Politics is a dirty game. While reiterating this unfortunate truism isn’t particularly enlightening, it does make for good entertainment.
The Ides of March is another installment in a long line of political films showing that there is no such thing as an honest politician. George Clooney’s fourth film as a director, The Ides of March is fast, smart and thrilling in a way similar to Moneyball and other confident dramas. The most obviously similar film may be Kevin McDonald’s State of Play from 2009, which is based on the excellent BBC series from 2003. Both of these films deftly explore the deficiencies of a seemingly upstanding politician — in State of Play it is Ben Affleck’s congressman Stephen Collins and in The Ides of March it is George Clooney’s presidential hopeful Mike Morris — and show that political maneuverings and backroom dealings amount to little less than blackmail and conspiracy.
The Ides of March follows an idealistic young press secretary named Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) who works for Pennsylvanian governor Morris’s presidential campaign. The time is the Ohio primary and the Democratic presidential race is down to progressive Morris and traditionalist Senator Pullman. The endorsement of an influential senator (Jeffrey Wright) is key to winning the party nomination and so both campaigns vie against each other in order to win the senator’s endorsement.
Myers is a hotshot who gets himself into trouble when he accepts a meeting with the rival campaign and gets offered a job. Although Myers refuses, the decision to accept the meeting would damage Myers’s career if news of it got out. At the same time, Myers becomes sexually involved with an intern, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood). And in the midst of his shifting personal alliances and the heat of the primary battle, Myers inadvertently becomes privy to scandalous information about Morris.
In many ways, The Ides of March is a showcase for its marvelous cast. Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Jeffrey Wright, Evan Rachel Wood, Marisa Tomei — these are all wonderful actors and the film serves as a veritable who’s who of the best in the business.
Clooney is in typically strong form here and although the way he delivers some intense lines during the film’s climax seem all too familiar to deliveries in Syriana and Michael Clayton, his portrayal of an idealistic governer hits all the right notes of supposed political integrity and personal foibles. Hoffman and Giamatti are electric in their roles as duelling campaign managers. Why they haven’t starred in a film together before now is beyond me. Wright commands the screen in the little time he’s given. And Wood and Tomei are exceptional in their limited roles.
However, despite all these wonderful performances, The Ides of March really belongs to Gosling. This man seems to be in everything this year and each performance is uniquely intense. Some critics have criticized his casting in this film, saying that Gosling lacks the capacity to convincingly play sleaze and that his intense emotional focus works at cross-purposes to the character’s intentions. This criticism can be chalked up to little more than the inevitable Gosling backlash. Make no mistake, Gosling is a bona fide movie star and a serious actor, and his performance as Stephen Myers in The Ides of March is nothing short of terrific. In particular, the final shot of the film, a sustained close-up of Gosling’s face, speaks to his ability to emote without a single line of dialogue.
In The Ides of March, everything comes down to the individual. The film’s largest revelations are confined to personal flaws and its comments about the American political system as a whole reflect back on a lack of personal integrity on the part of those within the system. It’s as much the individual corrupting the system as the system corrupting the individual. While these points may not be anything revelatory, the larger implications regarding politics, both personal and professional, are both pointed and true.
Something has been made of the film’s fairly obvious comments regarding the Obama administration, mainly that Clooney and company are (supposedly) arguing that the Democrats’ failure as politicians corresponds to their inability to play dirty politics and that if Obama were only more like Morris, he would be a more effective, albeit personally flawed, president. These points seem miscalculated. While the fact that the film is dealing with Democrats and is tapping into the larger feeling of political disillusionment in the States does lend itself to interpretation regarding Obama’s presidency, the overall message of the film is too disparaging to be taken as anything less than a dismissal of all politics in general.
Simply put, the film does not tend to give any pointers on how to be an effective politician. It simply states that politics in general is corrupt and corrupting to those who wish to be effective.
The Ides of March exists within the lexicon of film that favours dialogue over action and intrigue over suspense. It’s thrilling but not because you think someone may blow up at any second. The thrills come from watching such excellent actors go head to head in intellectual duels, using every dirty trick they have up their sleeves to maintain the advantage.