Governor Mike Morris is too good to be true, and only partly because he’s played by the ever-dapper George Clooney. By all appearances, he is intelligent, suave, capable, steadfastly secular, rational, magnetic and inspiring (again, he’s George Clooney). Morris follows in a proud tradition of fictional government icons like President Jed Bartlett and Jefferson Smith, a liberal idealized within an inch of his life. When his driven young campaign staffer, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), declares that Morris is the only presidential candidate “who can make a difference in people’s lives,” his rhetoric sounds uncannily familiar – again and again in the early goings of “The Ides of March,” I couldn’t help but think of another certain charismatic Democrat, one whose White House bid ended up being quite successful.
I’ve had an up-and-down attitude toward President Obama since 2008. I wasn’t sold on him during the primaries, to the point that I voted for Hilary Clinton in the very Ohio primary that director/co-writer/star Clooney dramatizes so earnestly in “Ides of March” (not that the film should be taken as a straight allegory, but I find the coincidence amusing). But he secured the candidacy anyway, and gradually in the months leading up the general election I fell under the same spell that seized so many of my peers. This guy was different. This guy could change things.
Whelp. About that. He didn’t, at least at the pace we wanted, or at least not yet. And honestly, it’s been an unsettling, disappointing ride back down to reality. In the end, though, it’s not fair to pin all the blame on Obama: we’re the ones who built him up, and are therefore implicated in his gradual fall.
And for a moment, I thought that was what “The Ides of March” was going to be about: the cycle of idealism and how a politician’s image can be made or broken under circumstances almost entirely out of their own control. Could the betrayal implied in the film’s title actually be a veiled criticism of the voters themselves? Alas, Clooney doesn’t reach for such humanist significance; instead the backstabbing and intrigue is all fairly boilerplate political thriller stuff, with plenty of campaign skullduggery, shifting allegiances and buried secrets.
Which is not a bad thing at all. Clooney’s script, co-written by Grant Heslov and based on Beau Willimon’s play “Farragut North” is intelligent, dextrous and certainly entertaining. At times the whole thing resembles a particularly long episode of “The West Wing,” especially when Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, as the managers of opposing campaigns, do schlubby, sharp-tongued battle (either with each other, or with Gosling, years their junior but a strategic equal). The characters are instantly recognizable, and, in fact, probably a bit outdated from the days of “Primary Colors” and even “West Wing:” there’s the cynical but affable reporter who may or may not be trustworthy (Marisa Tomei), the equivocating, demanding party leader whose support is crucial to victory (Jeffrey Wright), the sexy young intern (Evan Rachel Wood), the opportunist “best friend” (Max Minghella). Did I mention the sexy young intern?
It’s reasonable, considering the stressful pressure-cooker that is a political campaign, that a frantic worker like Stephen would want to blow off some steam by carousing with a flirty co-worker, but lord, you’d think such people would’ve learned better by now. Since the next sexual harassment political scandal will probably break, like, tomorrow, obviously not. But you would think, all the same, that Stephen would’ve realized from the movies: it’s ALWAYS the sexy young intern who has the biggest, nastiest secret.
Clooney’s film at first holds Stephen in a bubble, as young and naïve as that intern, apparently truly believing in Morris as the answer to America’s problems. That bubble doesn’t so much burst as it does slowly deflate; the grind of the political scene, both on the national stage and behind the scenes, gradually strips away whatever notions Stephen has of the greater good. He is consistent in his ambition and ruthless capability; by the end of the film, that’s all that’s left. The lengths to which Stephen goes to advance his career may dismay you, but unfortunately they will not shock you. We know this story all too well.
Gosling gives another sterling performance here, lacking the iconic swagger of “Drive” but no less confident. Stephen at times gets frantic, but never desperate – he knows exactly what he’s doing. The final shot of the film, a close-up of Gosling’s face, is unnerving: those are the same dead eyes that you’ll find on many a political pundit talk show.
Clooney himself balances suavity with just a hint of menace, much the same way Pierce Brosnan did in “Tailor of Panama” or “The Ghost Writer;” one wonders how good he could be if Clooney could bring himself to play a flat-out villain one of these days. Elsewhere, it’s suffice to say that Hoffman is Hoffman, Giamatti is Giamatti, and Marisa Tomei looks pretty good, considering she appears to be the only political reporter in the country and must be really damn busy.
The film’s technical execution is rightfully solid if unspectacular; this is very much a theatrical show, with the emphasis on the strong ensemble and pointed dialogue. I did enjoy Alexandre Desplat’s somewhat playful score, which infuses patriotic snare drum/piccolo/brass melodies with an ominous, threatening edge.
You’re more likely to walk out of “The Ides of March” heaving a sigh of resignation, rather than snorting in indignation. Politics is a selfish, demoralizing game; and if that’s news to you, I’ve got some Netflix stock that you might like to buy.
Maybe still playing in some theaters.
Verdict: 3 out of 4 stars