If a film about the seedy underbelly of the American political process wants to be taken seriously, it really needs to make the details plausible. “The Ides of March”—a title that blends the memory of Julius Caesar’s assassination with the date of a Ohio primary that will supposedly decide the Democratic presidential nomination—fails that test, most notably in having as one of its kingmakers an African-American Democratic senator from—get this!—North Carolina. Anyone even vaguely familiar with reality will know that state would never elect either a black man or a Democrat as senator, let alone a man who was both.
Setting that aside, however, George Clooney’s film, while interesting enough and boasting a strong cast and some witty dialogue, isn’t nearly as clever as it thinks it is. Based on co-screenwriter Beau Willimon’s play “Farragut North,” it’s essentially an updating of Gore Vidal’s “The Best Man.” Instead of portraying the struggle for a party’s nomination as a battle between a principled man and a crude politico (with the latter painted in McCarthy-ite tones), however, it opts for a generalized cynicism that paints the entire process as corrupt and all the players in it, except the youngest and most naïve among them, as ambitious, conniving and shallow. It’s a view that many members of the audience will share, even if they loved “The West Wing.” But over the long haul it sheds less light than heat.
Though Clooney, who directed and well as having a hand in the adaptation, stars as one of the rival candidates, super-articulate Pennsylvania governor Mike Morris (whose combination of rah-rah pabulum and ultra-liberal views could never have gotten him elected to his current post, let alone make him a serious national hopeful), the real focus is on Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), his press secretary and second-in-command of the campaign to grizzled veteran director Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman). Meyers is an astute, attractive up-and-comer devoted to Morris, so canny an operative that Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the campaign manager for Morris’ rival (an obviously more conservative type we glimpse only in passing), tries to entice him to defect and join their team. Simultaneously Stephen hops into bed with Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), a young, seductive campaign staffer who also happens to be the daughter of the DNC chairman.
The third politician in the mix is Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), the aforementioned North Carolinian who has somehow amassed a block of delegates both camps want and is willing to trade them for the post of Secretary of State. (Nomination, we’re told offhandedly, is virtual assurance of election because the Republicans are in unspecified “disarray.”) And buzzing around the action is New York Times reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), who’s intent on ferreting out the behind-the-scenes truth about the Thompson negotiations and isn’t reluctant to play hardball to get it.
It wouldn’t be fair to reveal the twists and turns of the plot; suffice it to say that they involve reversals and counter-reversals, particularly centering on the ambitious Meyers’ professional and romantic hopes; lots of back-stabbing and double-crossing; a dirty secret reminiscent of the Monica Lewinsky case; and even a death. The convolutions are kept clear, and there’s a certain grim satisfaction in watching them work themselves out, but unlike in Vidal’s film, “The Ides of March” offers no White Knight resolution, and ultimately it comes across as little more than a tabloidesque political melodrama obsessed with tittering over what it perceives as the sleazy machinations of party politics. In that respect it’s reminiscent of not just “The Best Man” but Michael Ritchie’s “The Candidate” with the last generation’s golden boy, Robert Redford.
But though it doesn’t say much of consequence, “The Ides of March” says it with professional skill. Phedon Papamichael’s widescreen cinematography is elegant, using darkness and shadow to good effect, and Alexandre Desplat’s moody score complements the serpentine action. And while Clooney’s direction is more workmanlike than brilliant, he uses much of the cast well. Hoffman and Giamatti, with their blustery, colorful parts, come off best, and Wright and Tomei play their smaller roles effectively. Clooney himself brings nuance to Morris, a man who has a dark side the actor conveys quite subtly.
Unfortunately, the younger leads are less successful. Gosling manages little of the off-kilter quality that he brings to his stronger roles; any solid actor of his age might have played Meyers equally well, and the performance ends up curiously bland—an adjective one would rarely apply to Gosling’s work. Wood is badly served by the script, which treats her as essentially a pawn in a man’s world, but at least brings touching vulnerability as well as a hint of abandon to the unhappy Molly.
The title may refer to the spring, but this is clearly an autumn film, released to coincide with pre-Oscar season. But though the studio might be angling for nominations, “The Ides of March” isn’t the equal of “Good Night, And Good Luck.” It doesn’t even have the zing of “The Best Man” or “The Candidate.” In the final analysis it’s too serious for its own good, treating the political-potboiler material as though it were deep and revelatory. But while not as much fun as it should be, at least it’s not a horrible CGI, 3D spectacular. One can be thankful for that.