Silver Screen: The Ides of March ****
Betrayal is the predominant theme in The Ides of March, no surprise given the Shakespearean reference in the title. But the backstabbing in director, cowriter, and costar George Clooney's film is less literal and more ideological, and its disillusioned protagonist is the fall guy for the Obama generation.
The Ides of March opens with an excellent, quiet scene in which young political operator Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) sits on an empty stage before a vacant theater and blithely runs through his candidate's talking points during a sound check before a rally. But his flat, distracted delivery of the lines is no comment on how he actually feels about the sentiment; Stephen is a true believer, convinced of both the need for radical political change and the notion that his boss may be the only man in America positioned to achieve it.
The candidate is Mike Morris (Clooney), a governor with a lefty's dream agenda: He's unabashedly opposed to the blurring of the line between church and state, enthusiastic in his support of green energy, and vocal and explicit when talking about the wealth disparity between the top few percent of Americans and the sinking lower and middle classes. He's a firebrand with a patient and measured delivery, poised to seize the Democratic nomination and make a run for the White House against a decidedly weak Republican field. All that stands between him and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue is a Democratic primary against a wishy-washy, business-as-usual insider opponent.
The action of the film takes place within a couple of tense weeks as Stephen and his direct supervisor, campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) struggle to get the endorsement of a prominent senator (Jeffrey Wright) and lock up the nomination. But dirty tricks from within the party, set into motion by rival politico Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), with a little assistance from a persistent New York Times reporter (Marisa Tomei) threaten to undo all their hard work. When a scandal involving a sexy intern (Evan Rachel Wood) threatens to blow up at the most inopportune time, Stephen steps in to run interference but unwittingly puts himself in over his head.
But The Ides of March isn't a conspiracy thriller, it's a political coming-of-age movie. Stephen is young, but he's no starry-eyed kid. He's a schemer and a manipulator himself who thinks he has a handle on the game and an armor of cynicism. What Clooney and cowriter Grant Heslov, working off Beau Willimon's play Farragut North, reveal is the depths to which the candidates and their employees will sink, ugliness that even the most jaded of us fear but don't truly understand. That they use a few hoary tropes-- sexy interns? really?-- and opt for more lurid conflict than the more droll but devastating money-driven impediments to the process is a bit of a dramatic cheat, but the underlying themes remain the same.
Clooney may not be a great director, but he's a pretty damn good one. There are a couple of genuinely inspired scenes that are perfectly realized, namely one in which Stephen makes a phone call to Morris from the back of a room during a press conference, and he gives the dialogue-heavy drama the momentum of an action flick. It doesn't hurt his cause that he has one of the best casts of the year, with the exceptional Gosling backed up by some phenomenal supporting players, especially the rival showdown between Giamatti and Hoffman. And although his character has relatively little screen time, Clooney brings a gravitas to Morris that makes him an absolutely plausible political firebrand.
In the play on which the movie is based, the candidate never actually makes an appearance but is the invisible fulcrum around which the action turns. Clooney and Heslov were wise to change that in the film adaptation, not just because it gives George some face time-- the Clooney and Gosling onscreen pairing has almost certainly inspired more than a few detachable showerheads to be removed from their mounts-- but also because the scope of the movie demands it. Moreover, though, it gives Clooney the opportunity to be more pointed in his critique. If Farragut North is about broader disenchantment with the political process, The Ides of March is concerned with a more specific disillusionment, one rather bluntly espoused as Clooney's empty candidate says all the right things while supporters wave stylized signs of his face emblazoned with the word “believe.”
Clooney's statement: “Et tu, Barack?”
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter @bmillercomedy.