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The Ides of March

October 9, 2011
The Ides of March

As the 2012 presidential campaign season ramps up, so do the political themes. If you’re the sort who’s already sick of politics — or still sick from the 2008 cycle — this is probably not the film for you. But if you go to see The Ides of March you’re in for a taut, cerebral political thriller. It’s often said that legislation is like sausage, in that no matter how pleasant the outcome one doesn’t usually want to know how either is made; this film is here to say that the same goes for political campaigns.

And so we focus in on the 2012 Democratic primary campaign of sitting Pennsylvania governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), led by Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and assisted — at least in Ohio — by media-management wunderkind Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling). Super Tuesday has winnowed the field down to Morris and Arkansas Senator Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell) Arkansas Senator Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell), whose campaign is led by Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). But these two are running pretty close, and the upcoming Ohio primary will decide a big chunk of the pledged delegates, possibly enough to swing the race.

Stephen has worked on many campaigns before, and he knows how to fight dirty. But this time he believes he doesn’t need to, since Morris is a liberal campaigner’s dream come true. It does stir this progressive’s heart to hear some of his stump speeches, which seem to have been lifted from pre-scream Howard Dean, punched up and brought current by Clooney. But things start to go awry — slowly at first, but accelerating like a landslide, pulling the solid earth out from under Stephen’s feet. Duffy reaches out to poach him; a washed-out candidate (Jeffrey Wright) plays political footsie with both campaigns; an attractive intern (Evan Rachel Wood) starts to become a distraction; a conniving campaign reporter (Marisa Tomei) pries for access at every turn. Stephen’s ideals — his whole life and career in politics — are on a collision course with the messy realities on the ground.

Clooney not only stars, he directed and contributed to the screenplay, along with Beau Willimon, who wrote the original play Farragut North. The last time he pulled all three roles was in Good Night, and Good Luck, and The Ides of March is an excellent continuation of his investigation of the interaction between power and principle.

As an actor, Clooney slots in perfectly as Morris; the sort of strong, charismatic, progressive leader that Clooney himself seems to have been wishing for lately. Hoffman and Giamatti are both excellent as campaign managers, both driven and jaded to different extents. Wood seems to be growing into a serious actress, but as soon as her character moves away from coquettishness she falters into melodrama. Still, Tomei — excuse me, “Oscar Winner Marisa Tomei” — is right here to remind us that it’s more than possible to improve over time.

But Gosling is the core of this film, and he’s a joy to watch. He completely disappears into Stephen’s character, as usual, and we can watch the struggle play out across his face even before he says a single word. With his lead, a wonderful supporting cast, a tight, captivating script, and Clooney’s direction, The Ides of March easily carves out a place for itself among the best political films.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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