Film Review: The Ides of March

Political operative evolves from betrayed to betrayer during a Presidential campaign in a slow-paced thriller.

Like a good politician, The Ides of March promises more than it delivers. A moody political thriller bursting with good intentions, the film veers uneasily between accomplished and trite. Canny packaging and a strong leading cast may help compensate a bit for inevitable bad word-of-mouth.

Based on the play Farragut North, the film focuses on press secretary Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), a true believer in Presidential candidate Mike Morris (George Clooney). As Morris, an ideal liberal who is confident and articulate, works his way through the Midwest, Stephen is approached by Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), campaign manager for a rival candidate. Their ostensibly secret meeting sets into play twists and reversals that involve Morris, his campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and observers like New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei).

A second subplot pairs Steve with Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), an underpaid and possibly underage intern whose political connections will endanger the entire campaign. Lurking in the background: Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), who plays each candidate against the other for a future stake in the White House.

Director George Clooney, also a producer and screenwriter on the project, pulls nuanced performances from his lead actors, in particular Hoffman and Giamatti. The two could probably do these parts in their sleep, but still seem to relish their scenes. Clooney’s acting is top-notch as well, giving viewers glimpses of just how good he would be as an actual candidate. His Morris mouths liberal positions that the left wants to hear even while the plot undermines them. It’s a risky step that pays off with better-than-expected results initially.
But some directorial choices make sense more in the abstract than in execution. Clooney tends to stage crucial moments in extreme close-up, as if worried that viewers might not be paying enough attention. When the plot takes a turn toward film noir, he responds with overdone Godfather lighting, or seems to lift lines from the vastly superior Michael Clayton. He also spins out unnecessary montages that add little to the story.

A more central failing is the film’s insistence that its moral stance is something new. Politics, it turns out, is dirty business. Interns can be abused. Candidates are humans and not gods. Loyalty means more to some than to others. Surprised? Only if you’ve slept through the last Presidential campaign, in which case you would probably ignore The Ides of March anyway.

Which is a shame, because The Ides of March isn’t a pain to watch, like Robert Redford’s last few films. But Clooney is more talented than this material, just like his actors are smarter than the characters they are playing.