With Ryan Gosling, George Clooney, Philip Seymour Hoffman, Paul Giamatti, Evan Rachel Wood; Running Time: 101 minutes; Rated R (for pervasive language); Written by George Clooney & Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon; Directed by George Clooney.
Otto von Bismarck, the 19th century German leader, is supposed to have said that laws are like sausages – it is best not to see them being made. Had he been a modern American political commentator, he might have amended that to include Presidential campaigns as well. THE IDES OF MARCH is about the clash of idealism and realism, and the choices that people make.
Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) is the number two man on the campaign staff of Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) who goes into the Ohio Democratic primary with a real shot at clinching the nomination. Stephen can be hard-nosed, but when it comes to Morris’s candidacy he believes. He’s drunk deep of the Kool-Aid, he tells a reporter (Marisa Tomei), and it tastes good.
Things get complicated when Morris’s campaign manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) is away trying to make a deal for the endorsement of a former candidate with a large bloc of committed delegates and Stephen gets a call from Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). What makes it complicated is that Duffy is the campaign manager for Morris’s rival, and he’s offering Stephen a job.
Stephen refuses – he is a true believer – but he starts learning things that make his position more and more difficult, especially when he gets involved with a campaign intern (Evan Rachel Wood) whose father (Gregory Itzin) happens to be head of the Democratic National Committee. What follows is Stephen’s education in how real-world politics is played. It’s messy, it’s ugly, and as a character in “The Godfather” says, it’s business, not personal.
Clooney, who co-wrote the script and directed, is charismatic as Governor Morris. His forthright and uncompromising positions are almost a rebuke to our real-world incumbent whom some Democrats feel has been too quick to give in to Republican demands. Yet the movie is less about Morris than about Stephen’s progress from being an idealist who is anything but naïve, to becoming a battle-scarred veteran. Clooney generously makes this Ryan Gosling’s show and the actor is more than up for it. Indeed, following “Crazy Stupid Love” and “Drive” it’s clear that Gosling is having a banner year. The final shot of the film leaves us wondering just what Stephen believes anymore.
Clooney surrounds him with a marvelous cast. Besides his own turn as the candidate, there are Hoffman and Giamatti as the rival campaign managers, who each get to define what their principles (if any) are when in the midst of a hard fought campaign. Marisa Tomei makes the most of her supporting role as a reporter cozying up to her sources in search of a scoop, and Evan Rachel Wood turns in a nicely nuanced performance as an intern who may be in over her head. Jeffrey Wright is tough as nails as the politician willing to trade his endorsement for the best deal.
“The Ides Of March” isn’t quite as sharp and pithy as an episode of “The West Wing.” Perhaps they should have brought Aaron Sorkin to work on the dialogue. However, this would make a great double feature with the Sorkin-scripted “The American President” (1995). Politics isn’t always pretty, and it’s easy to get cynical – as Tomei’s reporter does – and claim it doesn’t matter who wins. It does, but we’re electing human beings, not gods, and this movie is a warning to those who forget that.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.