If you can help it, don’t work in politics. Apparently, it will completely crush into dust your mind, body and spirit.
That’s one thing George Clooney makes absolutely clear with his crackerjack thriller, The Ides of March. In the world of a presidential campaign, men (and a few women) are pushed to their limits both physically and mentally and come out the other side with their eyes red and their values more than a little compromised. The business of basically selling someone to the American people — someone who can supposedly fix everything that’s wrong with the world — is, if nothing else, one that requires an unending supply of Red Bull in the fridge. And very, very thick skin.
However, like Glengarry Glen Ross before it (a film it resembles in more ways than one), The Ides of March isn’t so much interested in the specifics of the business it portrays as it is with the people who dedicate themselves to it. Clooney, who often has a political agenda off-camera, doesn’t really have one here — he’s not trying to draw a parallel to any “real-life” person, group or event (and if he is, he’s done so so subtly as to render it null and void). In staying true to the film’s source material — Beau Willimon’s stage play, Farragut North — Clooney has his (rather sharp) eye on the workers, not the work.
The main worker here is Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), the smart-as-a-whip assistant campaign manager to Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), a charismatic Presidential nominee (Democrat, of course — that’s one political flourish in which Clooney probably insisted). Myers is an ambitious player in the game, and born to be a politician — he works every angle and explores every possibility, always looking for any piece of information that will not only further Morris’ career but also his own (and perhaps moreso the latter). He’s the trusted confidante of Morris’ senior campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), providing an idealistic zing that balances out the elder staff member’s jaded seen-it-all cynicism. He even seduces the cute intern working Morris’ campaign (Evan Rachel Wood). This is a guy with a big career ahead of him.
Myers ends up getting his first taste of dirty politics on this campaign trail, finding his own will and resolve tested as a potential crisis escalates into requiring the most clever of spin doctors. Indeed, the basics of Myers’ job comes to light during this time: he basically lies for a living, and he’s got to start telling some really big lies — or at least some very convincing half-truths — if he hopes to get his boss into the White House. Myers is further tested when he gets the attention of Tom Duffy, the rival campaign manager on the Republican side, who offers him a chance to “go across the street” (to tip a hat to Glengarry again) and join the “winning team.”
This all makes for great character study — and, indeed, a bittersweet valentine to the American worker pursuing the American dream — and Clooney knows that it’s all in the casting. Indeed, this is an “actor’s movie” like no other this year, with everyone doing excellent work — you get a sense that this ensemble could be starring in a movie about the trials and tribulations of cleaning up elephant poop at the zoo and it would make for compelling drama.
Gosling once again proves that he’s a movie star, one who deserves all of the attention he’s been getting — he gets about a hundred times more dialogue in this than he did in Drive but, once again, it’s all in the eyes, twinkling with mischief and filled with a deep sadness. Clooney, content to once again give himself a supporting role in his own movie (following Good Night, and Good Luck and Confessions of a Dangerous Mind), does well as an intelligent charmer with a couple of secrets (that’s pretty standard Presidential material, no?). Hoffman and Giamatti are both excellent as kind of yin and yang characters, and Marisa Tomei gets some juicy material as a reporter out to smear Morris from here to the Mississippi River.
The movie moves lightning-quick and is over before you know it, which is a shame, as I could’ve watched this gang do their thing for at least another 45 minutes. The Ides of March definitely gets my vote for your weekend viewing — there are no rock ’em, sock ’em robots in this one, but it definitely hits hard.