George Clooney officially passes the impish matinee idol torch to Ryan Gosling in this smart, hella-cool (does Clooney waste his time on any other kind of movie these days?) political drama.
Gosling plays Stephen Myers, a campaign strategist who may very well be the last idealist alive in American politics. He’s a calculating con artist with a good heart who takes his job – helping to get a charismatic liberal Governor named Mike Morris (Clooney) elected U.S. president – very seriously. Stephen wholeheartedly believes in Morris and his platform. Unfortunately, it quickly becomes clear to Stephen that there’s just no room for idealism in politics.
Morris is in a tight race against a conservative candidate for a win at the Ohio presidential primary. He’s a suave and engaging speaker and seems to truly care about the issues he represents. Stephen is enamored, but as he gets Morris closer to the prize and deeper into the machinations that make for a successful campaign, he gets a glimpse at the real Mike Morris and begins to question everything he previously thought to be true. In doing so, he begins to fall away from his ideals and transform into the scheming, cold-hearted men who surround the equally treacherous candidates.
When the rival campaign manager (Paul Giamatti at his feral best) secretly approaches Stephen and invites him to bring his knack for media spin over to their side, Stephen declines and does the right thing: he tells his boss and longtime friend (Philip Seymour Hoffman) for whom loyalty is paramount. Discovering that Stephen took the meeting behind his back and even listened to the offer causes a rift between the two, endangering Stephen’s place within the campaign.
On top of that, Stephen becomes involved with a seductive campaign intern named Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) who on the surface, appears to be an eager young upstart attracted to Stephen’s power…or is she? As Stephen begins to seek answers, a sneaky investigative reporter (Marisa Tomei) seeks a story, and a U.S. senator (Jeffrey Wright) involved with both sides of the campaign seeks a deal.
Clooney’s fourth directing effort examines the death of political idealism, taking its title from the calendar dates that Julius Caesar was forewarned about, and on which he was eventually assassinated. There are plenty of metaphorical Caesars throughout the film – both people and principles. While only one person is actually irreversibly hurt, a whole plethora of ideals are slain with daggers of acrimony as the campaign process unfolds and a scandal emerges.
An adaptation of Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North, Clooney puts his own writerly stamp on the production, ensuring his usual snappy dialogue and astute observations about politics are all present and accounted for. It’s a much bleaker film than his Good Night, and Good Luck, which at least had an optimistic slant about standing up for your principles in the face of adversity. The Ides of March is that film’s disillusioned cousin, exuding an air of exasperation about the sorry state of politics and the world, in general.
With this film, Clooney has made his most straightforward Hollywood movie yet, although the action does feel static at times due to the confines set out by the original stage play. That’s okay though, because it’s really meant to be an actor’s showcase and boy do Gosling, Giamatti, Hoffman, et al have a ball with the extremely rich material. Gosling in particular continues his good work evident in Drive and Crazy Stupid Love, cementing his place alongside Clooney as a movie star who’s here to stay.
The direction of events in the script may seem a tad predictable to fans of the genre but overall there’s not a false note in the film. Clooney has made a subtle yet supple film that shines a searchlight on the political landscape in an engaging and unforgettable way.
In other words, unlike Caesar, in no way should you beware The Ides of March.