(No longer in theaters)
Grant Heslov, George Clooney, Brian Oliver
Oct 7, 2011
Late at night in his villa on Lake Como, after his latest model girlfriend has nodded off, George Clooney must stare into the darkness and ask himself: “Given how brainy and charismatic I am, shouldn’t I finally run for political office? Or should I continue to try to change the world with my activism and politically progressive movies?” Clooney is likely dramatizing his ambivalence in The Ides of March, which he directed and co-wrote and in which he appears (in a supporting role) as a Democrat in a tight race for the presidential nomination. His Governor Mike Morris is disarmingly fluid at enunciating (in both a debate and a scene with Charlie Rose) many of the worldly, historically engaged, nuanced ideas I’d love to hear from an actual candidate. He professes faith in the Constitution, not religious dogma. He even nails the question that has haunted Democrats since Dukakis wussed out on it in 1988: Sure, Charlie, I’d personally want to bash in the skull of someone who murdered my wife, but a government must be above vengeance, etc. Ruggedly handsome, toasty-voiced, quick on the draw, Clooney’s Morris is a dream Democrat, compelling enough to awaken the idealism of his youngish but seasoned press secretary, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling). But the title clues you in to the movie’s doomsday agenda: to demonstrate the futility of ideals in American politics. Even if you share the view that politics at present is the pits, it’s a stupid, tiresome trajectory.
The first half plays like gangbusters, though, because the banter is fast and the cast in clover. (Actors love to come on all hyperarticulate.) Gosling makes Stephen a supreme flirt, almost alarmingly magnetic. He charms a pushy New York Times reporter (Marisa Tomei) in spite of herself, and he seems to awaken some mentor instinct in Morris campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a driving paranoiac who lives outside the realm of empathy. When Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the chief rival’s campaign manager, tries to hire Stephen away, you believe his admiration for the young man’s easy authority. (Giamatti’s plummy voice is especially seductive when he defends his dirty tactics: “We’re going to get down in the mud with the fucking elephants.”) It’s fun to watch Hoffman and Giamatti—two brilliant, pudgy A-list character actors in their mid-forties—incinerate each other with stares and compete for the loyalty of a male ingénue. Stephen’s dance card would be full even without a luscious blonde intern, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), undressing him with her eyes. The movie is about the seduction of politics—and the politics of seduction. It makes braininess sexy.
But The Ides of March is weighed down by its source, Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North, a Mamet Lite talkfest (first performed by the Atlantic Theater Company, which Mamet co-founded) in which four male political operatives and a female reporter attempt to outmaneuver one another on the way to a cynical climax. (Farragut North is the Washington Metro stop for K Street, where ex–campaign operatives go to become lobbyists and consultants.) Clooney and Grant Heslov (who together co‑wrote Good Night, and Good Luck) have raised the ante by making the candidate a character—Morris was offstage in the play—and adding a wrenching twist. In one sense, they’ve deepened the material: Willimon, like Mamet, is too hip for specifics, while Stephen and the governor have issues about which they’re passionate. But I don’t think Clooney and Heslov’s earnest sensibility jibes with Willimon’s shallow gamesmanship, and the sourness of the last act is more irritating than tragic. Even Gosling deflates. He 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 last several years—shocking to 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 incredible shrinking characters. It would mean buying into a reductive, hermetically sealed universe in which the only real choice is getting down in the mud with the fucking elephants.