Some films benefit from a repeat viewing, others suffer from it. When I first saw The Ides of March, during the festival in Toronto, my reservations were only modest. The second time, those reservations deepened considerably, and here's the reason:
The script invites us into the backrooms of contemporary politics to witness the chicanery, the hypocrisy and the dirty tricks behind the sloganeering façade. Initially, the quick dialogue and strong cast obscure, at least partly, the fact that the plot is itself a dirty trick, a bit of a con game. Once the deception is seen through, the movie ends up inadvertently mimicking its subject matter: Like politics, it too leaves you disillusioned.
The source is the Beau Willimon play, Farragut North, which director/co-writer/star George Clooney hopes to fashion as a loss-of-innocence tale in the mode of other back-room exposés like The Candidate and The Best Man.
Well, the problem is obvious: Who among us is innocent about politics these days? Certainly not the protagonist here – the press secretary of a leading Democratic candidate in a U.S. presidential primary. So, in the name of gritty credibility, he must be a shrewd and experienced campaigner; but, for the sake of fallen innocence, he must be a wide-eyed idealist. How to resolve these competing needs?
Answer: neither easily nor well. When we first meet Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), he's already a hotshot blithely spinning the poll numbers and cynically shaping the policy book and otherwise fine-tuning the image of his boss. By the time the guy has crawled into bed with a comely teenage intern, let's just say this is one innocent who doesn't have far to fall. And yet the whole emotional arc of the film depends upon it. That's con No. 1.
Meanwhile, as the Ohio primary heats up, Governor Morris the candidate (Clooney) is shown to be as classically liberal as the actor who plays him – pro-choice, anti-death penalty, loves diplomacy and all things green, hates oil and tax breaks for the rich. The guv is also solidly married to a smart wife and unwilling to buy the much-needed endorsement of a powerful senator (Jeffrey Wright). Seen only in glimpses, he's not the central figure here, and we never really get to know him. Consequently, we never get to understand his subsequent behaviour, which can't be divulged but lies at the thematic heart of the story. That's con No. 2.
Still, the dialogue is quite engaging, the hard-nosed patter as Stephen gets caught up in a battle of wits between Morris's campaign manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and the opposite number (Paul Giamatti) toiling for the rival candidate. En route, Gosling's performance is hampered by those untenable contradictions written into his character. Not so with Hoffman and Giamatti. Veteran campaign managers tend to be hired guns, and the two settle into their roles with trigger-happy relish, willing to fire any bullet at any target. These guys are to politics what lawyers are to clients – they're paid to advocate, not to believe, and it's fun to watch them work.
Yet it's a bit suspicious to see where director Clooney has them working – noirishly posed in dark hallways or gloomy bars, like figures out of a cloak-and-dagger tale. This is style for style's sake, and it's often at odds with the substance. Which brings us back to the aforementioned comely teenage intern. Only 19 but very precocious, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) is presented early on as wise beyond her years. Daughter of the Democratic National Chairman, she's savvy, sophisticated and coolly seductive, almost a femme fatale.
Later, though, the plot turns clumsily (and incredibly) on the same girl falling victim to not one but two of the hoariest clichés in the book of melodrama. Con No. 3.
Those clichés make a supposedly hip film about modern politics seem curiously old-fashioned. But not so old-fashioned that the Shakespearean echo in the title feels earned. The Bard turned Julius Caesar into a timeless study of scheming opportunism and spin-doctoring rhetoric. Clooney wants the same resonance but fails to deliver the depth. Instead, the movie's charms are superficial and its logic is spurious. Ain't it always the way: Beware The Ides of March.
The Ides of March
- Directed by George Clooney
- Written by George Clooney, Grant Heslov, Beau Willimon
- Starring Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, George Clooney
- Classification: 14A