The last few years have been such a great year for George Clooney the actor, from Up in the Air to The Descendants, it is easy to forget that Clooney the director is also a force to be reckoned with. Following the success of Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Good Night, and Good Luck, Clooney the director failed the attempt at a trifecta with a lukewarm reception to his period dramedy Leatherheads. With The Ides of March, Clooney the actor and the director are back on familiar turf with a political drama that draws upon the strengths of his earlier works.
Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) is an idealistic Junior Campaign Manager for Pennsylvania’s Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), a Democratic Presidential candidate running against an Arkansas senator. Both men seek the endorsement of Senator Franklin Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), who ultimately holds the balance of power within the Democratic convention delegates. When Meyers is made an offer from the the opposing camp’s Campaign Manager (Paul Giamatti), he is put in a compromised position with his own boss, Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Things intensify when Stephen begins a sexual relationship with intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), and New York Times reporter Ida (Marisa Tomei) threatens to uncover hidden truths.
The Ides of March doesn’t break any new ground, dancing through the same fields as Primary Colors and virtually every episode of The West Wing before it. There are no revelations here: politics, even for the liberal Democrats, is a dirty game. Like the thinly-veiled Bill Clinton figure of Primary Colors, Governor Mike Morris is not a saint despite his high public ideals, and the idealistic supporters will ultimate become disillusioned. So the focus necessarily shifts to it being a character piece, one where the overall events are less important than the individual relationships. Paradoxically, those same relationships could be seen as microcosms of broader America, which might explain why many of the plot points are replete with cliché. There’s even a sex scandal with an intern. Sound familiar?
The film’s focus on the loss of innocence, or more precisely the realisation that there never really was any innocence to begin with, makes The Ides of March fundamentally Gosling’s movie, and he plays Meyers with the same intensity that we have seen in Blue Valentine and Drive, coupled with the brashness displayed in Crazy, Stupid, Love. It is Gosling’s performance that makes the story compelling, and not any of the familiar plot points. Giamatti and Hoffman give their respective roles their all, but are almost wasted in scarcely written pieces that betray the stage origins of the Beau Willimon play that it is based on. Clooney remains the golden figurehead that is almost too good to be true, and even after certain revelations come to light, remains fairly untarnished.
Perhaps this is the point, but it is also where The Ides of March ultimately falls down. Grand gestures are made, and there is certainly the sense that something important is trying to be said, but we never learn anything that we couldn’t have pieced together without the film. The fairly slender film could have undoubtedly used some extra character development, and taken its time to get to where it needed to be. There is a solid piece of potential commentary at the heart of this film, one that may only be possible under the Democratic government that is currently in power in the US. With another election due in 2012, and the same sense of disillusionment in liberal ideals mirrored in popular culture, this could be the most prophetic message of all: we’d all follow you to the ends of the Earth, if only we knew what you were trying to say.
Ides of March was released in Australia on 24 November 2011 from Australia.