Ides of March: Politics as Usual

George Clooney's fourth feature film as a director (and co-writer and star) is a slick and entertaining, but ultimately unshocking, look at the underbelly of a progressive presidential campaign.

Ides of March, based on the 2008 Beau Willimon play Farragut North, has a terrific opening scene. We see the film's star Ryan Gosling in tight close-up, lit by an unseen spotlight, measuredly but passionately giving some sort of debate or stump speech. Is this a flash-forward, or a fantasy? We know going in that Gosling plays not a candidate but a hotshot campaign staffer for Clooney's presidential hopeful, so why then is he giving the big graduation speech? And then the camera pulls back and we realize that he is just doing a little tech rehearsal for an upcoming Democratic primary debate, we are catching a glimpse of the fascinatingly banal behind-the-scenes of all this thunder and rhetoric. It's a trick that's both jarring and welcoming, the magician pulling back the curtain ever so slightly and saying "Come take a look."

So I began the movie optimistically, hoping for the kind of truthy inside baseball experience that The West Wing always pretended to be and that Clooney and his expert staff (including Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti as rival campaign managers) could actually deliver. After all, Clooney was a producer on K Street, the almost too realistic look (I mean, James Carville and Mary Matalin were cast members) at the everyday horrors of lobbyism. Maybe now with a movie budget and a smart, professional cast, we'd get to learn something new, or at least feel like we were learning something new even if we really weren't, about this whole great horrible mess we call politics. And, y'know, be entertained too.

Well, the entertaining part they've got covered. The plot involves Gosling, a whiz at dealing with the press (including a troublemaking sexy-nosy New York Times reporter played with her usual purr by Marisa Tomei), trying to get his candidate, Clooney's staunchly idealistic Pennsylvania governor Mike Morris, through a tight Ohio Democratic primary. There is press to charm, there are angles to spin, futures to be divined from various tea leaves. Gosling's Stephen Myers is good, really good, but maybe too green, too naive — he genuinely believes in the governor's commitment to integrity above all else. For him the governor's ascension to the presidency is vital not just for his career, but to the future of the nation. He needs his guy to win in a desperate and, ultimately, dangerous way. Gosling plays this all with his usual tightly focused cocky intensity, with that slightly mannered but charming cadence that woos you nine times out of ten. The one time it kind of scares you, the time you catch a flash of something dark and menacing lurking a bit deeper. Gosling, had he had a real childhood rather than that of a hobo actor's, might have been that most terrifying of popular high school bullies. The kind that wins you over even while doing something cruel.

I'm not quite sure Stephen Myers gets all the way to cruel, exactly, but he comes pretty close. Yes, I'm afraid that things do not stay all stirring and strong for long in Ides of March, as that early bright light fades and we begin to wander into the realm of sordid political scandal. Or maybe it's not so sordid. Or maybe it is. I hope it's not giving anything away to say that the scandal, or at least potential scandal, that slowly becomes the focus of the film (the script and Clooney the director admirably take their time to get there, leading us down hallways only to take abrupt turns, until we've cycled back and are looking at an old situation from a different angle) is familiar enough to us blog-addled scandal junkies that it's not terribly shocking. Though, one of Ides of March's neat, subtle tricks is that we do eventually come to realize actually what a big fucking deal this (initially) small-seeming thing would be for a presidential campaign — both embarrassing and disastrous, the kind of thing that has ruined real-life campaigns in the past. I won't say whose, but one particular name comes to mind.

That particular ugliness, though, is not exactly where the play got its origins. The play is actually said to be based roughly on 2004's Howard Dean campaign, the one that ended with a startling scream. But I think what Clooney is really pointing us at, or at least where my mind went, was to that idealistic, progressive candidate beloved by the youngs who came to eventually disappoint a lot of people. Yeah, there are definite whiffs of Barack in this movie, not so much in the scandal aspect but certainly in the film's sentiment that too much political idealism in this modern, tattered world is a dangerous and foolish thing, one that leads to rash decisions and many a broken, soured heart. In that light, Gosling is the so many anonymous, non-billionaire Chris Hugheses of the nation, kids who threw themselves so fully into a campaign that they were maybe just serving to set themselves up for grand disappointment. The waking reality is never as good as the dream, but the dream is so alluring. Though the old guys, the Giamattis and the Hoffmans (both rumpled and excellent as always), wearily warn the kids against falling in love, there the kids go falling in love anyway, because maybe that's what kids do.

And this is where the film runs into its problems. None of this is exactly a new thought or dismaying revelation about the unpleasantness of the American political process. We know these things, have lived this tale of power, or even the potential for power, corrupting even the most outwardly saintly. It's the stuff of old drama given a modern, you-are-there spin, only in the end I fear that that unfortunate but ever-present Clooney Hollywoodness creeps in. I didn't really feel there, finally, because the real there is never as cool or as confident as this. This movie, about how politics are ugly, duh, needs to be a hell of a lot uglier to uncover any new truths that we, the Spitzer-savvy, Wonketted modern folk, haven't yet figured out. Its ultimate no duhh-ness keeps The Ides of March in the realm of ideological thriller rather than searing polemic against an easily corruptible political process. It reminded me a bit of The Siege, that ambitious movie about terrorism that aimed for something grand and profound and real, but ended up being simply an entertaining movie. Nothing wrong with being an entertaining movie, but these movies clearly strived and hoped for something else, something maybe impossible to achieve in these information-saturated times. Ides of March would be almost meta — commentary on disappointment as commentary on disappointment — if it didn't seem so misguidedly sure of itself. (I blame Clooney, as always, for that air of smugness.)

As the film plays out, Gosling's character burrows deeper into the muck (not unlike, in fact, his character in Drive — they both share a jolting turn from affably arrogant pro to something far more animal and menacing) and while it's new territory for his character, it's likely not for much of the audience. We know that, probably, this is the way he has to go, that's just how these campaigns work. Oh well. Another one bites the dust. And perhaps that's the most accidentally chilling thing about this movie. That something so confidently and smartly made seems so... tame and familiar. While Ides of March stabs at bracing political exposé, it really only fictionalizes what we're already all too aware of. And, as always, the fiction proves far less strange than the truth.