Presidential Pressure on the Big Screen

Presidential Pressure on the Big Screen
Former Dean campaign manager Joe Trippi on 'The Ides of March.'

A grizzled campaign manager, an idealistic presidential candidate and a hot-shot young communications director grace the screen in “The Ides of March,” which hits theaters on Friday.

The movie—starring George Clooney (the candidate), Philip Seymour Hoffman (the campaign manager) and Ryan Gosling (the communications director)—is adapted from an off-Broadway play written by Beau Willimon, who spent an awful lot of time sitting outside campaign manager Joe Trippi’s office as a staffer on former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign.

“Both the play and the film have definite influences,” says Trippi, who consulted on both projects. “But this clearly isn’t the Dean campaign or the John Edwards campaign, for that matter.” 

The play, titled “Farragut North,” was loosely based on Dean’s campaign for the Democratic nomination and the characters in the film version were influenced by Trippi and Dean’s communications director, Jay Carson.

So what’s real? What isn’t? And is “The Ides of March” an actual window into the inner workings of a modern presidential campaign? C&E caught up with Joe Trippi to find out.

C&E: How did you end up advising on the film?

Trippi: Grant Heslov, the screenwriter on the movie, and I made contact. He ended up sending me a script and I made a bunch of suggestions on how I thought it could be more realistic. We exchanged a bunch of emails and talked on the phone a few times. I was in the middle of a campaign somewhere when they were shooting the movie, so I wasn’t on set or anything. But it’s kind of fun to see a line that you suggested actually show up in the movie.

C&E: What was the line?

Trippi: Well, there’s this one line in both the play and in the movie that’s something I used to say all the time. I had this whole thing about how since 1968 there have been 73 Democrats who have run for president of the United States and only Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton—at least I used to say only those two—have gotten elected. Now it’s three, obviously. So it’s just kind of fun to see something that you know came out of your mouth even if it’s in a fictional movie. There are some other things later in the film, but I don’t want to get into them because they could end up being spoilers for people.

C&E: How closely do the characters in the film resemble some of the people you worked with?

Trippi: There are snippets of people that I know in some of them and there are some moments where you laugh and think, “Gosh, I think I was in that room.” But honestly, it was really nice of them just to send me a script and ask me for ideas and advice. Some of it was taken and there are things that I know must have influenced Beau when he first wrote the play because he sat outside my office on the Dean campaign. And again, the Gosling character is not Jay Carson, but it’s clearly influenced by things he said during the campaign. They were very clear in saying, “This isn’t the Dean campaign. That’s not what this movie is about.”

C&E: Were there some moments when you said, ‘Ok, that definitely didn’t happen’? 

Trippi: In the play, the campaign manager ends up having an affair with the intern. So I remember calling up Beau and saying, “Dude, I’m sitting here with my wife. What the hell are you doing to me?” And he just said, “Listen, Joe. I’ve got to make up at least some stuff to fill a two hour play. A lot has to happen.” So it’s the same sort of thing with the film really. To capture in just about two hours what it’s like on a presidential campaign—the pressure, the do or die decisions and the moral quandaries you can face—nothing is going to be accurate to the letter. Does the film capture what it’s really like in that sort of environment? I think it does a great job. But in the end, it’s just really good, entertaining drama.  

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