It will not come as a shock to any moderately-aware adult living in America that modern politics is a shell game for the corrupt, but even if you already know the ideas that fuel George Clooney’s latest film as a director, “Ides Of March,” there is a certain amount of dramatic pleasure to be taken from watching the exact moment where someone’s idealism flickers out and dies forever. While the film’s script has some issues, and there are a few choices that I found distracting, overall, this is a solid adult drama that benefits enormously from a strong and compelling cast.
Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) is the assistant campaign manager for Governor Michael Morris (George Clooney), a tough-talking Democratic Presidential candidate still mired in primary season. Steven and his superior, the much-more-jaded Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), are both confident that they’ve got a winning candidate in Morris, but for Stephen it goes deeper than that. Paul’s a killer, the sort of campaign manager who puts victory above everything else, while Stephen actually still feels like he needs to believe in the person he’s working for, and in Morris, he feels like he finally has that Presidential idea, a good man with good ideas. Their opponent in the primaries, Sentator Pullman (Michael Mantell), is a faceless obstacle to them, represented mainly by his campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). Duffy admires Stephen and the way he works a room, and he makes no secret of the fact that he’d love to hire Stephen away.
While on the road, Stephen starts to learn some hard lessons, delivered by the press in the form of Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), one of the campaign interns, Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) and even a Democrat whose support they need to take the primary (Jeffrey Wright), but it’s not until he takes a secret meeting with Duffy that Stephen starts to realize how little he really knows about the world he works in, and the lessons he learns come at a very high price indeed. There are definitely some great moments in the film, and the cast is all up to the task. And although I can imagine how this material played onstage (it began life as a play called “Farragut North”), George Clooney and Grant Heslov have done a nice job opening it up as a movie with the help of the original author, Beau Willimon.
Ryan Gosling is one of the most interesting young guys working today, and I like him for the same reason I like Clooney in the film. You can see them thinking. These are smart people, and for me to invest in the movie, I have to be able to believe in the chess game they’re playing. There’s a scene near the end of the film between the two of them that is my favorite moment in the movie, and it never turns into a cheap case of histrionics. Instead, I get the feeling this is the way many decisions are made, with subtle and unsubtle demonstrations of power from both sides. Gosling’s having a great year as a performer, and he manages to carry the film and be appealing even as we watch his soul ebb away.
My problem is that the way they present the inner working of the political machine is both too simplified for general audiences and too familiar. There is a scandal brewing that Stephen learns about, and while I’m glad Clooney was smart enough to give Morris feet of clay, I wish they’d come up with something else as the scandal. This seems somewhat pedestrian, and the resolution of things depends on some of the shoddiest police work in the history of shoddy police work. There are a few too many conveniences, moments where things fall into place for dramatic purpose but without feeling genuine. It doesn’t derail the film for me, but it held me back from really loving what the cast was doing.
Even so, the film is handsomely made, and it does ask some solid questions that we should be asking about the process itself these days. The way we elect our Presidents is deeply broken, and “Ides Of March” suggests that the flaws are inherent, that people are the weak link, and that the sort of people who are attracted to this world are exactly the sort of people we should fear having in office. It may not connect all the dots, but “Ides Of March” should leave adult audiences plenty of fodder for great conversation after they see it.
“The Ides Of March” opens in theaters everywhere October 7, 2011.