I had occasion to chat with National Treasure™ Thomas Kenneally this morning about his latest historical tome ‘Australians: Eureka to the Diggers’. It’s the second volume (a third is coming) in a series of historical studies not of Australia, but of the people who made it. It’s an interesting device, and it works. It works not just because Keneally can write a bit, or that he researches meticulously and treats each historical figure as a character, not just a name on a plaque.
It works because of the fascinating, multi-tasking nature of our forebears. Very rarely do they just have one story. Their lives weave in and out of various narratives.
Like Plorn Dickens. Plorn seems to have been the idiot son of Charles Dickens, sent to the colonies at 16 to toughen up and stay out of his father’s way. He lost most of the family fortune in a drought, became a member of NSW parliament, got obsessed with rabbits and ended up a fairly successful businessman in Melbourne.
Or Tom Wills. He was a wealthy kid, sent to the Rugby school, the son of a pastoralist. The same pastoralist who was massacred at Cullin La Ringo in Queensland, after Tom went out for supplies. Tom was also a handy cricketer, who had the idea of devising a local code of football to keep the cricketers fit through winter. He later organised the tour of indigenous cricketers to England in 1888 – the first representative Australian sports team to tour internationally.
But you have to stop and think that in 1880, there were 2.8 Million (white) people in Australia. That’s slightly more than the population of Brisbane.
Of course Wills did all of those things. There wasn’t anyone else to do it.
It’s the same way that my 60-something parents would watch TV and say ‘Oh yeah, Jim’s Mowing…went to uni with him,’ ‘Captain Snooze…yep, he was in your uncle’s grade’ or ‘Icehouse, sure I used to babysit the bass player.’ Of course they knew all of those people. In 1956, while my dad was at primary school with Captain Snooze, the population of Melbourne was 1.5 million. Roughly half of what it is now. Australia was small. Sure, it was small because we excluded most of the world’s immigrants and decimated the indigenous population.
I’m all for a big Australia. I’m all for letting in people of all cultures, however the fuck they get here. But I sometimes wish I had grown up in a smaller country. When there wasn’t so much traffic, or congestion, or competition to be a notable character. Sometimes it just feels crowded out there.
Maybe it’s the preview’s fault.
It set up ‘Ides of March’ as a genuine political pot-boiler, with shady deals and revelations and possibly CIA operatives lurking in corners of dimly lit car parks. The ‘scandal’ that we’re served is lukewarm at best.
A Presidential candidate banged an intern.
‘What else?’, you ask. ‘Did the press find out about it?’ No. ‘Was she pregnant?’ Yes, but she terminated it. ‘So the press found out about the termination?’ No. ‘Oh…so the Governor was wracked with guilt and confessed it on live television?’ No. ‘So the CIA found out about it and are using it to blackmail the Governor to shelter the real masterminds of the 9/11 attacks only for that revelation to be stumbled upon by a sassy reporter?’
No…she just got pregnant, pretty much. Which turned the bright idealistic Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) into a jaded, ruthless political operative. Which seemed weird to me, because at no point did I particularly care about it.
It felt like a revelation from another time. A more innocent time. The film is based on the play ‘Farragut North’, so I scrambled to the Google machine to find out if perhaps it had been written in 1960, when young women died of shame for becoming pregnant out of wedlock, and ‘We’re Catholic’ was a feasible excuse for a quickie abortion. No such luck. The play was written after the 2004 primaries, and is loosely based on Howard Dean’s campaign. It was first staged in 2008. So no go there. Which makes it fairly unforgivable that the character of Molly, played by Evan Rachel Wood, is such a helpless, hopeless, cardboard cut-out.
We’re given no sense that Molly has a depth of character deeper other than her sassy back and forth with Meyer character. She’s the daughter of the president of the Democratic party, so she’s not working on the campaign on merit. We’re given no sense that she has a passion for politics, or that she believes in the cause. She swears a lot and sleeps around. When she gets ‘in trouble’, she turns to men to get her out of it, asking the Governor, then Meyer for 900 bucks. (Even the 900 bucks she needs to get it seems laughable. Wouldn’t the savvy media advisor make enough that he doesn’t need to dip into the petty cash to pay for it? And since when does a 20 year old daughter of a former senator not have a credit card? Or a trust fund?) When the strong man doesn’t pick her up from the clinic, she kills herself.
Clooney has shown he’s adept at directing sassy women, and creating a spark. His own scenes between himself and Patricia Clarkson in the excellent Good Night, and Good Luck’ are proof of that. But then maybe it’s as I suspect, that Clarkson is simply a radiant presence who is good in everything. Evan Rachel Wood is not.
So with a lack of spark or interest in the romantic thread, we’re left with the political stuff. Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti are customarily good at being string-pulling advisors. And Giamatti is responsible for the one slightly interesting twist in the film. But even that is over-explained and loses its spark. Clooney himself plays the Governor, who is initially cast as a Jeb Bartlett type – above politics, filling Meyer with hope that he can stay above politics with this shining light on the hill. So we’re meant to be shattered when we find out he’s a sleaze. The problem is, we never really care for him, and don’t find him inspiring. His rousing political speeches seem to be about electric cars.
The post-Obama age allows us to dream bigger, at least in terms of rhetoric.
The post-Clinton, post-Edwards age allows us to expect grubbier, more sordid scandals in our fiction.
And the post-feminist (yeah, I know we’re not post it) age allows us to expect more from female characters.
As Aaron Sorkin has shown over and over again, politics can be scintillating, compelling, rich, layered. Hell, he’s shown that baseball statistics can be all of that. Clooney has taken this backdrop, along with a dream cast, and turned it into a saggy melodrama.
1. Never ask for followers.
2. Never tweet about your follow count. It’s like telling people how much you earn.
3. Never tweet about needing coffee, drinking coffee or regretting coffee.
4. Tweeting 90% good stuff lets you do 11% pimping. That adds up, right?
6. Never retweet praise from others. Unless it’s funny. Or sarcastic. Or from @theharryshearer
7. Nobody needs to see how hot you are.
8. Nobody cares how sick you are. Unless you’re @NileRodgers.
9. Never refer to yourself in the third person. @benbirchall never does.
10. Never make up rules.