Just in case you’re not already turned off enough about politics—with the first primaries still months away—here comes George Clooney with “Ides of March” to make you even more cynical. Clooney directed, co-wrote and co-produced the movie, but he wisely relegates himself to a supporting role, preferring to let Ryan Gosling and a veteran cast do the heavy lifting. The result is an absorbing film about idealism, loyalty, and commitment, or the loss of all three.
Shakespeare fans will recognize the title’s allusion to the death day of Julius Caesar, who was betrayed and literally stabbed in the back by his erstwhile friends. The political leader here is one Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney) a front-running Democratic candidate for President. He’s trying to win the Ohio primary and all but seal up the nomination and, he’s confident, the victory in November. His campaign manager, Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and his top aide, Steven Meyers (Gosling), believe they’re ahead in the polls, but they remain wary of last-week attempts by their number, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), Morris’s opponent’s Machiavellian manager.
When Duffy calls Steven and offers him a job, the younger man turns him down and reports the offer to Duffy. Somehow, their meeting leaks out to New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), and Steven goes from asset to liability for his boss. He also makes the bad choice of sleeping with a young intern, Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), who is, it turns out, the daughter of the chair of the Democratic National Committee. In both seductions, by Duffy and Molly, the tempters play to Steven’s already strong self-image. The unwinding of his bad choices constitutes the remainder of the plot.
Tragedy buffs will spot Steven’s error or “hamartia,” the fatal character flaw of “hubris,” or overweening pride. Working with the novel “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon—who worked on Howard Dean’s ill-fated campaign—Clooney and fellow screenwriter Grant Heslov use the political campaign more as background than major concern, somewhat as the Bard did in “Julius Caesar.” They’re more interested in integrity and the sundry ways in which it gets corrupted or detoured in the pursuit of power or position.
Steven’s intelligence and wit must sustain him against both sides if he’s going to realize his all-too-obvious ambition. Gosling convinces us of the loss of Steven’s idealism as he’s stabbed in the back and discovers that his idol’s feet are made of clay, if not his other appendages. (Morris is a mixture of Obama and Slick Willie Clinton.) And Hoffman and Giamatti convey the unscrupulous, win at all costs behavior that has come to characterize contemporary politics, without letting their characters simply become stereotypical political hacks.
Cinematographer Phedon Papamicheal keeps the colors grey and cold, fitting for the subject matter as well as for Ohio in March. (I speak from bitter experience.) The sound editing and musical score add significantly to the film’s meaning and rhythm. The ending, if not exactly “happy,” follows from the foregoing action: it won’t send you out of the theater with a song in your heart.
“Ides of March” is rated “R” mostly for language, which is realistic in portraying the argot of the campaign trail, as opposed to the hi-falutin’ rhetoric of the TV sound bite. The more disturbing element is the credible depiction of what it takes to win or just survive in the world of American politics. In the unlikely case that you’re not already terminally soured on that unlovely landscape, the movie is worth seeing—and contemplating as to how we got where we are.