Here’s some shocking news: Politics can be a dirty business — full of betrayals, double dealing and unholy bargains. If that comes as a surprise to you, you probably haven’t ever read an American newspaper, but this widely held and fashionably jaundiced view permeates George Clooney’s “The Ides of March,” a story about a governor who’s trying to win an Ohio presidential primary.
Clooney directed, co-wrote the screenplay and plays Governor Mike Morris, a liberal Democrat who — unlike most real-life candidates — isn’t afraid to admit that he’s not a religious man. Clooney donned many hats to make the movie, but he’s not its star. Instead, he cedes the spotlight to Ryan Gosling, who portrays Stephen Myers, an ambitious but idealistic media specialist who works for Morris’ more-seasoned campaign manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Based on Beau Willimon’s play, “Farragut North,” “The Ides of March” resembles Clooney’s previous directorial efforts — particularly “Good Night and Good Luck” and “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” — in its snappy intelligence. The best thing about the movie is watching its various characters jockey to prove who’s most in the know.
Never boring and full of intriguing moments, “Ides of March” gets its best work from a terrific supporting cast: Paul Giamatti (as the campaign manager for the opposition); Hoffman (as Morris’ veteran campaign manager); and Evan Rachel Wood (as a flirtatious young intern working on the Morris campaign). Gosling is at his best before the script turns the tables on his character, forcing Stephen to decide whether he’s going to wallow in the dirt along with the rest of the pols or keep his self-respect.
Clooney’s Mike Morris isn’t much of a character; he’s a kind of walking position paper, and the script — predictably, I think — contrives to challenge Morris’ status as a liberal icon. The central plot twist is best discovered in a theater not in a review, but I found Morris’ inevitable act of hypocrisy to be less than shocking, an obvious attempt to evoke an incident with which we’re all depressingly familiar.
But what surprised me most about “The Ides of March” is its hermetic quality. The movie lacks the infectious bustle and noise of a campaign; it’s fine when the exchanges between characters tend toward intimacy, but it misses the rambunctious excitement of politics. It’s all melody and no harmony.
That’s not to say that “Ides of March” is a bore. It’s not. Still, it felt to me as if Clooney never allowed the story’s cynicism to bubble urgently from its core. I enjoyed “Ides of March,” but couldn’t entirely shake the feeling that Clooney was playing a game that had been rigged from the start.