaps they shouldn't. But Gore Vidal in The Best Man—just to name the most shining example of a campaign thriller—trusted his audience to know precisely what was at stake in a presidential campaign, and filled his story with characters who commanded our attention.
The shriveled souls that inhabit The Ides of March, on the other hand, could hardly be trusted to man a garbage truck. Perhaps that's what politics truly is—with the current crop of presidential candidates, it seems hard to doubt—and if so, God help us all. But The Ides of March just doesn't make us care.
However, I found myself caring deeply about the events in Margin Call, even if sometimes the content of my caring consisted of how to kill off two or three of the film's characters.
Margin Call takes us back to those days in 2008 when financial cataclysm, borne of executives' blinkered greed, was poised to engulf the world. (Those flood waters, I needn't remind anyone, have yet to recede.) The story, which takes place over a period of about thirty-six hours, begins with a major bloodletting at an unnamed, giant Wall Street financial firm; the HR people march in, and whole floors of workers are informed their services are no longer required.
The highest-ranking worker to get the ax is Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), head of risk management. Dale is given one hour to clean out his desk before security frog-marches him out the door. Before he leaves, Dale hands a thumb drive to his assistant, Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto, also one of the film's executive producers), whose job has been spared. He tells Sullivan to download its contents, sooner rather than later.
That night, Sullivan skips cocktails with the boys to download Dale's thumb drive. What he finds there, interpolated with his own figures, is horrifying: the company is carrying trillions of dollars of worthless derivatives on its books, and faces imminent collapse.
Sullivan immediately contacts his superiors, who go into crisis mode. In a series of late-night meetings, the firm's high executives decide they have only one choice: sell off all the worthless stocks to their customers, as quickly as possible.
The decision is not unanimous. Sam Rogers (Kevin Spacey), the firm's longtime head of sales, has severe qualms: he's a salesman, he tells CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), and the only advantage he has is the trust of his customers. Burn them once, he says, and that trust is gone. But Tuld's philosophy is that there are only three ways to get ahead in the financial world: "Be first, be smarter, or cheat."
The ending of Margin Call is no surprise, obviously. The story's drama is in the interaction of the characters, and their reactions to the firm's decision to flim-flam the rest of the world. We see which ones balk, and which ones readily assent; which ones stay at the top of the heap, and which ones are offered up as sacrifices.
The cast of Margin Call is fully equal to that of The Ides of March, but Chandor, a first-time feature director, isn't as accomplished as Clooney. (Chandor's repeated time-lapse shots of the Manhattan skyline—not a fresh concept to begin with—get old pretty quickly.)
In the structure and presentation of its material, however, Margin Call feels weightier than The Ides of March. Clooney presents The Ides of March as a whodunit, Chandor presents Margin Call as a whydunit, and the latter proves the wiser choice.
Clooney expects us to be as shocked and disaffected as Stephen Meyers as he learns the truth about the people he trusted. But we go into The Ides of March expecting a story of political corruption, and—even with the suicide of one of the major characters—the tale of perfidy seems run-of-the-mill. Our main question at the end is how Meyers—presented as a savvy, though young, political operator—could have been so naïve.
Chandor, on the other hand, is always clear as to whom and what we're dealing with. To paraphrase the punch line of an old joke, Chandor has established who the characters are; all that's left to haggle about is their price. The late Michael O'Donoghue once quipped that Hollywood money was the purest of motives for selling out; I will only note that Wall Street money is exponentially more abundant than Hollywood money. Chandor makes sure we see all the seductive trappings of Wall Street money: the corner offices with panoramic views of the East River, the luxurious executive restaurant, the private helicopters. Sam Rogers and Peter Sullivan may grow queasy at the fraud they're forced to perpetrate on innocent customers, but in the end they take their Nexium and do exactly as John Tuld tells them to. Other executives at the firm, such as Jared Cohen (Simon Baker) and Will Emerson (Paul Bettany), don't even need a Tums.
Chandor ends Margin Call with a quiet but emotionally charged scene involving Sam Rogers, his ex-wife (Mary McDonnell), and his old dog. The scene unobtrusively drives home the message of a film about financial executives, and a financial industry, dangerously out of touch with anything real. It's the sort of revelatory little scene The Ides of March could have used more of.