I was perplexed by George Clooney’s fourth directorial outing. Certainly not because he decided to tell a downer of a story about the dark side of American politics; rather, because he never gets around to telling us anything we don’t already know.
This is a movie anyone who’s spent the past two decades in a cave might find enlightening. Those of us who read the papers, follow the news and are otherwise conscious of our surroundings, however, are likely to be left questioning the need for, and point of, a project as unrevelatory as The Ides of March.
Spoiler alert: Big-time politics is a mean and dirty business. Operating on the assumption that we’re not aware of this already, the writing team (Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon) actually has one character inform another early on, “This is the big leagues. It’s mean.”
Clooney plays Pennsylvania governor Mike Morris, a suave über-liberal and the front runner heading into the March Democratic primary in Ohio. All he needs to lock up the nomination is to hold on to his lead and secure the endorsement of a North Carolina senator (Jeffrey Wright) who’s no longer in the race but has 350 delegates he’s happy to sell to the highest bidder.
The behind-the-scenes machinations and deal making inseparable from a modern-day presidential contest initially appear to be the picture’s subject. The potential for all kinds of double-dealing fun is there: To start with, you’ve got Ryan Gosling as idealistic press secretary Stephen Myers, who thinks his boss is the second coming. Marisa Tomei plays a skulking New York Times reporter who warns him, “He will let you down. They all let you down sooner or later.”
Most promisingly, the film features Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti as Paul Zara and Tom Duffy, the rival campaign managers of Morris and his faceless opponent, respectively. They’re supposed to be rumpled war-room vets who know every dirty trick in the book and relish nothing more than cooking up new ones. By acting standards, this is nothing short of a heavyweight bout. Too bad the screenplay comes off like the work of featherweights. The plotting is unexpectedly pedestrian and the dialogue, to be kind, uninspired.
As becomes clear, what The Ides of March is really about isn’t the cutthroat nature of presidential politics at all, but something far less interesting and all too familiar: a powerful man who can’t keep it in his pants. The movie teases the viewer with intimations it’s going to comment on the whole landscape of the modern electoral process — from the back-room crafting of image and message to the role played by the 24/7 cable-news cycle. Just when it seems to be about to get around to all that, though, the story detours into stunningly mundane melodrama. I don’t want to say too much, so I’ll say just one word: intern.
Don’t blame Willimon, on whose play Farragut North this film is loosely based. Whatever insider credibility it has is a result of the years he spent in his twenties as an operative for Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Bill Bradley, Howard Dean and others. Blame Clooney and frequent collaborator Heslov. They made the decision to reshape the source material, changing plot points and adding characters until the original play became all but unrecognizable.
Honestly, they would’ve been better off just updating The Candidate. In the end, The Ides of March offers everything that beltway exposé did nearly 40 years ago, and less. George is the man, and his rep surely will not suffer much from this misstep. But, for the moment, one of the very few things in his movie that ring true are the words of Tomei’s jaded journalist. I do indeed feel let down.