"The Ides of March," directed by and costarring George Clooney as a Democratic presidential hopeful, has an earthshaking revelation for us. I'd say, "Hold the presses!" but are there any presses anymore? Anyway, the revelation is this: Politics is a dirty, cynical, backbiting business.
You heard me right. Politicians lie; they cheat on their constituencies, on their spouses, on their honor. The only thing authentic about them is their inauthenticity.
I make a point of trumpeting these revelations only because "The Ides of March" makes such a point of it. The film is actually fairly entertaining once you get past its overweening desire to be the bearer of bad tidings. A more adventuresome movie would have treated the down-and-dirty world of politics as its starting, not its ending, point. An even more daring movie would have attempted to show that idealism in politics is not all smarm in disguise.
Clooney, who also co-wrote the film, began preproduction on it more than three years ago, but in the wake of President Obama's election, with political idealism riding high in the country, he put the project on hold. Now that cynicism and divisiveness are back in the saddle, what better time to re-up a movie that takes its title from an allusion to that back-stabbing and front-stabbing political classic "Julius Caesar"?
Clooney's Gov. Mike Morris – an inveterate liberal who stands up for gay marriage, decries America's oil dependency, and declares his only religion is the US Constitution – is running neck and neck with a more conservative senator in the run-up to the Ohio primary. Stephen Myers, sharply played by Ryan Gosling with ardent eyes and clipped tones, is Morris's press secretary and the closest thing in the movie to a true believer. It's his story (Morris is a secondary player) and his downfall, or shortfall, is a direct result of his transient belief in a higher calling.
"The Ides of March" is loosely based on the play "Farragut North," by Beau Willimon, who also collaborated with Clooney and Grant Heslov on the script and worked on Howard Dean's 2004 primary campaign. The play's roots show: Many of the film's scenes are propelled almost solely by dialogue – some of it quite acerbic.
The actors, who include Philip Seymour Hoffman as Morris's campaign manager, Paul Giamatti as the rival camp's campaign manager, Evan Rachel Wood as a dangerously flirtatious intern, Marisa Tomei as an unscrupulous New York Times reporter, and Jeffrey Wright as a senator out for the highest bidder, know how to deliver the best of their lines so that they leave welts in all the right places. At its best, the film is like a political version of "Sweet Smell of Success," another movie where the corruption was so rampant it gleamed.
And yet, for all its seeming sophistication, "The Ides of March" is essentially puerile at heart. Everybody turns out to be a skunk and a sellout. This is a cocky kid's idea of how the big, bad world really works. Grade: B (Rated R for pervasive language.)