George Clooney: THE IDES OF MARCH (2011)
Review by Chris Knipp


Rise and fall and rise of a political operative

George Clooney's The Ides of March is a vaguely disappointing film, but still very enjoyable. The cast is terrific, and features the most vibrant and talented young American male movie actor today, Ryan Gosling. The action is squarely in the territory of Aaron Sorkin and James Wells' "The West Wing," which is both a good and a bad thing. Anything this strongly reminiscent of "The West Wing" is likely to be worth watching, but the comparison is hard to live up to -- and also unfair, since when we remember "The West Wing" we think of seven years of episodes. Ides is a political thriller whose (ultimately) Machiavellian young protagonist makes a devil's bargain to stay afloat. An older political operative has tricked him in a diabolical ruse that will either win him over to his camp or wipe him out of the campaign. The campaign is for the Democratic presidential nomination, the immediate focus is the Ohio primary, and the candidate we hear from is Mike Morris (Clooney), a governor, who is a liberal's dream. (His chief opponent, unfortunately, is a cipher. He expresses a few right-wing views and then fades from the icture) In speeches, Clooney, echoing words his own father used when running for office, enunciates ideas no current presidential candidate could get away with and win the nomination. He is an avowed atheist. He's for gay marriage. He's pro-abortion. He's to the left of Obama -- that is, the Obama of the campaign, not the more compromised President.

And so the film isn't realistic politically. But where it does get realistic is in depicting politics as a ruthless, sometimes very mean game. When he first appears, young Stephen Myers (Gosling) claims he can unconditionally support Myers, whose communications director he is, because in his eyes Myers is truly impeccable. That changes after Myers beds Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), a very young volunteer with a powerful father, and Myers' whole pose of idealism and fair play changes after he runs afoul of Mike Morris' campaign manager, Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman) and his opposite number with the opponent, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). As many have noted, seeing Hoffman and Giamatti squaring off as canny rivals is wirth the price of admission.

But it's also fun to see Gosling and Wood square off, and bed down. Both exude talent, competitiveness, and a sort of knowing naivety that fits their characters perfectly. They're both bold enough to take big risks and smart enough to know what they can gain by doing so, but not experienced enough to know the full consequences if their risk taking goes wrong. They have made and are about to make the biggest mistakes you can make in a political campaign. One is going to survive and one isn't.

As I describe this, I can't help feeling this is a great plot. Sex, glamor, politics, danger. What could be missing? Nothing, really, not when you get to watch Gosling, Wood, Giamatti, Hoffman, Marisa Tomei as a pushy journalist, Jeffrey Wright as a powerful senator bargaining for power in a new administration, Max Minghella as the bright young operative waiting to move into Myers' spot. And let's not forget Mr. Smoothie, Clooney himself, as the perfectly liberal but all too human candidate everyone is circling around. But I'll tell you what's wrong. Because this isn't "The West Wing," and consists only of 101 minutes and not years of episodes, it can't fill the other candidate, the ups and downs of the campaigning, discussions of the issues Mike Morris so blithely enunciates, or all the many secondary but still essential people and concerns that make up the complexity of politics.

Without them, the trial Myers undergoes, which takes away his idealism (or the veneer of it he has worn) and turns him into a Machiavellian, seems to happen a little too easily and quickly. On the other hand, the final events are, therefore, all the more breathtaking -- as such events should be.

Clooney and his writing collaborator, Grant Heslov, adapted a play called Farragut North by Beau Willimon for this film. In the play, the candidate wasn't even seen, and when you think back on Clooney delivering those nice but unmarketable positions, you realize his character was spun out without entirely granting him real depth, though there is a tense scene between Myers and Morris in a kitchen, reminiscent of the one-on-ones in Michael Clayton, in which Clooney and the film are at their most compulsively watchable. The trouble, though, is that in their adaptation Clooney and Heslov have opened up the play, but not quite enough. By doing so they have only made us aware in some corners of the action of a failure to keep all the balls in play. This narrows down to part of a good episode of "The West Wing." It's a good part, but we need the other parts (and other episisdes!) to feel the daunting complexity of politics, where two TVs are going in every room, three things are going on at any one time, and the gossip is one step ahead of the spin. But if you love "The West Wing," will like this, and these actors are pure pleasure to watch in action.