Political thriller entertaining but not earthshaking
George Clooney’s “The Ides of March” further distances its director from his ladies’ man, starlet roots, taking more inspiration from his 1950s political drama “Good Night and Good Luck” than, say, “Ocean’s Eleven.”
It puts the spotlight on modern political campaigning, drawing our attention to the backstabbing and corruption beneath the glossy posters and public television appearances. It hopes to raise questions about how American politics works and fails.
To some extent it succeeds. Mostly, however, the film remains confined by its conspiracy and thriller trappings, and while enjoyable, we’ve learned nothing revelatory by the credits.
“The Ides of March,” centers on a fictional Democratic primary in Ohio. We are never given a specific time frame, but it’s assumed to be an alternate history version of 2008.
Barack Obama is replaced by Mike Morris (George Clooney), a Pennsylvania governor who encapsulates all the cornerstones of liberal belief—gay marriage, pro-choice, anti-death penalty and environmental awareness — and presents them without concern for political fallout.
He is up against a more moderate Democrat, senator Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell), rarely seen but frequently referred to. These men are presented through television interviews and town hall meetings, laying out their positions and volleying for popular support.
The real star, however, is Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), Morris’s Junior Campaign Manager. Barely over 30 and fresh on a scene occupied by cynical, older men, Stephen seems aware of politics’ dark gleam, its unsavory underbelly, yet he still admires Morris’s moral conviction.
This glaring naïveté astounds the Senior Campaign Manager Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), who knows, when you get down to it, loyalty trumps honesty during election season. Pullman’s campaign manager (Paul Giamatti), by contrast, spots an opportunity. If he can play upon Stephen’s latent idealism, then he could destroy Morris’s campaign from the inside out.
There’s a side plot about a snooping journalist (Marisa Tomei) that goes nowhere, along with the standard deal about sleeping with interns: Stephen starts to mess around with a pretty, 20-year old girl whose father happens to be head of the DNC, played by Evan Rachel Wood. Against that explosive backdrop, we watch Stephen’s morals crumble and learn a few scandalous details about Morris himself. By the end, there might not be a single honest man amongst the film’s cast.
Beau Willimon bases “The Ides of March,” on the play “Farragut North.” Its theatrical origins are blatant in earlier scenes, where characters soliloquize without regard for actual conversation protocol, and pieces of dialogue just ring false. Stephen’s first conversation with the intern, Molly, overflows with painful flirtation. Really, the entire sideplot, while essential to the story’s conclusion, proves too derivative to fully invest in.
We know politicians flirt with and sleep with interns. Sex scandals have come and gone with numbing frequency, they are the stuff of daytime news reports. Where the movie works is outside the motel room, within the campaign office, where interns and campaign officials debate, wrangle and collapse. It works even better in scenes with Morris on television, making his case to the public for a more compassionate government.
Would such a liberal candidate find support amongst the American public? I cannot say, but his speeches, while tempered by what we learn of him later, strike a deeper chord and challenge us to wonder: Is he being genuine? Do these points make sense?
Ryan Gosling nails Stephen’s role. I have no qualms with his acting, and pray, after his action hero turn on Drive, he becomes the next “big thing.” There is something about his face, his bright eyes and soft features, which makes him inherently likeable, so it is even more startling to see just how far he topples ethically by the movie’s end. “The Ides of March” features a stellar cast all around, but their talents have already been established for years. It is Gosling that sets himself apart and cements a burgeoning career.
I enjoyed “The Ides of March,” and appreciated how Clooney refused to introduce Republicans as rival strawmen, focusing the conflict instead on the Democrats. A few days after viewing it, however, I find my views on politics, and the 2012 election, unchanged. What promised to be a startling allegory for the modern political process ends up merely entertaining. There are worse fates for a movie, I suppose.
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