Under the facade of idealism, some in politics are — gasp! — less than truthful, as we are earnestly told in The Ides of March, a great-looking but rather dopey political thriller from George Clooney.
He writes, directs and co-stars here — I still think you’re dreamy, George, but you need to own up to this one.
Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) is poised to win the Democratic presidential primary and the war of who has better campaign graphics. If you watched this movie with the sound off, you’d know right away that Morris is the forward-looking candidate of tomorrow, thanks to his lovely sans serif fonts and clean lines reminiscent of 2008-era Obama. His one remaining opponent in the primary, Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell), is clearly the candidate of the past, with his old-fashioned, Times New Roman-y posters. And on top of having a good sense of graphic design, Morris says sweeping, forward-looking, inspiring things (not things in anyway consistent with modern American politics but for the sake of this movie just accept that he is Obama + Kennedy X Jesus). He’s so firmly on the path of righteousness that even Morris’ media guy Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) can’t muster up cynicism about him. Morris is the Real Deal, Myers tells New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei). Myers doesn’t just want Morris to win; he believes Morris must win in order to save the country — or some embarrassing nonsense like that that no real campaign guy would ever be caught dead saying with a straight face.
Because Morris is so good and true and unsullied, Myers is willing to give all he’s got to the campaign in Ohio, which is where the primary could finally be decided, particularly if a third candidate — Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright) — can be convinced to give his support (and delegates) to one of the two remaining men. Senior campaign manger Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) believes he can make that happen. And, because he has apparently run all previous campaigns from under a rock inside a cave, Paul thinks it’s a fine idea to even tell Ida that he has the Thompson endorsement in the bag.
It is at this point in the chess match that two important things happen to Myers: (1) He starts up a flirty relationship (which leads to drinks and then Myers’ hotel room) with intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), who just happens to be the daughter of the Democratic National Chairman, Jack Stearns (Gregory Itzin), and (2) He gets a call from Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), campaign manager for Pullman. Duffy wants Myers to come and work for him and then lays out his plan for destroying Morris’ chances in Ohio, including using the Republican voters who can cross parties for the primary and buying Thompson’s support with a cabinet post. Myers is a dyed-in-the-wool Morris man, but it takes him just enough time to tell Morris and Zara that his meeting with Duffy plants seeds of doubt in Zara. The Molly problem momentarily seems not as bad. She is perfectly fine with their casual relationship and is probably of age. But then the two situations crash into each other and Myers finds himself facing a lot of choices fraught with moral and ethical compromises.
Moral and ethical compromises in politics? No!
That tone — the way the movie seems to think that we’ll be shocked by the sausage-making of political campaigns — is one of two major problems the movie has. Anybody who has read a newspaper at any point in the last, oh, 235 years will be familiar with the down-and-dirty nature of American politics. The movie seems to assume that we’re all a bunch of dewy-eyed true believers, that the whole audience is, basically, the crowd listening to Obama’s acceptance speech in Chicago back in 2008. But, whatever your political viewpoint, we aren’t any of us those people, not in the sober light of day. We get the whole moral-compromise-in-politics thing. Also, even the bad episodes of The West Wing were able to mix the fantasy of the “perfect” liberal candidate with the reality of campaigning and legislation. I think we can all, as an audience, handle that and start from there in the storytelling instead of pretending that we’re all just discovering some cold hard truths.
The movie’s other problem: the crisis. Forget the tone for a minute, the setup is fine. Ambitious campaign worker, a too-good candidate, a cute intern with political ties, a close election, older campaign managers with their own grudges and agendas — these make for perfectly good conditions to start a nice story that mixes suspense and drama and gallows humor. But the movie doesn’t do anything interesting with these components. At every twist in the story, it makes the least exciting choice — perhaps in the belief that the shock of uncovering human nature in the political process will be enough to carry the narrative. It isn’t, and so we’re left with a “crisis” that feels unrealistic. For us to believe Myers gets in the trouble he does is for us to believe that he’s kind of a nitwit and not the campaign superstar he’s painted as.
It’s also interesting where the movie chooses to fill in the details and where it leaves characters and situations as just a sketch. With Myers, we get to see an endless amount of anguish and doubt and earnestness play out over his handsome face. We are pushed to see what he sees, feel what he feels. Morris remains mostly a caricature of a politician — which is fine, you could easily make this movie without ever really having the candidate in the mix at all (Wag the Dog was all about a presidential scandal and the president himself was never seen). But then the movie will suddenly insert scenes where we’re made to watch Morris think through some ethical dilemma. It’s as though the movie needs us to like him too. But it doesn’t and that instinct gets in the way of the story. The more we see Morris, the more we learn about his very specific and very unrealistic (for a modern American presidential candidate) politics and the more disbelief we have to suspend even to accept his popularity, to say nothing of the goofy storytelling choices the movie makes.
But, hey, the performances are all pretty good. And everybody and everything looks fantastic — politics has never seemed so glamorous.
In the end, the worst thing about The Ides of March is how good it could have been. With a clearer, more streamlined story and a more realistic tone, solid performances from Gosling, Hoffman and Giamatti could have shined through and political junkies could have had a few hours of fun. C-
Directed by George Clooney with a screenplay by Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon (from a play by Beau Willimon), The Ides of March is an hour and 40 minutes long and distributed by Sony.