Following up on his excellent portrait of Edward R. Murrow, Good Night, and Good Luck, director Clooney gives his core characters plenty of space to chill the viewer’s marrow as they dance their elegant and deadly pavanne. Ryan Gosling stars as Stephen Meyers, the brilliant young press secretary seen as key to the success of the campaign of Pennsylvania governor Mike Morris, played with smooth aplomb by Clooney himself. Stephen is a True Believer until a competing campaign makes him an offer to defect. He turns it down, but with less than perfect timing – at which point everything in which he believes begins to unravel strand by strand.
What’s refreshing about this film is the way it proves that you don’t need scenes of literal bloodletting or fisticuffs to convey the conflict that is the stuff of drama. The men who function in the inner orbits of power in this movie commit staggering acts of violence and betrayal without raising a hand or breaking a sweat – indeed, without even raising their voices. Some might find the action a bit constricted, but it’s precisely the claustrophobic atmosphere and the depth of deception behind the squeaky-clean, patriotic staged backdrops of the campaign that make this story so unnerving.
There’s a lot of face-acting in The Ides of March: Shooting the climactic standoff between Stephen and Governor Morris must have sent both Gosling and Clooney off for a week of physiotherapy for TMJ Syndrome. I can’t recall the last time I saw so many tensely protruding jawbones, twitching eyelids or pulsing temples on the silver screen. Both are convincing as allies-turned-adversaries; but the real red meat in this production gets thrown to Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti as campaign managers Paul Zara, working for Morris, and Tom Duffy of the rival Pullman campaign, who tries to seduce young Stephen to the Dark Side.
Hoffman and Giamatti are riveting as the Brutus and Cassius to Clooney’s Caesar (although the decision to outfit the white-haired Hoffman in big black glasses that exaggerate his dark eyebrows had me distracted at first, trying to figure out what political statement was implied by making him look like Daniel Patrick Moynihan). Paul and Tom are both old hands at the game, and know what the pivotal prize of an endorsement from an Ohio senator – ably played by Jeffrey Wright, done up to resemble a more conservative Jesse Jackson – with a slate of delegates big enough to clinch the nomination is likely to cost. Paul spouts homilies about loyalty while cagily hiding his jealousy of the campaign’s rising star Stephen and waiting for his chance to cut him out of the loop of power. Tom dangles a tantalizing prize, snatches it back just when Stephen finds out that he needs it and then has the nerve to lecture the disillusioned young man to get out of politics before he ends up as jaded as himself. They are both wonderful to watch, although you might feel like you need a good long scrubdown in the shower afterwards.
The female cast members of The Ides of March don’t come off quite so well. As Ida, a New York Times reporter who is every bit as nasty and unscrupulous as the politicians whom she covers and cajoles, Marisa Tomei has to stand in for the entire Fourth Estate and consequently lacks three-dimensionality. And cherub-cheeked Evan Rachel Wood seems a bit miscast as Molly Stearns, a nubile campaign volunteer with a taste for affairs with powerful men who also happens to be the daughter of the Democratic National Committee chairman. If you start asking why the men in the campaign wouldn’t be smart enough to steer clear of a very young intern with such connections, you are stepping onto a slippery slope of improbabilities wound throughout Molly’s entire subplot, so I wouldn’t go there. In any case, Wood comes off more like a bored DC debutante than the savvy scion of a family deeply immersed in the political game. But I guess that if she were savvy enough, the complications that Molly brings to the plot wouldn’t have happened, and thus the movie wouldn’t have a third act.
As a footnote for future film classes, it should probably also be mentioned that The Ides of March may go down in cinematic history as the first movie in which the cell phone graduates from the status of MacGuffin or passing pop-cultural referent to that of a full-fledged character in its own right. Also noteworthy is Alexandre Desplat’s moody score, which ratchets up the tension where necessary without calling too much attention to itself.
The Ides of March is an edgily entertaining and thought-provoking film, with no apparent partisan agenda other than to establish that politics are an ugly, backstabbing business indeed. We walk out of the theatre bearing the unsettling message that career ambitions, not issues, are what inevitably drive the process – and that those involved, if they manage to stick around long enough, are pretty much okay with that. As Stephen says to one of his reluctant mentors at the end, “I learned from the best.”