In the end, The Ides of March is a movie that will likely only appease the most die-hard political pundits in the crowd.
The Ides of March was adapted from the play “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon, which was itself loosely based on the 2004 Democratic primary of Governor Howard Dean. If there is one thing to be said about this film adaptation of Willimon’s play, it’s that its Broadway origins are glaringly apparent – a fact that will delight some viewers, but will ultimately leave others yawning in their seats.
The story follows Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), an idealistic young campaign staffer working on the presidential campaign of Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), a man whose promises of real change and clean politics have energized many of the young staffers who work for and support him. The film follows Team Morris’ hard fight to win the pivotal state of Ohio in the Democratic primary. As Myers floats along in his euphoric state of political idealism – believing that he is truly in the corner of a “good” candidate – he learns hard lessons about the reality of American politics, and ultimately comes to recognize it for the corruptive, immoral dogfight it truly is.
Clooney directed Ides of March as well as starring in it, and while he’s far from being a technical wizard, the actor has proven himself to be competent at the helm (see: Confessions of a Dangerous Mind). Here, Clooney wisely surrounds himself with more technically proficient talent like cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (Walk the Line, Pursuit of Happyness, W., 3:10 to Yuma), and in that sense, The Ides of March is a good-looking and well-crafted film. Unfortunately, while the visual and technical components are strong, the script Clooney co-wrote with his Good Night, and Good Luck collaborator Grant Heslov is not as successful in translating a dialogue-heavy stage play into an exciting movie experience.
Snappy banter and (somewhat) interesting plot and character developments are definitely the strong points of The Ides of March script. The downside is that this movie still feels very much like a stage play (i.e., static scenes of people sitting around talking) and the subject matter is now so dated that the movie, as a whole, comes off as a feature-length report on old news. Notions like ‘politics is a dirty game’ or ‘there are no noble politicians’ or ‘the game never changes’ are by now so ingrained in our cynical cultural zeitgeist, that watching Gosling’s character develop from a naive idealist into a cynical political player feels about as revelatory as a headline about another political scandal (read: not at all).
What keeps the film going are the performances of the ensemble cast. While Gosling’s character feels somewhat outdated, the actor plays him earnestly as a man whose passion and conviction ultimately get swallowed by his cunning and ambition. Clooney appears only briefly throughout the film, but conveys the gray shades of a seasoned politician well – as does Jeffrey Wright in the role of a senator playing both sides for the sake of his own political advancement. Evan Rachel Wood serves well as the pretty little intern who becomes fodder for the dirty game, Max Minghella is fine playing a well-meaning but oblivious aid, and Marissa Tomei is strong in the few scenes she has, playing a brass-balled (and ultimately prophetic) reporter who tries to cut through all the spin to get at the so-called “truth.”
The strongest two figures in the ensemble, though, are undoubtedly Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti, who play rival campaign managers. On his own, each actor nails the task of delivering some of the heavier monologues about the nature of politics, while simultaneously keeping those scenes dynamic and interesting. When (briefly) onscreen together, Hoffman and Giamatti have an exciting chemistry that is totally contained within a few exchanged glances or brief quips. Their roles also feel like the most authentic and relevant, since their characters are the ones who provide the clearest and most truthful insight into what the political process is all about.
On the subject of politics: there are many people who will have trouble separating the subject matter of this film from George Clooney’s real life political dogma – but they needn’t be concerned that this is some sort of ‘pro-left, anti-right’ propaganda film. If anything, Ides of March takes a hard, cynical jab at the Democratic party, showcasing the same back-room dealings and moral lapses that the Republican party is often accused of. The point the film makes is very clear: modern politics (as a whole) is a dirty game, and anyone thinking they can come in and change it into something uncompromised, earnest and noble will never survive long enough in the race to do so. It’s kind of a dark outlook to have – but one that probably rings true for many Americans today.
In the end, The Ides of March is a movie that will likely only appease the most die-hard political pundits in the crowd. For most everyone else, an hour and a half watching people discuss the nature of modern American politics will probably be as fun and insightful as a night spent watching C-SPAN.
Need something to help sway your vote on whether or not to see The Ides of March? Watch the trailer below, then cast your vote about how well the film does its job:
The Ides of March is now playing in theaters everywhere.