Your marketing gives very little indication as to what you might be about, and I have a theory about why. Because you are about nothing. You’re a shallow, pointless film that wastes good-to-excellent actors like Ryan Gosling, Paul Giamati, and George Clooney on characters with the depth of a spilled water bottle. If someone were to ask me the point you were trying to make I could probably make a good case for you being about the loss of innocence, or the need to compromise, or the way our political system stabs idealism to death before spitting out bitter, motivated men; but why should I bother?
For the first half of your run time (which feels like an eternity – the first half, by the way, which means as a whole you felt like two eternities) you seem to be about the incredibly lame, uninteresting politicking behind a Democratic presidential primary in Ohio. People talk with great urgency and earnestness about the merits of their candidate, Mike Morris (Clooney), who plays like an idealized version of Obama. Yes, an idealize version of perhaps the most idealized presidential candidate in memory. You waste pointless minutes on speechifying that reaches the absolute pinnacle of political wish-fulfillment but does nothing for your plot. Characters talk about Morris like he is the second coming of Jesus Christ, but all we every get is him making monologues that would not be out of place in the freshman dorm of a liberal arts college.
This is endemic of a massive narrative weakness of yours. Every character spends time talking about how amazing other characters are at their various tasks, and yet we never, ever get to see anyone actually do anything that could be construed as active or impressive. Stephen (Gosling), the idealistic young press secretary we are supposed to accept as a protagonist, is said to be a maestro with the media, but the only reporter we ever see him talking to plays him like a two-cent fiddle. Evan Evan Rachael Wood, playing a young, attractive intern, cannot live up to the very basic traits set out for her character. We know from the way people talk to her and look at her that she is supposed to be gorgeous, but somewhere between makeup and lighting she took on the exsanguinated pallor of the living dead. Meanwhile, she acts in ways that seem motivated only by the plots necessity to sooner or later come up with a complication.
Every character suffers this stunning lack of purpose or drive or meaning or any form of necessity of existence. Why do these people bother to breath anymore? They all act as though this campaign is the most important thing in their lives, that the very fate of the world is hanging in the balance, but we as an audience are never convinced of this importance in kind. So all we have, again, is the word of a group of people who have no other life outside of this campaign. But why do they care? None of them, outside of Stephen, seem invested in the actual issues. So if I don’t care about the campaign, and none of them seem to care about the campaign, why would I ever allow myself to be invested in this film?
And even Gosling’s Stephen, who is the only person given a motivation, consistently reiterates that the sole driving factor behind his passion is his unflappable belief in everything that Morris says and stands for. He never explains why, and we don’t know him as a person so we can’t infer it. So he isn’t a thinker, he’s an ideologue. He’s a cultist. And you know what? I don’t like people who approach religion with religious fervency, let alone politics.
Of course all of this is pointless because you don’t even bother to try to have a plot until thirty minutes until your ending. By the time the ‘conflict’ is finally introduced all I can think is “why in the name of God do these people care that X has happened?” So someone talked to someone else. Is the world’s savviest media guru really going to fold because one reporter is going to say he talked to someone he shouldn’t have? No. I don’t buy it. I don’t buy the conflict, I don’t buy the characters, I don’t buy anything.
That is what we call bad writing, and if you were a presidential campaign, bad writing would be the one promise I could depend on your to keep.
Way to waste my time and the time of all of your actors,
Brian J. Roan