If you know your Shakespeare, then you know the line from which George Clooney’s new film derives its title, The Ides Of March. Spoken in the play Julius Caesar, the warning is a premonition of Caesar’s betrayal by the senators of Rome. A speculative filmgoer might infer from that title that a leader in the film, most likely the potential Democratic nominee for President, fictional Pennsylvania governor Mike Morris (Clooney). Worry not, reader, I’m not posting any spoilers (without fair warning) or giving away any major plot turns or twists. However, it is fair for one to assume that betrayal of some sort will enter the picture at some point. The title is only the beginning of the blunt metaphor, symbolism, and allusion that runs through the film.
The central plot of the story focuses on Morris’s assistant campaign manager, Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), an idealistic, extremely confident 30-year-old who can charm everyone from his colleagues to the press. As he and the senior campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), prepare Morris for the Ohio Democratic primary, he becomes involved with a pretty, young intern, Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), who is also the daughter of a high-up Democrat. Needless to say, things don’t remain as uncomplicated as they both would like, and Stephen is forced to make some difficult choices regarding both his personal life and the campaign.
Actually, difficult choices are a constant theme of The Ides Of March. Stephen is torn between Gov. Morris’s campaign and working for his competitor, the Democratic Senator Pullman from Arkansas who is very close to Morris in the polls. He is torn between his loyalty to Zara and the tempting offer from Pullman’s campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). He is torn between his affection for Molly and his dedication to Morris, and most crucially he is torn between his own personal ideals and helping to make the country a better place, even if it means engaging in the type of cover-ups and politicking that he thought he’d be immune from working for a man such as Morris.
That type of man is a man very similar to Barack Obama, the Barack Obama we all remember from the 2008 campaign trail, but perhaps even more liberal. He’s not just pro-gay marriage, he doesn’t even think the issue should be up for debate. He’s against the death penalty, he’s pro-choice, he’s anti-war – in short he’s a liberal’s wet dream. He’s the 2008 Obama but even better, and for the first part of the film I even thought that it was unofficially Obama’s first campaign ad for 2012. In the eyes of liberal staffers like Stephen, he has to win.
Among the many “big questions” asked here concerns the place of ideals in politics. At the beginning, Stephen is a bright-eyed optimist, backing the perfect candidate and believing in him whole-heartedly. When he finds out that Morris may not be the perfect man, he seems betrayed and lost, not knowing whether to follow his personal morals or put them aside for the good of the country. The same goes for the disappointments he finds among his other idealized colleagues, Zara and Stearns. In the end, Stephen’s ethical journey ends up making this just as much a coming-of-age story as a political film.
As a political film, it comes at an interesting time, as America is gearing up for next year’s election. The attitude of the film towards politics is not exactly something we’ve never heard before, but it comes with an especially pessimistic tone. Basically, we are to believe that backstabbing and secret deals are commonplace, and there is a constant game of one-upsmanship played by those on both sides (and in this story, it’s Democrat vs. Democrat – the Republicans are only mentioned in reference to how well they play the game and how it wins them elections). This isn’t necessarily what the country needs right now, as we are already quite distrustful of politicians. However, it’s also a bit heavy-handed, especially during the second half of the film when the tone changes from satirical to more dramatic, and at times even thriller-esque, so much so that some scenes feel like they might have been taken from a John Grisham novel.
Inevitably, The Ides Of March will be compared to other political films that have come before it, as well as Aaron Sorkin’s definitive political TV series, The West Wing. It feels like Clooney and his collaborator, Grant Heslov, were going for a Sorkin-esque vibe, especially during the idealistic first half of the film, but without the frenetic pace. Then perhaps they were aiming for the satirical tone of David Mamet’s sharp Wag The Dog, but falls short of the admirable cleverness of that script. The third film I found myself comparing this to was Mike Nichols’ thinly veiled Bill Clinton film, Primary Colors, which also features an idealistic young staffer discovering the fallibility of a candidate in whom he has placed his belief. It still falls short of that film’s wit, which came from an incredibly sharp adaptation by Elaine May.
This film, George Clooney’s third directorial effort, is not a bad one. It’s not a great one, though. Clooney gives a fine performance as Morris, and Gosling gives his third strong performance this year, though this will most likely stand as the least memorable film he’s been in, in comparison with the great romantic comedy, Crazy Stupid Love, and the excellent noir-thriller, Drive. The supporting cast is good, though Wood’s role feels a bit underwritten and Geoffrey Wright and Marisa Tomei only pop up here and there. The performances to watch this film for come from, unsurprisingly, Hoffman and Giamatti as the dueling campaign managers, making one wonder what kind of film Clooney might have made if the focus was on the political chess game played between these two wily veterans rather than the familiar debate over morals and ideals in politics. We can only hope that this won’t be the last time we see Giamatti and Hoffman on screen together. In the end, The Ides Of March is a good movie, but not nearly as good as it should be with its combination of director, cast, and subject matter.