Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), the precociously successful political media consultant at the center of The Ides of March, knows how to handle his business. He believes the man he’s working for, Pennsylvania Gov. Mike Morris (George Clooney), is the best candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination and the man who can make America better. But he’s also just fine with feeding a specious allegation about their opponent to the media. He has no problem with proposing mandatory national service for all 18-year-olds because “everyone who’s too old to be affected will love it … [and everyone else] can’t vote.” If you’re looking for a starry-eyed idealist in this film, one whose utopian dreams are crushed by harsh reality, look elsewhere.
In the abstract, director and co-writer Clooney – working with regular collaborator Grant Heslov from the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon – brings an intriguing variation on principles vs. politics narratives like The Candidate: What if the hero has few principles to begin with? That kind of arc is no small trick, however, and The Ides of March can’t quite navigate the narrow channel between “calculating bastard” and “even more calculating bastard.”
The action takes place in the days leading up to a crucial Democratic primary in Ohio. Morris is leading his more liberal opponent, an Arkansas senator, in the polls, and a win in Ohio would give Morris enough delegates to put him nearly over the top. But there are plenty of complex details for Myers and Morris’ campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), to contend with. The crucial endorsement of another senator (Jeffrey Wright) requires careful negotiation. An open primary presents the possibility that Republicans will flood the Ohio polls to help take down Morris, the theoretically more electable moderate Democrat. When Myers becomes aware of Morris’ involvement in a potentially devastating scandal, he’s forced to launch into rapid damage control.
Throughout the film’s first half, Clooney and Co. keep it moving quickly enough to avoid the danger facing any political drama: losing viewers in the midst of wonk-heavy, inside-the-Beltway chatter. Here, it’s always clear what’s at stake, so that following the bouncing ball isn’t a chore. Best of all, the film captures the manic energy of people trying to keep up with the 24-hour news cycle – monitoring blogs and polling data.
But everything in The Ides of March pivots around the way Myers reacts when cornered; by the need to clean up Morris’ mess; by rumors that he may have met with the opposing campaign manager (Paul Giamatti), and that’s where it hits a wall. Gosling’s taciturn presence was perfect for roles like his mysterious protagonist in Drive or the stoic romantic lead in The Notebook, but here we can never quite get behind Myers’ need to maintain a slick, unruffled exterior. Does he ever believe in the man he’s working for? It doesn’t help that Clooney’s directorial choices feel showy.
Despite the Shakespearean overtones of the title, The Ides of March doesn’t focus its attention where it’s most needed: on whether Myers is about to sell his soul, or whether he’s long since offered it up on the eBay of contemporary politics and is just waiting out the end of the auction.
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