If the flaws in the American character are reflected in the politicians they vote for, then The Ides of March provides not only food for thought, but the raw material for election-year nightmares. This behind-the-scenes political blowtorch hits the screen like the fire from a high-tech Uzi and forces both the right and left sides of a polarized country to re-think the electoral process. A cynical, polished and deeply disturbing look at the kind of camera-ready liberal dreamboy who gets elected in 60-second soundbites, it is one of the most important films of the year.
George Clooney is the director, co-writer and star of this biting back-room exposé of twisted ambition, betrayal and ideological disillusionment in the tradition of The Candidate and The Best Man, set during a Democratic primary debate in Ohio. The title is from Shakespeare, and Clooney’s charm, matinee-idol looks and easy self-assurance make him a perfect fit for the role of a political candidate who is a cross between Julius Caesar and John Edwards. He plays Mike Morris, a charismatic and impeccably groomed Ivy League governor from Pennsylvania with a staff of loyal followers headed by crafty campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), who would kill to get him elected. But the major screen time in this quiet, twisty thriller goes to Ryan Gosling, as Stephen Myers, the governor’s idealistic and dangerously ambitious press secretary. Steve has drunk the Kool-Aid and likes the taste. Zara is the seasoned veteran and guts of the campaign, Steve is the cool brains. Paul Giamatti plays for the Republican contender, but pulls every trick in the book to lure Steve over to the other side. As the knot in the middle of the rope pull, Steve gets a keyhole view of two sides of a complex battle for power, and they’re both ugly.
Clooney’s polished, patriotic Gov. Morris (“Call me Mike”) gets standing ovations everywhere, just as the off-screen actor does on red carpets, even when his platform policies make him controversial and naïve. He’s a pro-choice atheist who worships only the U.S. Constitution in a country that prides itself in being “one nation under God.” He demands a two-year compulsory service in either the military or the Peace Corps for people under 18, in exchange for free college tuition (too much like the draft, protest younger voters). He’s against the death penalty but admits he would gladly kill anyone who harmed his wife (fabulous Jennifer Ehle). He talks a good one about oil prices, promising to drive Arab countries out of business and save the world from terrorism. He refuses to use computers, which endears him to older voters.
It is Gosling’s job to balance the strong points with the weak ones, making deals to get a six-point lead. He uncovers the dark side after he sleeps with a pretty intern with influential connections (Rachel Evan Wood) and finds out she’s pregnant by the boss he believes in. The heroic candidate’s life starts to unravel after his libido and his ego get the best of him. Sound familiar? Unwisely, in case you overlooked the message that no leader is perfect, the movie doesn’t hide its obvious references to Bill Clinton.
Gosling, sweating out every maneuver, finds in this tragedy the linchpin to turn the tables on the governor, forcing him to shift his priorities in order to survive. Cleverly and without conscience, Steve uses his new position in the catbird sea to appoint himself the senior campaign manager and secure his future in politics with the promise of a cabinet position in the White House.
Gosling completely walks away with the movie, rubbing a juicy role with three-alarm hot sauce. What an actor. He’s imaginative, exclusive, never giving the camera too much, always leaving the audience room to wonder. One caveat: I didn’t like the way his substance turned to cold, manipulative villainy. I don’t believe idealists who champion the greater good ever abandon the qualities that made them human and sell their souls.
Marisa Tomei has some punchy moments as a tough, bitchy reporter from The New York Times Washington bureau who plays both sides against each other, deceiving and double-crossing everybody for a scoop. Even if the role is based on Judith Miller, as implied in the press conference at the recent Toronto Film Festival, I can’t believe even hard political reporters are that ruthless.
Playing a character much like himself, Clooney doesn’t have to stretch, doing what he’s perfected in real life (assuming the life of a movie idol is in any way “real”)—smiling radiantly, graying becomingly, aging gracefully and providing glib answers to dumb questions from the press. But as a director, he is gracious to other actors. Despite two positively grotesque horrors (Leatherheads and the incomprehensible Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.) I have never forgotten the brilliant job he did on Good Night and Good Luck. I think he’s at his best bringing out the best in others.
With The Ides of March, Clooney succeeds on every level. The settings in Ohio and Michigan eschew all Midwestern clichés to evoke a grim picture of heartland slush, brown rivers under industrial ruins, cheap bars and characterless motel chains on muddy highways, convincingly lit by ace cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. The script is brittle, paradoxical and bleakly witty. Like the non-fossil fuel alternatives Clooney pushes in his campaign rhetoric, the adrenalin rush of The Ides of March provides a sexy alternative to most mainstream political movies about dirty politics. Others dip. This one soars.