Early on in George Clooney’s “The Ides of March” I began to feel that I was watching another heavy-handed exercise in political persuasion wrapped up as motion picture drama. I really hadn’t read much about the movie so I didn’t know what to expect. Thankfully the story moves away from that and gets into some much more interesting territory. This movie is a behind-the-scenes look at political campaigns, the closed-door wranglings, and the ‘win at all cost’ mentalities. And while the movie does get bogged down in its own sense of self-importance, there are some really intriguing things going on here.
Clooney directs, co-produces, and co-writes this 2011 political drama. He also plays Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris who is involved in an extremely tight Democratic Primary race against an Arkansas Senator. Morris is a prototypical politician – a talking points robot but with the charm that causes followers to swoon. Now that was my impression of him. But the movie and many of the characters see him as a true light and hope for the country. In that group is the film’s main star Ryan Gosling who plays Stephen Meyers, Morris’ junior campaign manager. He’s an idealistic young man who is smitten with Morris’ vision and the political system.
Stephen begins to have his eyes opened at how the political campaign system works especially in a primary where the stakes are so high. He’s shown the ropes by the seasoned senior campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and gets romantically involved with a campaign intern and daughter of the DNC Chairman (Evan Rachel Wood). Before long Stephen makes some critical and poor professional and personal decisions that puts him in the crosshairs of his enemies and those he thought were his friends. Several moral quandaries only complicate things for him and he quickly learns that the internal world of big politics isn’t as pure as he may have thought.
“The Ides of March” tries to be the “Wall Street” of the political campaign scene and it manages to pull it off in some instances. The whole ‘young energetic guy with big dreams comes face-to-face with reality’ angle isn’t that fresh but it works well enough. But perhaps the most entertaining parts of the film are when we get to see the inner workings of political campaigns. The jostling between the candidate’s staffs, the crunching of numbers, the state-by-state strategies, and the pursuit of pivotal endorsements are just some of the fascinating elements that Clooney is able to show us.
As the movie progresses, Clooney seems to put his foot on the throat of idealism. I appreciated what he was trying to do at this point in the movie and the statement he makes on our vision of politics and politicians is an interesting one. But basically the movie becomes a story of a bunch of bad people doing bad things because of bad choices. That works for a bit but after a while I knew I wanted more.
The movie’s strongest point lies with its cast. George Clooney is just a solid actor and he’s really good here. Hoffman is also just as good as he always is. I also really liked Paul Giamatti as the rival’s campaign manager. He feels sneaky and conniving but he definitely knows the game. Then there’s Jeffrey Wright as an opportunistic North Carolina Senator who is offering his state’s delegates to the highest bidder. It’s a small role but a really good one. But the one weak performance of the entire movie is Ryan Gosling. He does an okay job but he has no range of emotion. Sheepish grins and a few raises of his voice are about the only changes we get from him. He gives a passable performance but he could have added much more to this character.
“The Ides of March” is strange in that it doesn’t do anything really bad. But when looking at the movie as a whole it’s all over the map. The performances are strong except for the most important one and the story has too many lulls wrapped around its few high points. There’s a little bit of political preachiness but its offset by the crappy characters of those preaching it. But the biggest thing is that it’s just not as insightful and daring as it tries to be.