Saturday, May 26, 2012


For all the current readers of Critics at Large, we've resurrected the Luna Sea Notes website to publish previous C @ L posts. The idea is to introduce readers to pieces they may have missed from earlier in our incarnation. Since we now have a huge body of work to draw from, the goal is to post articles that may also have some relevance to events of the day.

Adaptations from stage to screen are always a mixed bag, but for Susan Green who is from the state of Vermont, the play Farragut North and its screen equivalent The Ides of March, held particular significance.

From Stage to Screen: Peeking at a Political Underbelly

Howard Dean.
As a “press advance man” for former Vermont Governor Howard Dean’s presidential bid, Brooklyn playwright Beau Willimon spent the last three months of 2003 crisscrossing Iowa. So it’s hardly surprising his gripping make-believe account of a modern campaign would be set in that Midwestern state. Farragut North, which opened off-Broadway in late 2008, was about back-room machinations and dirty tricks among political operatives.

Yet Willimon, who had stumped for other Democratic candidates in the past, made it clear in an interview three years ago that his piece was not a Deaniac docudrama. “I drew on all those experiences to create a fictional but authentic world,” he said, while sipping orange juice at a cafe in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood. “My intention is to present a universal story about power and ambition.”

It also seemed to be a story appropriate for cinema. The action has been relocated to Ohio in the script Willimon wrote after Farragut was optioned by Warner Bros, in conjunction with George Clooney’s production company. Clooney co-adapted and directed the film, now titled The Ides of March, and he also stars, along with Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ryan Gosling, Marisa Tomei, Paul Giamatti and Evan Rachel Wood. It will open the Venice Film Festival on August 31, before an October 7 release.

John Gallagher Jr., Chris Noth and Kate Blumberg in Farragut North.

The dynamic original version, under the aegis of the Atlantic Theater Company, featured Chris Noth of Law & Order fame and John Gallagher, Jr., who won a 2007 Tony Award for his performance in the hit Broadway musical Spring Awakening. The cast included Olivia Thirlby, Ellen Page’s sidekick in Juno, and Isaiah Whitlock, Jr., perhaps best known for HBO’s The Wire. Doug Hughes, the director of Farragut, had earned a 2005 Tony Award for Doubt.

Apart from the Dean connection, the play was linked to Vermont by virtue of Noth’s time as a student at Marlboro College – where he fell in love with acting – and Atlantic’s longtime summer roots in the GreenMountain State. In 1985, the troupe began mounting shows in the capital city of Montpelier, before relocating to Burlington four years later. Their three-week advanced acting course continues to be offered on the University of Vermont campus. Company founders David Mamet and William H. Macy, graduates of Goddard College in Plainfield, still own getaway homes in the area. Artistic director Neil Pepe comes from Putney. While bringing Farragut into the Atlantic fold, however, Pepe never mused about the Howard Dean angle.

Beau Willimon.
“I didn’t think of the play in the context of Vermont,” Pepe said. “I’m interested in whether or not plays can work on their own terms, if the stories are well written, if the characters are developed and if the writers are speaking from the truth of who they are.”

Now a major force in New York theatrical circles, Atlantic was not concerned about 2008’s race for the White House when scheduling Farragut as its season opener. “At first, we wondered if this would be a good thing or a bad thing,” explained Pepe. “But we realized the play is so timely and vital for understanding the notion of what actually goes on behind the scenes, especially after the last eight years in America [under the Bush administration].”

Willimon passed through Burlington briefly while toiling on behalf of Dean, sometimes for 72 sleepless hours at a time. “My job was to organize logistics for the press, but I never spoke to the man in five months,” he recalled. “With advance work, you are supposed to remain invisible.” An example of that invisibility: In New Hampshire, Willimon quietly arranged for a music store to set up a guitar and amp to coincide with a visit from Dean. “We didn’t tell the Governor beforehand but he asked, ‘Should I play something for you all?’ He jammed for a little bit and the reporters loved it.”

A Navy brat raised primarily in St. Louis, Willimon hails from a conservative family but caught the liberal fever early on. “I grew up as a little Republican until private school, where I started reading Marx and Engels,” he acknowledged. “My hair was long. I probably would have fit in perfectly in Vermont.”

At Columbia University, Willimon majored in visual arts and American history. A summer writing program at Yale changed everything before his senior year. The “pretty pictures” he’d been painting suddenly felt empty to him. Words on a page were somehow a more effective route to finding his voice. “I wrote a lot of bad stuff in the beginning,” he noted.

Chris Pine and Chris Noth.
A friend named Jay Carson from Columbia, where Willimon continued as graduate student in playwriting, recruited him for various Democratic efforts: Senator Charles Schumer in 1998, and Senator Hillary Clinton and former Senator Bill Bradley in 2000. Then came the improbable ascendancy of a relative unknown from a sparsely populated corner of New England. Carson, who was Dean’s press secretary, invited Willimon to join the team. “I said, ‘Sure, I’ll do it. Why not?’ Ten days later, I was in Des Moines.”

Idealism was sweeping Willimon’s generation, a sensibility that Dean embraced as “a firebrand progressive who tapped into a lot of anger that was out there. Willimon remembers a speech by the presidential hopeful asking the party to speak out against the war in Iraq. “It was explosive. And explosive is also what characterized the end – the Iowa scream,” he suggests, referring to Dean’s much-ridiculed whoop after his third-place finish in the 2004 Iowa caucus.

“Every campaign needs to create a narrative,” Willimon contends. “But that narrative of progressive populism came back to bite him in the butt.” This doomed campaign arc is not integral to Farragut North, a title derived from a train station in WashingtonDC. The play focuses on a series of fateful encounters and betrayals in Des Moines among five people: the press secretary (Noth), his second-in-command (Gallagher), an enthusiastic new aide (Dan Bittner), a teenage intern (Thirlby), an opponent’s representative (Whitlock), a New York Times reporter (Kate Blumberg) and the waiter in a local watering hole (Otto Sanchez).

George Clooney in The Ides of March.
The Farragut candidate, identified only by the surname Morris, is never seen or heard. (Not so in the movie, which puts Clooney in that role.) Although his agenda is discussed in broad terms, the dialogue largely centers on the dishonorable behavior of several key people helping him in the primaries. “I didn’t want to write a play about politics but about situations that take place in the world of politics,” Willimon said. “I don’t care if audiences like my characters; they just need to be attracted to them in some way.”

He finally did meet Dean in Connecticut, after the candidate quit the race. “He shook my hand and thanked me,” Willimon recounted “That meant a lot to me. It completed the circle.”

The circle was unbroken with a two-hour show that got a big spread in the Sunday New York Times and began selling out, even during previews. Maybe this was evidence that a long, intense election cycle in real life doesn’t necessarily deter citizens from enjoying a rather bleak view of the democratic process on stage. And artifice is a factor in both realms, according to Willimon: “Politics is theater.”

- originally published on July 6, 2011 in Critics at Large.

All the Maybe-President’s Men: A Trek on the Campaign Trail

“I’m all goosbumpy about this guy,” admits Ryan Gosling as Stephen Myers, an idealistic press secretary working for an inspirational candidate.

“He will let you down sooner or later,” predicts Ida Horowicz, a crafty New York Times reporter played by Marisa Tomei. This comment is reminiscent of what Shakespeare had a soothsayer tell Julius Caesar about the danger inherent in a certain date. The Ides of March, a new film that borrows its title from the mystical line written by the Bard in 1599, suggests that we should beware politicians of every stripe and their minions.

George Clooney
In this case, Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) is a populist progressive running for the Democratic nomination at the start of a U.S. presidential campaign. With Philip Seymour Hoffman as his seasoned campaign manager Paul Zara, the barnstorming effort appears to function like a well-oiled machine. Enter a beautiful, lusty intern named Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) and the machine begins to rust.

Just ask Caesar if the greatest peril might reside within one’s own circle. It’s certainly true for Morris when Stephen makes two bad decisions – one involving Molly and the other Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), a dirty trickster who works for another Democrat hoping to inhabit the Oval Office. They’re all gathered in Ohio, where an important primary race is about to take place and an influential senator (Jeffrey Wright) is angling to be the puppet master.

Clooney also directed Ides, which he co-wrote with his producing partner Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon. The script is adapted from the latter’s 2008 play Farragut North in which the candidate was never on stage. In the movie, Morris shares the spotlight with his top aides. Consequently, behind-the-scenes shenanigans threaten the highest levels of the campaign. This may be a cinematic necessity, but at the expense of an audience’s emotional connection to the intimacy created in a theater. The plot becomes more conventional.

Ryan Gosling
Adamantly pro-choice, anti-death penalty and against invading or bombing other nations, Morris proclaims that “the richest people in this country don’t pay their fair share.” (Timely, given the recent White House stance and the thousands of people in New York City’s current “Occupy Wall Street” protests.) He fends off an opponent’s snarky remark about faith with: “My religion is the U.S. Constitution.” Given that the play’s unseen character is now front and center, his stump speeches ought to genuinely wow voters but the rhetoric comes across as more rote than eloquent. He replaces roll-up-your-sleeves fiery with suit-and-tie stiff.

Farragut North was based to some degree on Willimon’s experience as a “press advance man” on the 2004 bid for the presidency of former Vermont governor Howard Dean. He could really whip up enthusiasm before whipping up a whoop in Iowa that spelled his downfall. Ides fails to show what it is about Morris that might similarly capture hearts and minds. Despite Clooney’s abundant charm, the charisma factor is mostly missing. As Al Gore discovered, enlightened policies must be propelled by an exciting persona in the fickle public marketplace of ideas.

Evan Rachel Wood & Ryan Gosling
In the play, the intern is a pretty but not va-va-voom girl. In the portrayal offered by Wood, an actress who always seems mature beyond her years, Molly has become a slightly raunchy femme fatale. This radically alters the dynamic when she seduces a willing Stephen. Consequently, her plight doesn’t generate the sympathy it no doubt did on paper when there’s a sudden switch to victim-hood. Without that sense of compassion, a viewer may have trouble going along fully with his significant arc of change.

The metamorphosis from compelling drama to slick thriller probably means greater box office appeal, as does a uniformly talented cast with Gosling – whose moment has clearly arrived – as the big name next to superstar Clooney. Hoffman and Giamatti tend to steal the show, however. When these two briefly inhabit the same scene, we witness movie magic.

Philip Seymour Hoffman & Gosling
While The Ides of March is ultimately cynical about the electoral process itself, Hoffman’s Paul represents our conscience. He’s a battle-hardened veteran of political conflict who still values loyalty above all else. Decency shall not go unpunished, of course. For those willing to lie and cheat, victory is decidedly bittersweet. “I have to believe in the cause,” Stephen says at one point, not yet aware that the cause is his own survival at any cost in a ruthless game to rule America.

To reference Julius Caesar again: “The abuse of greatness is when it disjoins remorse from power.”

- originally published on October 7, 2011 in Critics at Large.

Susan Green is a film critic and arts journalist based in Burlington, Vermont. She is the co-author with Kevin Courrier of Law & Order: The Unofficial Companion and with Randee Dawn of Law & Order Special Victims Unit: The Unofficial Companion.

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