I think that everybody who lives in the world and pays attention is aware that politics can be a venal, soul-crushing abyss. The new movie The Ides of March seems to think this is some sort of novel revelation, but it probably won’t surprise too many people who watch the news. But the film has strong enough characters and acting to keep us interested, even if its message is old news.
Ryan Gosling plays Stephen Myers, deputy campaign manager for Gov. Mike Morris (George Clooney), who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. In the week before the Ohio primary, Stephen and his boss, a far more jaded campaign manager named Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), try to steer Morris through some rough waters, including a senator (Jeffrey Wright) whose endorsement they need to take the nomination, and who is trying to leverage that endorsement into a cabinet post.
Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) is the campaign manager for Morris’ opponent, Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell). Duffy makes no secret of the fact that he thinks Stephen has a star quality, and that he wants to hire him away from Morris. Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) is a wily reporter who gets a lot of scoops by cozying up to the people she covers, but is perfectly willing to play dirty to get the story if she has to.
Stephen is supposed to be an experienced campaign worker, but he learns a lot of hard lessons here as he gets involved with a pretty young intern named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) and uncovers a potential scandal for Morris.
Stephen says that he has played dirty in the past, but he doesn’t think he needs to do so here, because he believes in Morris. From the moment he says that we’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. And it certainly does. It’s interesting to watch a man’s idealism evaporate, and we see that here, as he lets vanity and greed color his decision making as much as his good intentions, and pays the price for it.
Perhaps the greatest joy in the film comes from watching the excellent actors chew on the dialogue. The film was based on the play Farragut North, by Beau Willimon, and you can tell its origins on the stage, but when actors of the caliber of Hoffman or Giamatti are going at each other, it doesn’t matter. These are the sort of snappy, hyper-articulate characters you might find in an Aaron Sorkin piece, and for about the first half of the movie, the script and these actors make the world of politics seem like an attractive place to be.
Gosling gives another in a string of terrific performances here. Anyone who has seen Drive and Crazy, Stupid, Love knows that he is good at both silence and aggressive chatter. Here, he has to do both. You can see him thinking, but late in the movie, as the moral consequences of what happens in the film eat away at him, he also turns his face into an impassive mask, to an almost chilling effect.
Clooney definitely has the charisma to play a convincing politician, but he also excels in the backstage scenes, when he lets the hints of something darker peek through. He and Gosling share a scene late in the film, a tense negotiation in which neither wants to give up what he knows, and the balance of power shifts back and forth many times, and it’s a fine piece of work from both men.
Clooney directed the film, though the movie doesn’t have the acrobatic visuals of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind or the black-and-white grit of Good Night, and Good Luck. But Clooney the actor’s director gets the best from his terrific cast and keeps the film from seeming too stagy while still retaining a lot of the play’s monologues for his actors to sink their teeth into.
Clooney also co-wrote the script with Willimon and Grant Heslov. The script does a great job of showing the backroom dealing and behind-the-scenes power plays that are a way of life in politics, how the mere perception of wrongdoing can derail a career, while much larger and more insidious misdeeds go unpunished.
However, there’s also a weird naïveté to the script at times. Morris may be a liberal dreamboat, saying lots of things many democrats would love to hear, but I don’t know how well he would fare in a general election. The film seems a bit naïve if it really thinks that a candidate has a chance to get elected who so brazenly opposes religion, pro-lifers, and both the oil and automobile industries, not to mention one from either party who espouses the policy that everybody in the nation should be required to give two years of service to the country.
There is also an odd, fruitless cynicism to go along with the naïveté. The specifics of Stephen’s fall from grace can be quite interesting, the way he proves, when jilted, capable of more amorality than even his more jaded and experienced counterparts, but we all know that politics can be corrupting, and the film doesn’t have anything more nuanced or complex to add to that.
The Ides of March can be a very engaging film, with good characters played by great actors. But I can’t shake the feeling that Clooney and company think they’re laying some brilliant truth on us, even if it’s something we already know. It’s old news, but it’s compelling.