Okay, here’s the thing. I liked The Ides of March. I liked Good Night and Good Luck, too, so George Clooney’s methodical directorial style doesn’t irk me. It’s just that it’s hard to have a lot of enthusiasm for his efforts after the fact. Like, I saw Ides and I liked Ides but I don’t care if I never see it again. I don’t care if you ever see it. It’s not mandatory viewing. It’s just…there.
Clooney makes procedurals. Procedurals are, at their heart, boring. This is why so many cop dramas feature a loose cannon and/or self-destructive detective. You need a wild and crazy guy to enliven the proceedings. Clooney, as a director, has a very clean and controlled style. He doesn’t get bogged down in emotions or overly-elaborate ruses to make the audience care about his characters. In fact, he directs as if he really doesn’t give a shit if you like anyone in the movie or not. He also doesn’t indulge in the stock loose cannon character. The closest we get in Ides is when Stephen (Ryan Gosling) loses his job and you’re not sure who he’s going to screw over first. But that’s just it—we all know Stephen is going to seek revenge and we know what the instrument of that revenge will be.
Ides revolved around a presidential primary campaign that has come down to the Ohio primary and two democratic presidents—Pullman (whom we barely see) and Governor Morris (Clooney). Morris’s campaign is headed by Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman, looking appropriately harried) and his head speechwriter and #2 man is Stephen. Stephen is idealistic—he can throw himself wholeheartedly into a campaign if he “believes in the cause”. Gosling does an excellent job showing Stephen’s early optimism and blind faith that everyone is actually doing what they’re saying. He’s warned from investing too much in a politician by a journalist (Marisa Tomei) whom he later falls out with when she burns him in a story and reminds him they aren’t really friends. They have a really cold and excellent moment at the end of the film when Stephen shuts her out of a campaign meeting, finally having learnt the lesson she was espousing.
Clooney is charming and rakish as Morris—he’s clearly modeled on Obama. I was worried about this movie getting preachy and while I’m sure if you were determined to feel talked-down-to you could, but overall I felt they avoided that particular pitfall by so clearly mining from Obama’s 2008 rhetoric as well as the stuff we’re hearing now (get off foreign oil, etc). Also working on the campaign is Molly (Evan Rachel Wood in a fine return to pre-Marilyn Manson form), a twenty-year-old intern. Molly is pretty and vivacious. Of course the governor fucked her.
Stephen is also involved with Molly and when he finds out about the affair—and that Molly is pregnant as a result—she goes from love interest to situation. Stephen’s ability to compartmentalize his emotional life is a bit frightening. Tangled up in all this is a supposedly off-the-books meeting Stephen took with the rival campaign’s manager, Tom (Paul Giamatti). Once Paul learns of the meeting, he fires Stephen which sets off the inevitable revenge plot. To that point, Stephen had been working on damage control, paying for and driving Molly to her abortion. But that’s the day he also learns he’s fired and so he never goes back to fetch Molly. When informed of Stephen’s ousting, Molly assumes the worst and kills herself to avoid being dragged into a scandal.
Of course, Stephen was going to sell her out in order to get back at Morris and Paul, but when he finds Molly dead, he instead snags her phone and uses it to blackmail his way back into the campaign and push Paul out. He outmaneuvers his mentor and it’s cold-blooded and merciless. Throughout the movie we see people making compromises—in order to secure the delegates needed to win the nomination, Morris must make a deal with a senator he cannot stand—but no one compromises more than Stephen. He doesn’t just sacrifice his idealism on the alter of politics, he sets fire to his naïve self and dances on the ashes. He goes in a young man with bright eyes, mussed-up hair and rolled-up sleeves. He emerges a steely-eyed Machiavelli in crisply tailored suits and a neat side-part.
The acting throughout Ides is very fine, though I doubt anyone will get any kind of serious attention from it. It’s too workmanlike, too, well, procedural. Clooney is an intriguing director but he could benefit from adding some his own zing into his projects (even the “comedy” Leatherheads was a bit flat). The sharpness of Ides, and it’s dead-eyed look at the cost of the political game, is down to the script, co-written by Clooney and Grant Heslov. In all, The Ides of March is watchable, but not a must-see.