Since I didn’t go to the Toronto International Film Festival last year, I missed out on the unveiling of the Bell Lightbox, the festival’s sparkling new venue/headquarters/bustling nerve center (it houses five state-of-the-art movie theaters). Naturally, I was curious to experience the place, and having watched two movies there on my first day, I can report that it’s very damn cool – in fact, it’s an elegant dream of a cinemathèque show palace, sort of like a mall megaplex designed to look like the Museum of Modern Art. It’s got an airy glassed-in Stanley Kubrick feel, with sloping long walkways, tall ceilings and endless white walls, and theaters that are anything but arid. They’re invitingly moody, dark, sensual, and spacious, the screens covered up, before each showing, with a lush red-velvet curtain (made even lusher by ruby-red footlights) that looks like it’s going to part to reveal some David Lynch bizarro-world nightclub act.
It was the perfect place, as it turns out, to watch The Ides of March, a grippingly dark, super-inside political drama, co-written, co-produced, and directed by George Clooney, that’s set during the days leading up to an Ohio Democratic presidential primary. The movie serves up a densely shuffled fictional version of real-life headline events: Obama, the Clinton scandals, Howard Dean, a bit of Mike Dukakis, cameos by Charlie Rose and Chris Matthews that (for once) don’t feel like stunt-reality gimmicks but are woven right into the film’s texture. More than that, the movie serves up everything we’ve come to know about the dirty business of how campaigns are really run in this country. The Ides of March has true storytelling verve, but it also plays like a rite of exorcism. With Clooney as Gov. Mike Morris, a soulfully articulate, hard-headedly idealistic Obama-in-2008-like candidate who is promising a new kind of politics, and Ryan Gosling, showing that he can flirt with sleaze, and even fall into it, and still make you like him in the role of a shrewdly opportunistic press secretary, The Ides of March pulses along like an updated version of The Candidate crossed with a political Sweet Smell of Success – it’s got that kind of noirish dark fizz.
Early on, there’s a moment that really makes you take notice when Marisa Tomei, as a New York Times reporter, tells Gosling and the campaign manager (a brilliantly addled Philip Seymour Hoffman) that there’s no way that candidate Morris, with his hope-and-change rhetoric, could turn out to be anything but a disappointment. Hmmmm, we wonder…is this going to be the liberal Clooney’s cinematic comment on the disenchantment that so many Obama supporters have come to feel about the president they once thought of as a savior? Well, sort of. Except that since the whole movie takes place during a single primary fight, when Morris and his managers are struggling to win the endorsement of a senator (Jeffrey Wright) whose delegates can clinch the nomination – the senator wants the promise of the Secretary of State job before he’ll release them – The Ides of March, while stuffed with political talk-show gabble, isn’t really about policy. It’s about backstabbing, media manipulation, and what campaign managers do when they’re not hatching big plans in the war room.
It’s also about an office intern, played with luscious dazzle by Evan Rachel Wood, who gets into the middle of everything. Yes, this is a movie that turns on a potential sex scandal, which makes it sound like another of Hollywood’s overheated prestige-tabloid melodramas. But trust me, it’s not. Clooney, as a filmmaker, packs the events in so tightly, and smartly, that the little “Aha” moments of parallel between the characters and actual politicians aren’t the movie’s ultimate hook. They’re just the audience bait. What Clooney is really out to capture, and does, is the acrid, murderously toxic atmosphere of contemporary politics – the double-dealing, magnified by the media, that turns policy into a corrupt game, even when it’s being played by “idealists.” You could argue that that very thing happened to Obama, and that that’s the movie’s message. But you could also argue that The Ides of March captures a spirit of venomous aggression in our politics that Obama would do well to embrace far more than he has. The movie isn’t profound, but it sure is provocative. It’s a fable of moral urgency, an incredibly savvy lament, and a drama that goes like a shot.
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For my money, the best baseball movie of the last 25 years is Bull Durham (sorry, but I never got into the mystical sports-in-the-cornfield corn of Field of Dreams). It was a movie as much about talk – loose, low-down, purplish, and inspired – as it was about baseball. The super-sharp and rousing Moneyball, which may be the best baseball movie since Bull Durham, is also about talk, but in a coolly heady and original inside-the-front-office way. Based on the nonfiction book by Michael Lewis, and written by the powerhouse talents of Steven Zaillian and Aaron Sorkin (the director, proving his major-league mettle, is Capote’s Bennett Miller), it opens with footage of a playoff game in which the New York Yankees beat the Oakland A’s, illustrating an essential reality of modern sports: the deeper a team’s pockets, the more probable it is that the team will win. (The Yankees’ budget that year was $114 million; the A’s was $39 million.)
The moment that Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), the A’s general manager, who never watches the games (a former big-money player whose career didn’t pan out, he’s too superstitious), walks into the office of the team’s owner to demand a bigger budget, Moneyball is drenched in a kind of wise-guy-jock knowingness about what makes professional baseball tick. Yet the dialogue is so light and sharp it just about cuts the air. Forced to endure another measly budget, which all but dooms his team to third-rank status, Billy takes a trading meeting with the Cleveland Indians, and it’s there that he poaches a young team analyst – Peter Brand (Jonah Hill), an economics graduate from Yale – who, using computerized analysis, has perfected a statistical vision of the game that turns out to be more refined, and maybe more humane, than the standard drill of big-money-buys-big-talent. His great insight is that if you ignore a lot of the obvious flaws that damage players in the eyes of professional scouts (bad legs, “can’t throw,” too thick in the middle, likes strip clubs and weed too much), and you just focus on one single metric – the percentage of times they get on base – then tons of players who are undervalued, and therefore don’t cost very much, will turn out to be golden winners. What would happen if you assembled an entire team of these green-diamond misfits?
That was Billy Beane’s grand, maybe desperate experiment, and Moneyball, in following what happened with heightened journalistic intricacy, but also with a snappishly fast and gratifying club-house patter, may be the first baseball movie that taps into the thrill of strategizing, of manipulated cause and effect, as much as you would expect from a movie about chess or a casino heist. (Steven Soderbergh spent a long time developing this project, before he and the studio parted ways, and you can still feel his fingerprints on it.)
As an actor, Brad Pitt has aged like a fine wine. In Moneyball, he’s as movie-star-ish as ever, his hair flopping with boyish insolence over subtly darkened features, but beneath his funny, exhilarating, tossed-off strut of a performance, he gives Billy layers of self-doubt and a deep need to prove himself that never quite comes out and shows itself. (That’s its nagging power.) The trading scenes, done mostly over the phone, are little comedies of brusqueness, with the players flaunted and abandoned like cards in a poker game. Jonah Hill, spouting a gnomic fan’s mastery of stats, brings his whole deadpan-geek thing to new heights of pinpoint hilarious timing (he’s like a stone-faced rabbi of baseball), and Philip Seymour Hoffman, as the team manager, gives a character performance that’s as fresh for him as the crew-cut that makes him look like a grizzled old-timer. Hoffman’s manager hates Billy, and the tension between them is never just cute.
Moneyball takes quite a while to get to anything like a big game, but when it does, as the A’s approach the climax of an audacious winning streak, you’ll feel that fist-pump rush. The film is a little long, with one too many endings, but it’s a baseball movie about something novel and rich: Billy’s desire not just to win but to change the game – to take it back from the accountants and rediscover the joy of players who could still triumph by surprising you.
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