We live, arguably, in the most contentious of political times. ... Granted, things were probably pretty argumentative up on Capitol Hill during the Civil War—but America didn’t have 24-hour cable news channels, the blogosphere and talk radio back in the 1860s, so the volume was considerably lower. Today, it’s turned up to 11, with Republicans and Democrats seemingly unable to agree on whether puppies and kitties are cute. (And subsequently, having every pundit in the nation turning “puppygate” into the next major scandal.) By all indications, the American public is getting pretty tired of it. As a result, right now doesn’t seem like the most advantageous time to release a film as heavily political as The Ides of March.
The film is co-written and directed by George Clooney (his fourth excursion behind the camera after Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, Leatherheads and the Oscar-nominated TV news drama Good Night, and Good Luck.). Like fellow actors-turned-directors Clint Eastwood and Robert Redford, Clooney is proving to be a bit of a formalist. His taste runs toward low-key realism. He’s been long-known as a supporter of liberal causes, and it was no real surprise to find him stumping for The Ides of March, a warts-and-all political drama based on Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North.
What’s surprising about the film is how shockingly cynical it is. Tea partiers and hardline Republicans scared off by Clooney’s “Hollywood libtard” credentials would do well to note how largely apolitical the film is. It’s not about Democratic politics writ small, it’s about American politics writ large.
The story follows an idealistic candidate through a particularly ugly campaign to capture the Democratic presidential nomination. Ryan Gosling (having a very good year following 2010’s Oscar-nominated Blue Valentine) stars as Stephen Myers, an up-and-coming political advisor to fast-rising Democrat Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney). Morris is barely ahead of his rival in the polls, thanks largely to his wealth of political “issues.” He’s a progressive candidate, running on a platform of hope rather than fear. He’s a decorated Gulf War vet who advocates negotiation with our nation’s enemies. And he’s a nonpracticing Catholic who believes in total separation of church and state. Although Stephen is technically the third in command, behind veteran spin doctor Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), everybody knows that Stephen is the brains behind the operation.
Like his candidate, Stephen is infused with hope. He’s a true believer who sincerely wants to see Morris in the White House. Starting out slowly and methodically, the film seems to be a detail-rich study of the run-up to a major political campaign: the debates, the press interviews, the glad-handing, the gentle massaging of policy issues. But The Ides of March is no casually chosen title. Before the film is over, the knives will come out and plenty of folks will be stabbed in the back.
If you’ve ever wondered how a fantastically optimistic and idealistic candidate like Barack Obama can get into the White House and see his ideals do a quick fade (gay marriage? Closing Guantánamo? Ending Reagan-era tax loopholes for the wealthy?), The Ides of March lays it all out for you. The film is less about partisan politics and more about how our current system of governance (and more importantly, our electoral system) quickly curdles idealism.
Stephen soon learns from his rival’s head political advisor (Paul Giamatti, in one of the film’s fine cameos) that a powerful Southern senator (Jeffrey Wright) has agreed to back the other Democratic candidate in exchange for a cabinet position. The only way Myers can recover is to get down in the mud and start playing dirty politics. But he refuses. He’s going to win by taking the high road. Reluctantly, Stephen agrees. That lasts all of five minutes.
What The Ides of March isn’t afraid to say is that it’s impossible to get into office by being the good guy. The number of backroom handshake deals that need to be made to get a person into office is staggering. Not that candidates don’t engineer their own doom as well. What begins as a slow, observational film ratchets up the suspense with a string of quietly shocking scandals, leading our naive young hero Stephen to a particularly cruel sort of purgatory.
To call The Ides of March a political thriller would be incorrect. There are no big government conspiracies, no shadowy men in trench coats, no car chases. The twists here are all dispiritingly close to real life. Though the script lacks the snappy conversational skills of Aaron Sorkin (The Social Network, “The West Wing”), the finished product does feature plenty of gritty and realistic back-and-forth between veteran thespians. Those looking for Manchurian Candidate-sized action will walk away underwhelmed. Those looking for the dirty truth about today’s politics will feel suitably grubby by the time the credits roll.