George Clooney’s The Ides of March is a well-made, beautifully acted and very entertaining political drama that presents cold, heartbreaking facts about the American political campaign that probably seemed new in about 1960. Is it surprising anymore after the Monica Lewinsky scandal that a political candidate would sleep with his interns? Is it surprising anymore that a candidate would be revealed as a two-faced hypocrite, saying one thing into the cameras and something else in private? Is it surprising anymore that the people working behind the scenes on the campaign are willing to bury their colleagues to get ahead? Is it surprising that the outcome of our elections are so carefully choreographed and telegraphed that the votes cast by the electorate are more or less an afterthought? Don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t make The Ides of March a bad movie, it just doesn’t make it a surprising one. The strength of the movie doesn’t lie in the story it tells but in the actors who tell it.
Based on the 2008 play “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon – which was loosely based on the 2004 Presidential campaign of Howard Dean – The Ides of March centers on Steven Meyers (Ryan Gosling) 30 year-old press secretary for Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), a idealistic Democrat whose chances to win the Ohio primary election are not exactly in the bag. Steven believes in Morris who is a crafty politician, good-looking, charming, intelligent and confidently making the promise to his voters that there will be no combustible engines on the road in ten years. Uh-huh.
I don’t recall a candidate who speaks as well or looks as quietly confident as Mike Morris, I guess I would have to go back to Kennedy. At any rate, Steven believes in the Governor. He too is an idealist. We can see that he is old enough to know better but there is a feeling that he still wants to believe in his candidate. Around him are cynics most especially Morris’ campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour-Hoffman), a hard-nosed realist who has been working on politics so long that he seems to have developed ice-water in his veins. Meyer hates Zara partly because of his ethics and partly because he can see the reality of this political life that will soon engulf him in the same way. Also on hand is a crafty journalist named Ida (Marisa Tomei) who gathers information from Steven and seems like a friend, but when the chips are down reveals herself to be looking out for number one.
Meyer finds solace from the cynicism in the person of a 20 year-old, naive young intern named Molly (Evan Rachel-Wood) who is smart and open-minded and quickly finds herself jumping into Steven’s bed. This relationship doesn’t fall into romance, but into a brief kinship that collapses under the revelation that a situation has already put her in too deep with the Governor. This revelation sets the drama in motion and the second-half of The Ides of March deals mostly with the breakdown of Steven’s soul into the machinations of those who are trying to destroy him for their own personal interest. Even though we can mostly guess where the movie is going, it is interesting watching the personal and professional chess match as Steven uncovers a web of personal vendettas and merciless backstabbing.
The story is well-told but the acting makes the movie work. Ryan Gosling proves again and again that he is one of the best actors of his generation. He has a quiet confidence, but his face sometimes brims with uncertainty. He expresses a lot just by sitting still and thinking – not a lot of actor his age have the patience to do that. In a quiet way, he reminds me a little of Paul Newman. Evan Rachel-Wood is good too as a young woman who is too young and too naive to be playing in the big leagues just yet. Paul Giamatti, one of my favorite modern actors, has a wonderful role as the campaign manager for the other side. He has a great scene toward the end of the film when he reveals his true nature that is played to perfection. He holds the screen simply with his eyes and his voice in a way this is oddly mesmerizing.
Yet, I still return to the story. As I said, it isn’t exactly surprising. The inside story of what goes on behind-the-scenes in American politics is well-know and has been told before in much more focused pictures like Mike Nichols great Primary Colors. That film dealt with the machinations within the campaigns just as the Ides of March does, but the earlier film does it in a fresh way. This one seems more like a thriller. Even with the limitations aside, I was glad I saw The Ides of March. George Clooney has now directed four films and what I can see is that he has confidence in his material. Here he makes a small film, very spare that lets the actors do all the work, and that’s just right because they are the ones who make it work. I just wish he could have found a way to make it more contemporary and tell us something that we don’t already know.