The Ides of March is exactly the sort of material that George Clooney, director, thrives on. After a minor misstep with Leatherheads, Clooney is back in his political wheelhouse with an adaptation of the play Farragut North, which examines the death of idealism in politics.
I’ve heard it dismissively referred to as Obama’s Primary Colors, but while that doesn’t exactly sum up Ides of March, it probably gives you a good idea of what you’re in for. Clooney plays Governor Mike Morris, a Hope and Changey candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination. Morris wants to investigate alternative energy as a way to end the war on terror, he thinks the rich should pay their fair share of taxes, he thinks that gay marriage is a no-brainer. He’s sort of the perfect candidate.
Ryan Gosling is Stephen Myers, the 30 year old media relations hot shot who is second in command on Morris’ campaign. Myers is a genius at his job, but more than that he’s a true believer; he’s dedicated to Morris because he thinks he’s the right guy at the right time, and for him the race isn’t about winning but about saving the country.
Then Myers discovers a secret about Morris, one that’s very familiar to watchers of politics, and while his idealism is shaken it isn’t destroyed. That comes in the following days, as he confronts the ugly, nasty realities of politics - betrayal, lies and personal destruction as routine tools.
Gosling is magnificent as Myers. I’ve never been a fan of the actor, but the one-two punch of this and Drive might be enough to convince me there’s something there beneath his nasally nerd James Dean schtick. Here Gosling is asked to do real acting, not just pose and pout. Myers goes from a charming, likable idealogue to a cold, ruthless operator in the space of ninety some odd minutes, and Gosling tracks the descent perfectly.
If there’s one thing missing from Gosling’s performance it’s more second act, which is hardly his fault. The film opens with a great, light first act and closes with a tense, exciting third act, but the middle section gets short shrift. I wanted to see more of Myers’ journey to the dark side (an almost literal journey - Alexandre Desplat’s score in the last scene consciously seems to echo the Imperial March), and I wanted to spend more time with this character.
Clooney is mostly a glorified cameo, giving killer campaign speeches and being charming and effortlessly charismatic. If this guy had gone into politics (and managed to keep his dick in his pants) he could have really gone places. There’s something intriguing about the fact that twenty five years ago Clooney could have played Gosling’s role; I think that the director’s inherent understanding of that character helped him get a layered, nuanced performance from his star.
The rest of the film is populated with great character actors doing great work. Phillip Seymour Hoffman is the head of Morris’ campaign, a more world-weary guy who is comfortable in the land of dirty tricks. Paul Giamatti is Hoffman’s double on the rival campaign, working for a nominee who is more of a right-leaning, Jesus-loving modern Reagan Democrat. These two share only one scene, but I’d totally watch an HBO show that was about their duels; Giamatti is always at his best when he’s playing the frustrated smart guy, which is exactly what he’s doing here. And Hoffman is always at his best when he’s playing a character whose surface ennui barely conceals a seething lake of anger, just as he does here.
Evan Rachel Wood is luminous as Molly, an intern in Morris’ office who gets into a relationship with Myers. If you’ve ever followed politics in the last few years you know where this is heading, but Ides of March takes some interesting - and dramatic - turns along the way. What Clooney (who adapted the play, along with Grant Heslov and original playwright Beau Willimon) is interested in here isn’t a standard ‘he fucked the intern’ story, but something more primal to the campaign experience. It’s actually more primal to any competitive environment - this could be a movie about Hollywood, or a Wall Street office or anywhere that men work to destroy each other to get ahead. In the end Ides of March is incredibly cynical, showing that it doesn’t take much to push a good man into being a bad man.
Clooney continues to prove himself as a subdued visual stylist - there are some wonderful shots that aren't overly showy - but what he really excels at here is a strong command of tone. The film opens light, fresh and fun and slowly darkens. This tonal shift (which is reflected in a rapidly muting color scheme) could be tricky to pull off, but Clooney understands it inside and out. This kind of shift is exactly what Clooney the actor does in his best roles, adding layers of dark depth to charming and breezy characters.
With a longer second act, with a bit more of Myers’ descent into darkness, The Ides of March could have been a great film. As it stands this is a very, very good film - it’s smart and as exciting as a thriller, with killer performances. It’s also a movie perfectly timed as we all begin to lose confidence in the Obama we elected and feel the idealism draining from us in the big rush to 2012. This is the nature of politicians - they seduce you, they fuck you and they either destroy you or drag you down to their level of jaded cynicism.