The title of “The Ides of March,” the new political thriller from writer/director/co-star George Clooney (“The American”), comes from the story of Julius Caesar, the Roman tyrant who was assassinated by his own Senate on March 15 in the year 44 B.C. In William Shakespeare’s play, Caesar’s adviser Brutus decides to participate in the murder plot after becoming disillusioned with the emperor’s corruption and decadence.
The only thing that gets assassinated in this film are ethics and morality. “The Ides of March,” based on the play “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon, is a briskly-paced, extremely well-acted film that is hampered by some flaws in its storytelling. The film is a very cynical, unflattering view of American politics, exposing it as the dirty game it is and how every person connected to it gets pulled into an amoral vortex.
The story follows Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling, “Drive”) the junior campaign manager for the presidential campaign of Mike Morris (Clooney), the charismatic, popular democratic governor of Pennsylvania. Morris holds a six-point lead over his opponent going into the Democratic primary in Ohio. Meyers is confident and idealistic; he is positive that Morris’ message of change and renewed prosperity will lead to the White House. His character is in sharp contrast to Morris’ senior campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman, “Moneyball”) and their opponent’s manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti, “Win Win”) who are more cynical and recognize politics as the dirty chess match it is. Duffy approaches Meyers about jumping ship and joining the other campaign but he declines. Meyers then gets involved with campaign intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood, “The Wrestler”), who has a secret that could destroy Morris’ campaign and leads Meyers down a road to moral bankruptcy and disillusionment.
It would be unfair to give away more of the plot, because one of the strengths of the film is how propulsive it is. Political films can sometimes get buried under the minutia of the political system, but “Ides of March” is fairly accessible to people who are not political insiders. It tells a simple story of how lying and deceit can destroy lives that just happens to have the backdrop of a presidential campaign. Its quick pace displays how confident Clooney, in his fourth directorial effort, has become as a filmmaker.
But the film’s flaws also lie in its storytelling. The secret Molly reveals to Stephen, and her reasons for keeping the secret, which sets in motion the entire second-half of the film, is somewhat ridiculous, as her personality changes whenever the plot needs it to. The way the film depicts campaign politics, though sometimes incredibly realistic, occasionally becomes surprisingly glib and simplistic. Both Morris and his opponent Senator Pullman (who the film never shows) devote their campaign strategies to securing the endorsement of Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright, “Source Code”), which is not entirely true-to-life. The film could have spent more time exploring what it takes to win a presidential nomination.
But the greatest strength of “The Ides of March” is the performances. Clooney is excellent in a very tricky role, slowly unveiling layers of deceit and malice underneath his trademark charisma. Hoffman and Giamatti are also very good as world-weary poltical players who have left their moral scruples behind long ago. Wood does good work despite the problems with how her character is written, and Marisa Tomei (“The Wrestler”) is also memorable as a New York Times reporter who will do just about anything for a story.
Despite all of these great supporting performances, Gosling continues his astonishing streak of superb performances and completely carries this film. Stephen’s journey from an idealistic young hot-shot to a Machiavellian oppurtunist who will do anything to get what he wants is close to devastating. His final confrontation with Clooney more than demonstrates that transformation as he leaves the ideals he once had far behind.
Even though it does not come close to being a great, definitive film about American politics, “The Ides of March” is still solid, entertaining film that reflects our current poltical climate to create something memorable: a “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” from Hell.