'Ides Of March': These Days, All Politics Is Lowball

Oct 6, 2011
Originally published on October 10, 2011 8:02 am

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.

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DAVID BIANCULLI, host: Given his political activism, George Clooney often has been asked if he wants to run for office. So far he's declined. But he plays a Democratic governor running for president in his new film, "The Ides of March," which he also co-wrote and directed. However, it's a supporting part. The film's real star is Ryan Gosling, as Clooney's press secretary.

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: Before it turns predictably cynical, George Clooney's political drama "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 lines 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 Governor Mike Morris, played by Clooney, who's in a tight race for the Democratic presidential nomination. Gosling could be styling himself on Clooney here; he's a supreme flirt, alarmingly magnetic, and if he doesn't have Clooney's easy swagger, he's working on it. In the same way, Stephen is styling himself after the governor, whom he reveres - for good reason. Morris is a dream progressive, professing that his religion is 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.

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 presidential campaign. That title tells you a lot. "Farragut North" is the stop on the Washington Metro line for K Street, where ex-campaign operatives go to become high-paid lobbyists and consultants - 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, offstage in the play, a character, and by adding a tragic twist. The play keeps the issues abstract in the vein of David Mamet, but on screen, Stephen counsels Governor Morris on specifics policies.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE IDES OF MARCH")

GEORGE CLOONEY: (as Governor Mike Morris) So we're going to help him get an education. We're going to create a national unity. We're going to teach young people a trade and we're going to get them out of debt for their college loans. Now where does that fail?

RYAN GOSLING: (as Stephen Meyers) Oh, that's exactly right, Governor. It's just that if you're going to do it, do it. Make it mandatory, not voluntary.

CLOONEY: (as Governor Mike Morris) That'll poll well.

GOSLING: (as Stephen Meyers) Mandatory. Everybody who turns 18 or graduates high school gives two years of service to his or her country. And for that, your college education is paid for - period.

CLOONEY: (as Governor Mike Morris) Paul likes this?

GOSLING: (as Stephen Meyers) Mm-hmm. The beauty of it is that everybody who is over the age of 18 are past the age of eligibility will be for it.

CLOONEY: (as Governor Mike Morris) Why not? And all the others...

GOSLING: (as Stephen Meyers) Can't vote. Too young.

EDELSTEIN: That's a weird scene for a couple of reasons. The first is, do you know anyone who thinks mandatory service would fly in this antigovernment climate, with either party? The second is that the idea never comes up again, so we don't know how it flies.

At the center of "The Ides of March" is a tug-of-war for Stephen's loyalties - between the governor's campaign manager Paul Zara, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, a driving paranoiac; and rival campaign manager Tom Duffy, played by 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, somewhat portly, A-list character actors in their mid-40s - incinerate each other with stares and compete for the loyalty of the male ingénue. And it's even more fun to watch a blond intern, Molly, played by Evan Rachel Wood, undress Stephen with her eyes while talking politics. When the movie focuses on the seduction of politics - and the politics of seduction - it makes braininess sexy.

But "The Ides of March" is dimmed by its larger agenda, to demonstrate the futility of ideals in American politics. When Stephen decides to throw away those ideals and become as bad or worse than others, Gosling turns his face into a blank 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 he doesn't have anything to play. The climax is less tragic than irritating.

Given the nihilistic political machinations of the last several years, 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 third-rate melodrama and incredibly shrinking characters. It would mean buying into a reductive, universe in which all compromise equals corruption. Politics at present might well be the pits, but the glibness of this movie is almost as disillusioning.

BIANCULLI: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: You can join us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair. And you can download podcasts of our show at, freshair.npr.org. For Terry Gross I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.