Shepard Fairey’s iconic artwork has never seemed so depressing. George Clooney is a Democrat forcing a bitter pill down the throats of his own political party with The Ides Of March, the third terrific movie he’s directed. The ideals of hope and change are gunned down viciously with a script that doesn’t operate under the false pretenses of delivering anything new– it merely serves as a witty, melodramatic, well-shot, and ultimately devastating reminder of the inherent failures of our political system.
Stephen (Ryan Gosling) finally has something to believe in. He’s the junior campaign manager for potential Democratic Presidential nominee Mike Morris (George Clooney), and the plan is simple: win Ohio, win the Democratic nomination, win the White House. Stephen is the golden boy of the campaign, far more charming and idealistic than senior campaign manager Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman). He’s so desired that the rival nominee’s campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) approaches him about getting him to switch teams. In the meantime, Stephen also starts a sexual relationship with an intern for Morris’ campaign, the daughter of the DNC Chairman, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), who may not be the stress-free hookup Stephen hoped she’d be.
This movie’s high level of quality shouldn’t come as a surprise in the slightest. The cast, which includes all of the above actors plus Jeffrey Wright, Marisa Tomei, Jennifer Ehle, and Greg Itzin, boasts thirteen Academy Award nominations, three Academy Award wins, six Tony Award nominations, and three Tony wins– I struggle to think of a cast this year that is more stacked with pedigree, and they’re all at the top of their game here. The play itself attracted critical acclaim and hot young actors during its run in New York, and the transition to screen is smooth, as the dialogue is witty and sharp. Many of the most exciting scenes in the film are just characters sitting around and talking: how many movies can say that?
With the exception of the yeoman screwball comedy Leatherheads, Clooney has done great work as a director with Good Night and Good Luck, the grossly underrated Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, and now The Ides of March. Clooney doesn’t have a particular visual style or draw attention to his direction like some “auteurs”– he simply takes strong actors, makes sure his shots are exquisitely framed, and lets his material be the star. His films feel like they’re from an older era: star-driven, dialogue-based stories, where action and effects aren’t necessary. The material he usually tackles in his films is relevant, political, and personal, Ides being no exception– he’s a mainstream name making indie style films in the studio system.
Due to the title of the film, you enter the film expecting a betrayal, but the nature of the betrayal and how hard it hits every character still caught me offguard. Stephen is told early on that if he wants to stay in politics, he will have to lose his naive ideals and get down in the mud with everyone else. He initially refuses to concede, believing that his current candidate will make a difference in the world, but Clooney doesn’t want the viewer to leave the theater full of faith in the political system. He builds Morris up to be an Obama type, running on a campaign of hope and idealist liberal points-of-view, so that as Stephen gets disenchanted, the viewers hopefully lower their expectations about future campaigns run on “change.”
Many Obama supporters felt his election would make a serious difference. Three years later, with very few changes and huge corporate sponsorship to his re-election campaign, scores of liberals feel let down by what they believe is a sell-out to his grass roots origins and his populist appeal. They thought he was different than what he was: a politician. Personality and charm are nice, but The Ides of March reminds anyone who placed Obama on the ivory tower not to be swayed into thinking your favorite candidate has clean hands and pure heart. In order to get into the White House and try to implement as many of their desired policies as possible, any politician will do what they have to do, and any adjacent politician, campaign worker, or lobbyist will do what they have to do to suck at the power teat. No one is immune to catching a sudden case of idealism. The Ides of March, through its melodrama, witty repartee, and suspense, provides a bitter vaccination of reality.