We live in a cynical world and the aptly titled The Ides of March is a morality tale conceived and composed by cynics. It’s a film that tells an all too familiar story of how even the most idealistic person with the best of intentions can lose their faith and morals in the cut-throat and rotten world of American politics. Though the picture re-iterates a message that we already know from countless real-life stories, and falls short of being the great film it could have been, considering the talent in front of and behind the screen, its sharp and astute script, and arresting performances make it an experience well worth checking out.
Directed with zeal by George Clooney from a script written by Clooney and frequent writing partner Grant Heslov (who also collaborated with Clooney on their Oscar-nominated Good Night, and Good Luck), Ides is based on a successful play called Farragut North by Beau Willimon who also shares a writer’s credit on the film. Though Willimon’s play was loosely based on the failed 2004 Presidential campaign of Howard Dean, Clooney’s film unsurprisingly feels like the combination of the nasty campaign battles of Barack Obama, Hilary Clinton and John Edwards –with battling rival campaign managers, sexy interns and important delegate seats at stake.
At the center of all of this is Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), a young and idealistic (aren’t they all?) press secretary for the Presidential campaign of Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), a heavy-hitting Democratic Presidential candidate who seems like the dream version of Barack Obama. Unlike his jaded campaign manager boss Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who only believes in winning, no matter what, Stephen will only work for a candidate if he truly believes in him. He states so early in the film during a conversation with Times journalist Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei). When she scoffs at him for drinking the Kool-Aid, he retorts that he finds it delicious.
And why shouldn’t he? In Morris, he finally believes that he has found that golden candidate who can go all the way – an honest, no-bullshit guy who says what’s on his mind and someone who will take the hard road instead of cutting shady deals. One of Morris’ trademark lines, “I’m not a Christian. I’m not an atheist. I’m not a Muslim. I’m not Jewish. I believe in the American constitution” is proof enough that this guy isn’t out to pander to the Bible-belt and he means business. It’s no coincidence that Clooney, Heslov and Willimon have molded the charismatic Morris in the form of the Obama of 2008 – he wants to end a war, the youth love him, he’s a progressive-thinking candidate who’s ready to cover student’s college education in exchange for a two-year mandatory enlistment in the armed forces. He wants to be done with fossil fuels by the time his tenure in office is complete, and has a strong stance on marriage. Hell, even his campaign poster is designed by Shepard Fairey.
But when rival campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) calls Stephen three days prior to the all-important Ohio primary with a job offer to lure him away from Morris and to deliver some potentially disheartening news, Stephen is thrown front-and-center into a twisted war between the two campaign managers. Complicating matters is Stephen’s “relationship” with campaign intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), the teenage daughter of Jack Stearns, the president of the Democratic National Committee, and a possible revelation waiting in the wings that maybe, just maybe, Stephen’s dream hero candidate may not be the Golden Boy he thinks he is.
The primary reasons to see The Ides of March are for its performances which are across the board phenomenal, and for the biting one-liners which the actors feast upon. Gosling, who after Crazy, Stupid, Love, Drive and now this, is easily having the greatest year of his career so far. His Stephen is an incredibly charismatic guy who makes up for his lack of experience in the field with his intelligence. From his performance, you get a sense that it’s only a matter of time before Gosling hits the stratosphere of superstardom.
Hoffman, the film’s standout, is extraordinary as the cynical Zara – a veteran of multiple campaigns who completely understands the disgusting world he works in, and who places utmost importance on the currency of loyalty. Giamatti too is fantastic as the scheming Duffy, who toys with Stephen every step of the way, and who, in the end gives the young man the most biting but realistic advice he needs to hear. I just wish Hoffman and Giamatti had more scenes together. Oh, it would have been glorious to see the titans clash. Clooney, as always, is ace as the Presidential Morris. He certainly looks and acts the part and his verbal sparring with Gosling towards the picture’s end is a dynamo. Even though Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei and Jeffrey Wright (who plays a scheming Senator whose loyalty the entire primary relies on) are all very good, none of them are given enough to chew on, character wise, to register much of an impact.
Where The Ides of March loses its grasp is the plot itself. We have strongly-written characters and excellent actors playing them but Clooney, Heslov and Willimon don’t know how to milk these elements for their worth. It’s a devastating blow to an otherwise very engrossing drama and it’s ultimately very disappointing because I could actually pinpoint the moment where the film went off tangent. Instead of focusing on the political chess match between the two sides, the film becomes a predictable soap opera – a story which we’ve seen countless times in the media (and in other politicos). It was almost as if the filmmakers were too afraid to delve deeper into the dirty schemes of political campaigns. I would have loved to have seen an insider’s view of a political campaign and how the team actually won one, the way In the Loop did it.
The Ides of March is a wonderfully acted drama laden with juicy dialogue and mood. It’s an absorbing piece of political cinema that re-iterates that no one, including the most earnest of individuals, comes out clean when getting into politics i.e. it tells it how it is. Unfortunately, the actors are let down by a sub-par plot that only teases the meaty territory it could have taken, instead choosing a weaker, more conventional narrative path that eventually significantly hurts the picture from climbing unto the pedestal of great movies. As it stands, it’s a merely a good film.