George Clooney's fourth feature as a director, The Ides of March, has a lot more in common with his serious, Oscar-feted black-and-white 2005 prestige pic Good Night, and Good Luck than with his most recent, the underperforming 2008 football comedy Leatherheads.
Dripping with quality, The Ides of March is a handsomely staged, handsomely filmed political thriller with an immaculate cast: George Clooney as a straight-talking, Democratic-dreamboat presidential contender? Of course. Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman as rival campaign managers? Perfect. Jeffrey Wright as a behind-the-scenes power broker? Sure. Evan Rachel Wood as the mature-beyond-her-years intern who portends trouble? Okay. Ryan Gosling as the nimble young press secretary said to be "the best media mind in the country?" Um ... .
The Ides of March plays as a transparent mixtape of political greatest hits. Clooney's Mike Morris, a Pennsylvania governor, is a mash-up of recent Democratic politicians: Barack Obama/Jed Bartlett-style orator and campaigner who retroactively corrects Michael Dukakis debate flubs but is also saddled with some Bill Clinton/John Edwards-style problems in the closet.
The film takes place during an Ohio presidential primary, where Morris is squaring off against an Arkansas senator in a contest that could decide the party's nominee. Morris is essentially a supporting character, but Clooney sets him up as a progressive ideal: He sidesteps a religious test by expressing his adherence to the Constitution as a civic religion. He asserts that it's time for the rich to "pay their fair share." You want a foreign policy? How about this: "You know how you fight terrorism? You don't need a product — oil. We don't need to bomb. We don't need to invade."
This has made Morris' smooth, quick-witted young press secretary, Stephen Myers (Gosling), a true believer, insisting to a grizzled New York Times reporter (Marisa Tomei) that Morris is "the only one who will matter." Needless to say, Myers doesn't convince as "the best media mind in the country."
But all this idealism is — have you seen the title? — only setting up Myers and viewers for the inevitable fall from grace. Dealing with run-of-the-mill political machinations — cabinet appointment-for-endorsement deals, election-day troublemaking — is one thing. But soon Myers finds himself becoming a strategic pawn in games played by the more experienced campaign hands while forced to clean up messes far seedier than anything he's anticipated.
The Ides of March works well enough as a run-of-the-mill political thriller. The early scenes are enjoyable if you're a sucker for campaign stuff, and the thriller plotting is solid, with some good twists involving one character's cell phone.
It's when The Ides of March asks you to take it as seriously as it takes itself that it becomes problematic, especially when a rather abrupt ending is presented as a dramatic character turn, a loss-of-innocence/turn-to-the-dark-side on the level of Michael Corleone at the end of The Godfather. Viewers are as likely to shrug as gasp.
The Ides of March lacks the messy, comedic detail of better but less weighty campaign films like Mike Nichols' Primary Colors or its doc cousin The War Room. Instead, The Ides of March is more in line with the 1972 Robert Redford vehicle The Candidate, where Redford plays an idealistic hunk of a California Senate candidate who gets a lesson in realpolitik. Like The Candidate, The Ides of March suggests hard-won, rueful revelation but is ultimately more earnestly naive than it purports to be and less profound than it hopes. But even The Candidate was more alive in the world than Ides, which too often betrays its theatrical origins — based on the play by Farragut North — letting these heavyweight actors trade lines in close-up, holed away in a strangely depopulated world.
Clooney, who co-wrote in addition to directing, has taken an active but independent role in progressive politics over the years, and producing this film now, during the embattled tenure of a president he supported and who he partly emulates here, is clearly a way of expressing disappointment and disillusionment. But Clooney's private political epiphanies aren't terribly surprising or compelling.
The Ides of March
Opening Friday, October 7th