George Clooney – the co-writer, co-producer, and director of The Ides of March – cast himself in a supporting role as a Pennsylvania governor turned Democratic presidential candidate. As self-congratulatory as you may find this, I’ve actually seen the movie, and believe you me, no one else could have played this character. In politics, it’s not just about a candidate’s party platform; it’s also about charm and affability, the sense that the man or woman running for office is a nice, likeable person. Whether he’s in character or bringing attention to a worthwhile humanitarian cause, Clooney intrinsically possesses these qualities. I don’t know if he was born to be a politician, but he sure as hell was born to portray one in a movie. He gives one of the year’s most convincing, nuanced performances, one deserving of an Oscar nomination.
Adapted from Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North, The Ides of March is a political drama that admittedly gives us nothing new as far as plot and subject matter are concerned. But what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in performance and dialogue; only a handful of films this year have been so perfectly cast, so skillfully acted, and so well-worded. Both the play and the film are said to be loosely based on the 2004 Democratic primary campaign of Howard Dean, although I don’t think that matters a great deal. Willimon may have worked for Dean during the primary, but the story is fairly general, and I’d wager that it would be just as entertaining and insightful even if Dean had never existed. That being said, its themes of ethics, the lust for power, the need for revenge, and the professional and personal costs of getting ahead are both compelling and timely.
At the heart of the story is Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), the Junior Campaign Manager for Governor and presidential hopeful Mike Morris (Clooney). At just thirty but with numerous campaigns under his belt, Meyers is a dedicated man who clings to ideals and has not grown cynical of the political process. This seems to amuse his friend, Ida Horowitz (Marisa Tomei), a world-weary, scoop-hungry reporter for the New York Times. He truly believes in Morris, now in Ohio competing for the nomination against a senator from Arkansas named Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell). What begins as a straightforward process grows complicated when a rival manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), proposes to Meyers in secret that he abandon Morris and join the Pullman campaign. Meyers refuses, although that’s hardly the end of it; he neglects to mention the meeting to Morris’ Senior Campaign Manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who values loyalty above all else.
Further complications arise with the introduction of a twenty-year-old intern named Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), the daughter of the Democratic National Committee’s chairman. She and Meyers repeatedly flirt with one another, although Molly is well aware that, even within the confines of a campaign office, there’s a social hierarchy at work. People like Meyers are allowed to stay in luxurious hotel rooms, whereas people like Molly are can only hope for dumpy motels located miles away. At this particular stop on the campaign trail, she and the rest of the interns are forced to stay across the river in Kentucky. She admits, however, that her location has a better bar. It’s there that she and Meyers share a drink and bounce clever lines off of each other like skilled ping pong players.
The rest of the film thrives on secrecy and can only be described in vague hints. What it essentially boils down to is Meyers’ transition from innocence to maturity – or, more accurately, his transition from youthful optimism to disillusionment and eventually to complete cynicism. The film is undoubtedly a tragedy, for it reflects the unfortunate reality that the more we know, the more jaded we become. Simultaneously, it also casts a critical eye on us, the voting American public. We’ve prematurely ended the careers of numerous politicians, although rarely if ever has the reason been corrupt politics; almost always it has related to personal indiscretions that have no bearing on their ability to govern.
Gosling – who of late has appeared in films as diverse as Blue Valentine, Crazy, Stupid, Love., and Drive – is one of the few actors able to express a wide range of emotions without having to say anything. It all comes down to his eyes, which are expressive to say the least. The film’s final shot is of a slow zoom-in of his face, one that opens on a note of suspense and closes with sad detachment. We’ve seen what he has gone through, and we know what he has learned. It would be too much to say that The Ides of March is politically nihilistic, although it certainly perpetuates the notion that what we perceive and what actually is are completely different. I’m still young enough that I have faith in the political process. My sincerest hope is that I never lose that optimism, no matter how old I get.