Before it turns predictably cynical, George Clooney's campaign melodrama The Ides of March plays like gangbusters. The banter is fast, the cast in clover: Actors love to play hyperarticulate characters, people who actually know what they're talking about, and there are lots of good details here about How Things Work behind the scenes in a political campaign.
Ryan Gosling is Stephen Meyers, the youngish but already seasoned press secretary for Gov. Mike Morris, played by Clooney, who's in a tight race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Gosling could be Clooney Jr. here; he's a supreme flirt, almost alarmingly magnetic, and if he doesn't have Clooney's easy swagger, he's working on it, just as Stephen is styling himself after the governor, whom he reveres — for good reason. Clooney's Morris is a dream of a progressive candidate, professing his religion to be the United States Constitution, speaking eloquently against the death penalty and for a woman's right to choose. A jaded reporter played by Marisa Tomei warns Stephen that all politicians will break your heart, but Stephen charmingly shakes her off. Not this guy. He won't sell out.
Clooney and Grant Heslov, who together co-wrote Good Night, and Good Luck, based The Ides of March on a play called Farragut North by Beau Willimon, who worked on Howard Dean's 2004 campaign for president. That title tells you much of what you need to know. Farragut North is the stop on the Washington Metro system for K Street, where ex-campaign operatives go to become high-paid lobbyists and consultants, and where ideals go to die. The movie is set several days before the Ohio presidential primary, a virtual dead heat, and Clooney and Heslov have raised the ante by making the candidate, who was offstage in the play, a character, and by adding a tragic twist at the end. Unlike Willimon, an obvious David Mamet disciple who keeps the issues abstract, they allow Stephen to counsel Morris on specifics.
Some of those specifics, though, get swept away by Clooney's larger aim: to demonstrate the futility of ideals in American politics. At the center of the film is a tug of war for Stephen's loyalties between Morris campaign manager Paul Zara, a driving paranoiac played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), an unctuous cynic with much dirtier tactics who tries to hire the young man away. It's fun to watch Hoffman and Giamatti — two brilliant A-list character actors in their mid-40s — incinerate each other with stares and compete for the loyalty of the male ingenue. And it's even more fun to watch a blond intern, Molly, played by Evan Rachel Wood, undressing Stephen with her eyes while talking politics. The movie is about the seduction of politics—and the politics of seduction. It makes braininess sexy.
But the sourness of the last act is more irritating than tragic. Gosling stares ahead with moist, wounded eyes, shell-shocked by others' duplicity, then turns his face into a mask. I'd like to think he was resisting his final scenes, knowing on some level how phony they were and refusing to sell them. But it might just be that he has nothing to play.
Given the nihilistic political machinations of the past several years — which shock even lifelong cynics — it's tempting to praise The Ides of March as a realistic depiction of how low we've sunk. But that would mean accepting the second-rate writing and third-rate melodrama and incredibly shrinking characters. It would mean buying into a reductive, hermetically sealed universe in which all compromise equals corruption. Even if you share the view that politics at present is the pits, it's a stupid, tiresome trajectory.