That soothsayer who warned Julius Caesar to “beware the ides of March” didn’t know crap. Campaigning has only gotten dirtier since 44 B.C., when Caesar’s political cronies cut him dead in the Senate. Caesar could have learned a lot about backstabbing from watching George Clooney’s The Ides of March, a big, bruisingly funny moral fable etched in acid and Obama disillusion.
In his fourth film as a director, following Confessions of a Dangerous Mind; Good Night, and Good Luck and Leatherheads, Clooney cannily makes his points within the guise of a pulse-racing thriller. Smart move. Clooney plays Mike Morris, the Pennsylvania governor in the thick of an Ohio Democratic presidential primary against Sen. Pullman (Michael Mantell). No soothsayer could scare Mike, a slick campaigner who long ago lost touch with what he actually believes in. It’s press secretary Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) who stands to lose in this campaign. Stephen crucially mistakes the charm-boy governor’s blunt talk for idealism. A working conscience is the first thing to go in modern politics. And Stephen finds himself in conflict with Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Mike’s campaign manager, and Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the strategist who aims to lure Stephen over to Pullman’s team. Sexy intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) is another temptation, especially when Stephen figures out he’s not the only one she’s screwing.
I’ve heard complaints that crushed idealism is hardly new in political drama. Point taken. But take more than a cursory look at The Ides of March and you’ll realize that Clooney is hunting bigger game. He scratches the surface of each of his flawed characters to find out when they first put their souls on the market. What job doesn’t that relate to, especially now, in economic crisis? Clooney’s source material is Farragut North, a 2008 play by Beau Willimon, who worked on the 2004 Howard Dean campaign. Willimon knows the potholes on the campaign trail and contributes sharp details to the incisive script he wrote with Clooney and his producing partner, Grant Heslov.
It’s significant, I think, that Mike is not seen in the play, which focuses on the men behind the curtain. But in fleshing Mike out onscreen, Clooney makes his supporting role telling and unflattering. One scene, set in the back seat of a limo, shows Mike comforting his wife (the excellent Jennifer Ehle) over rumors of a sex scandal with all the soft-spoken conviction of a politician who knows how to dial down a stump speech for just the right note of bogus intimacy. If there’s an art in lying to yourself, Mike has mastered it. Clooney’s exceptional performance is a mesmerizing study in treachery, sweetly done.
All the actors deserve high praise. Hoffman and Giamatti remind you of just how good they are, digging into the script’s choicest dialogue. And Marisa Tomei excels as a New York Times reporter Stephen only thinks he is spinning.
In a raw and riveting face-off in a hotel kitchen, Mike and Stephen have it out on issues that really are life-and-death. Clooney knows how to ignite sparks and build momentum. And he hands the terrific Gosling an all-stops-out role that challenges him on every level – his ravaged face traces the line from compromise to corruption. The Ides of March hits where it hurts. Shakespeare wrote, “The evil that men do lives after them.” It’s a legacy felt in the D.C. lobbyist district near Farragut North, where everything has a price. Clooney still sees glimmers of humanity, but his consistently gripping movie is most scalding when it reveals the chaos that ensues when the loss of ideals is coupled with the loss of shame. How’s that for timely?