The Ides of March tells us what we already know about politics: it’s a dirty business, it’s not the best thing for the soul, and it’s no place for the naïve or innocent. These sorts of truths are self-evident, perhaps even too obvious for bumper stickers or window signs.
As well-made as the movie is, it’s a bit like a meal that’s perfectly fine but not as filling as you’d hoped. Great ingredients, excellent preparation, expert presentation, and yet there’s something missing. There’s that slight hunger as you leave the table, and it’s probably because you know the people in back who made this are capable of better.
The Ides of March
Director: George Clooney
Release Date: 10/09/2011
Many political movies are about a character’s ideals getting destroyed and the disillusionment that follows. The Ides of March, which is part of this tradition, seems to acknowledge this at the very beginning.
Enter stage right Steven (Ryan Gosling), a media consultant for Democratic presidential candidate Mike Morris. He’s checking out the debate set-up for the close Ohio primary. At a microphone, he delivers one of his candidate’s lofty platitudes: “I’m not Christian or a Muslim, I believe in the Constitution of the United States.” The room is empty for this rehearsal, and Steven follows this high-minded declaration by mimicking the chirp of crickets and then the whistle-and-boom of a bomb dropped from the sky.
What brings about the inevitable destruction of Steven’s political idealism is a series of scandals, the first of which involves a phone call he receives from the rival campaign. It turns out that they want him to leave the Morris camp and play ball for them. Backstabbings, betrayals, and heartbreaks ensue.
When dealing with familiar material like this, it’s the actors that will save the movie from its own clichés, and that’s where The Ides of March succeeds. Philip Seymour Hoffman — incapable of acting at a level lower than exemplary — plays the veteran campaign manager for the Morris side, both a mentor and a sledgehammer. Gosling’s solid here as well. He goes from the cheery media-manager-that-could to something like a shadowy G-man. Evan Rachel Wood plays the young intern who falls for Steven, though as good as she is, I can’t help but feel something else could have been done with her character given where she goes in the film emotionally.
George Clooney plays Morris, who’s a progressive composite: his campaign posters are reminiscent of Shepard Fairey’s “Obama/Hope” image and there are little allusions to Dukakis, Clinton, and Edwards. In the real world, Morris’s platform, candor, and atheism would’ve got him knocked out of a Democratic primary before Super Tuesday. He has the benefit of looking like a leading man rather than Dennis Kucinich, so there’s that, but I just assume that The Ides of March takes place in an alternate universe. Possible evidence of this: in the film, Hardball with Chris Matthews is aired in the early morning rather than the early evening, and serves as background noise for some witty, post-coital talk.
As a director and co-writer, Clooney’s got a knack for visual bookends and tight symmetrical construction. There’s a nicely framed shot where the different levels of power in the Morris campaign HQ are denoted by a series of windows and reflections relative to the foreground, and little lines and visual cues come back around by the film’s end. But in a way, this neatness is where the weakness of Ides is apparent.
Let’s go back to the bomb. The film shows us an ideal and it shows us an ideal blown apart. We watch the immediate devastation of a character’s disillusionment and the immediate damage to those closest to him, but we don’t get to see the full extent of the fallout. It’s what happens a little further down the line, though perhaps not as symmetrical or tightly structured, that would have made the film something more than it is. It could have said something more complex than the truths we already know. (Afterward, I thought about the Edwards scandal and how his staffer Andrew Young went to surprising lengths to ensure the viability of the campaign.)
In the same way that the beginning of The Ides of March acknowledges the familiar plot, the film’s thesis (also familiar) is stated outright by the rival campaign manager played by Paul Giamatti: “You stay in this business long enough, you’re going to get jaded and cynical.”
That’s what the movie boils down to. It’s a testament to the performances and the direction that the movie pulls that off as well as it does and remains compelling. As for the big revelation about what politics can do to personal integrity, we’d already figured as much and we’re hungry to hear more.