The star's latest directorial outing loses itself in a political fantasyland
It takes a certain degree of nerve to title a film The Ides of March—not merely because it invites Shakespearian comparisons but, more particularly, because the word that most commonly precedes the calendric phrase in the English-speaking world is "beware."
George Clooney has nonetheless taken this gamble in his latest directorial outing, a political fable adapted from the Beau Willimon play Farragut North (itself named, more modestly, after a downtown Washington, DC Metro station). The story concerns political wunderkind Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), the number-two operative on the campaign of Democratic presidential frontrunner Mike Morris (Clooney). A prematurely grizzled vet at 30, Stephen has nonetheless "drunk the Kool-Aid" and believes that Morris is the only one in the race who can "make a difference." Stephen's ideological fervor finds its counterbalance in the amiable cynicism of the campaign's still-more-grizzled number one, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The Ohio primary is fast approaching, the endorsement of a pivotal Senator (Jeffrey Wright) is up in the air, and Morris's lead over a more moderate Democrat from Arkansas (ouch!) hangs in the balance: the stakes, in short, Couldn't Be Higher.
The movie dutifully rolls out the typical signifiers of political insiderdom: "I can neither confirm nor deny"; "I don't give a shit about the polling"; "as goes Ohio, so goes the nation." Yet despite such stabs at knowingness, The Ides of March is so naïve that it's almost touching. The film envisions the dynamic among rival campaigns, between campaigns and the press, and even within a single campaign, to be a series of escalating extortions, of personal betrayals and counter-betrayals in infinite regression. Had the movie been played for satire, it might have been a wicked American cousin to Armando Iannucci's In the Loop.
Alas, The Ides of March wears its ever-bleeding heart on its sleeve. As frontrunner Morris, Clooney is to Barack Obama as Martin Sheen was to Bill Clinton, an uncompromising embodiment of the liberal id. He waves his irreligiosity like a banner, vows that with a greener energy policy, "you don't have to bomb anyone, you don't have to invade anyone," and publicly derides the gay-marriage debate as a "silly argument." (He even gives the right answer—with the benefit of 23 years' hindsight—to the historic Michael Dukakis death-penalty gotcha.) A war hero turned antiwar, Morris is Wesley Clarke crossed with Dennis Kucinich crossed with Robert Redford in The Candidate. It's little wonder that from the film's vantage point on the ideological rim, moderate Democrats are Machiavellian devils, and Republicans—I may be mistaken, but I don't believe a single one appears onscreen throughout the entire course of the film—are an inconceivable evil looming on a distant horizon, like the White Walkers in Game of Thrones.
The shortcomings of The Ides of March are not, however, limited to its one-dimensional politics. In keeping with its high-minded tenor, the film unrolls nearly every scene a beat too slowly. This is a movie about the hurly-burly of modern campaigns in which every character's lines are precise, deliberate, rehearsed. There are no interjections or interruptions, no half-thoughts or thoughts quickly amended. Most absurd, regardless of where a scene is set—a trendy bar, a crowded campaign office—there's virtually no background noise, nothing that might interfere with the morally fraught declarations that cast members trade at every opportunity. Even the occasional stabs at humor—some of them not at all bad—are followed by polite pauses, evidently so that audiences can compose themselves without missing anything. To put it another way: Fans of director David Fincher's recent oeuvre (in particular Zodiac and The Social Network ) will be familiar with his gift for conversational velocity, the way he can imbue otherwise mundane dialogue with car-chase-like momentum. Envision the complete absence of this quality and you'll have a fairly accurate sense of the minute-to-minute experience of The Ides of March.
The less said of the plot, I suspect, the better, except to note that it consistently substitutes cliché for character and contrived melodrama for any sort of narrative logic. Ethical dilemmas large and small are piled atop one another with all the care and craftsmanship of a tower of mud-pies. When a senior (and doubtless extremely well-compensated) campaign official needs to raise $900 to pay for an abortion, the only recourse he can imagine is to steal the money from the campaign's petty-cash fund; when one operative at last succeeds in poaching away his opposition's most talented underling, he abruptly and unpersuasively decides that he doesn't want him anymore after all. And on and on, through a series of overwrought zigs and zags that only intermittently make any inherent sense.
Moreover, as resolutely as the film avoids shades of gray, it has no qualms about allowing its dramatis personae to shift back and forth between black and white. One scene's cynics are the next's loyalists; today's truest believers, tomorrow's nastiest backstabbers. In one particularly jarring (though otherwise characteristic) inversion, the single most jaded character of the movie's first 20 minutes becomes, in a flash, its weepiest innocent.
There are a few things that can be said on behalf of The Ides of March. The cast—which also includes Paul Giamatti, Marisa Tomei, and Evan Rachel Wood—is top notch, and the performers generally make the most of the little that the script (adapted from Willimon's play by Clooney and his usual writing partner Grant Heslov) affords them. Clooney, too, deserves some credit for again, in his fourth directorial effort, stepping aside to offer a less renowned actor the central role.
For viewers not averse to the movie's ideological piety, and willing to accept its silly, soap-operatic twists in a spirit other than that in which they are offered, The Ides of March may provide a moderately amusing diversion. For all others: be wary.