The Ides of March
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
If talk is cheap in current American politics, so too is the huffing and puffing that makes The Ides of March less of an eye opener than it aspires to be.
Well-worn political corridors are traversed in George Clooney’s presidential campaign drama, which frets over cynical backroom manoeuvrings and minor loyalty tests as if this were 1951 rather than 2011.
That’s forgivable, because stellar performances make the movie: Ryan Gosling and Clooney lead a crack cast that includes Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood, Jeffrey Wright and Marisa Tomei, all at the top of their game.
They’re great to watch together, even if your eyes do occasionally roll at what they do and say.
Clooney doesn’t stint on the star power for his fourth and most accomplished directorial turn, which includes casting himself as Mike Morris, the Pennsylvanian governor who seeks to lead the Democrats in a presidential contest, first by winning the crucial Ohio primary.
The actor/director also succeeds in his choice of cinematographer: Phedon Papamichael, who renders Ohio’s chilly towers and hotel rooms as effectively as he does Hawaii’s sand and surf in The Descendants, the other big Clooney starrer this fall.
Where Clooney and frequent collaborator Grant Heslov literally lose the plot is in their screen adaptation, with Beau Willimon, of Willimon’s play Farragut North.
They manage to lift the action away from the confines of the stage but the battles fought seem more like a skirmish amongst trolls than a clash of titans.
The central figure isn’t Morris but rather his press wrangler Stephen Myers (Gosling), who is described by an opponent as “the best media mind in the country.” That’s high praise for a guy who seems awfully naive about how things work in the “gotcha!” world of 2011, where instant spin on blogs or Twitter can quickly undo the best-laid plans.
Myers insists he’s a true believer in Morris, even though his boss exudes more style than substance. (Morris’s elastic arguments include speaking out against capital punishment while at the same time vowing to personally kill anyone who hurts his family.)
“Nothing bad happens when you’re doing the right thing,” Myers tells an incredulous Morris, who doubtless wonders if his young advisor also believes in the Tooth Fairy.
But Myers isn’t all warm milk and cookies, even though, at age 30, he’s too young to remember the dirty tricks of Watergate first-hand. He has a streak of rank opportunism that Gosling hides just behind his boyish smile and innocent blue eyes.
He urges Morris to propose a military-style draft for those under 18 (“They can’t vote”). Myers is equally swift with the ladies: he beds and dispatches pliant young intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), barely remembering her name as he does so.
Still, he has a way to go to reach the cynical depths already sounded by Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Morris’s campaign manager and Myers’ boss and mentor, who long ago stopped believing in the milk of human kindness and who fiercely rates loyalty ahead of love.
Zara’s campaign rival is the equally blustery Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). Duffy manages the other Democratic challenger, a conservative senator named Pullman (Michael Mantell), who looks as if he’d be far more comfortable running for the Republicans.
Together with Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), a New York Times reporter who puts scoops ahead of virtue, Zara and Duffy are a Greek chorus for jaded times — although the film’s title points to Rome and Julius Caesar.
“This is not about the democratic process,” Duffy says, when the discussion threatens to turn high-minded. “It’s about getting your guy in office.”
These situational ethics won’t come as a revelation to anyone who has seen Primary Colors, The Candidate, Robert Altman’s Tanner ‘88 TV miniseries or any number of similar political movies.
Nor will they startle anyone who reads a newspaper, following the course of politicians who promise “hope” and “change” while campaigning yet who maintain the gloomy status quo when elected.
Yet Clooney seems to think of it as blinding revelation, as if he is the first to pull the curtain across and find no wizard there. His loss-of-innocence examples seem more of the stage than of the real world.
The Ides of March turns on a meeting between two rivals that the plot construes as betrayal, yet clearer minds would call simple jousting.
A character’s shift from loyal lieutenant to bitter antagonist is equally lacking in clarity. And — shocker! — who would ever guess that a political porker would expect something in return for his oink of approval?
Shortcomings aside, The Ides of March does provide an impressive showcase for fine actors to explore eternal truths about trust, loyalty and accountability.
Clooney continues to develop as a director, learning the benefits of understatement. A key scene where someone receives bad news is shown wordless and almost without people, an ominous black car being all that’s needed.
And in a weird sense, The Ides of March is the cynic’s choice for today’s politics of disillusionment. Like so many politicians, you want it to be better than it ultimately proves to be.
Peter Howell is a syndicated movie critic for the Toronto Star.