George Clooney has a story to tell in The Ides of March, one many may not care to hear. It is about the jaded and cynical world of American politics, where the only thing accomplished these days is double crossing, controversy, scandal, and the sacrifice of morals and values in order to win at any cost. This is the direction many in America are beginning to take as they grow weary of political posturing and smear campaigns in favor of pushing forward with real ideas on how to fix the country, and the characters here represent various levels of cynicism. From the idealist to the morally bankrupt, The Ides of March displays a myriad of players, none of whom arrive on the scene without their own agenda. All of this is framed in a tightly wound drama with a wonderfully metaphorical camera and just enough elements of a thriller to propel the narrative.
The hero of our story is Stephen Meyers, a young campaign assistant played by Ryan Gosling. Stephen works on the campaign of Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), and Stephen believes in Morris’ words. He has faith in the ideas Morris has for the country and is firmly in his corner. Morris’ campaign manager is Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a campaign vet whose seen just about everything and is much more jaded to the proceedings. Paul’s adversary, working for the other Governor in the Democratic primary, is Tom Duffy (Paul GIamatti), and is cut from the same cloth. These two seasoned veterans have seen so much more than Stephen and understand that a campaign is not about ideas. It’s about the ability to double cross and manipulate.
The battleground is the Ohio primary, where Morris and the opposing governor from Arkansas jockey for position. Stephen feels like Morris has a grasp on the state, but Paul is less certain. Paul wants them to cut their losses and move on. It is about this time Stephen starts a fling with Molly, a bright young intern on the campaign played by Evan Rachel Wood. Stephen and Molly’s scenes are well written, charming, and we soon discover Molly has just as many skeletons in her closet as everyone else. Without giving away much, I will say Stephen becomes compromised as he is pulled in every imaginable direction by Morris, Molly, and Tom Duffy, who reaches out to him with a chance to switch sides and “work for the eventual winner.”
I cannot imagine a better cast for this picture. Ryan Gosling is arguably the finest new movie star in Hollywood, able to move in and out of any role while keeping the traits and energy that make him who he is as a bankable asset. Hoffman and Giamatti never share the screen, but these are two actors whose career and daringness appear to mirror one another. They each get their monologue moments as they lay out the cynical world of political campaigning. Clooney as Morris is not much more than a chess piece for the men who run the show; there is a telling scene early on where Morris is forced to make a decision between standing for what he believes in or accepting the endorsement of a Senator he disagrees with in order to win. It shows how bleak the American political process is when the division between morals and victory is defined. Add in Marisa Tomei as a plucky reporter looking for a scoop, and The Ides of March is a lineup of wonderful and convincing performances from some of the best talent Hollywood has to offer.
Clooney directs The Ides of March not as an epic, but at a briskly paced political drama. Yet he still takes his time, allowing his camera to tell a story on top of the narrative. His use of light and shadow, and a wonderful utilization of a giant American flag at one point, tell me that Clooney has paid attention to the directors of the past. There are any number of beautiful and telling shots here, and the opening credit sequence is a clear throwback to the political thrillers which littered the landscape of seventies cinema. The Ides of March may have a cynical heart, but I fear it is simply telling us all the truth. And maybe we don’t want to hear that right now.