The Ides of March
“I’ve worked on more campaigns than most people by the time they’re 40, and he’s the only one that’s actually going to make a difference in people’s lives” says Ryan Gosling’s rising star, campaign hotshot Stephen Myers of his candidate for the Democratic Presidential nomination. “Be careful,” replies Paul Giamatti’s cynical, experienced opposite number, warning Stephen not to be too quick to chug the Kool-Aid, “They’ll always disappoint you in the end.” Though the project might have come together before the full wave of Barack Obama optimism had broken and fallen back, with loaded exchanges the likes of that, it’s tough not to read this as a referendum on the Great Man’s first half term, and the profound sense of disappointment in the wake of his revealing as just another center-right politician.
But much like Aaron Sorkin sold The Social Network as not really about the founding of Facebook at all, Beau Willimon’s adaptation of his own play (co-written with Clooney and Grant Heslov) isn’t so much about politics as it is a story of loyalty, friendship, ambition, and betrayal, themes as old as drama itself. The title refers of course to the name given to the day in 44 B.C. that Julius Caesar was betrayed and murdered by those closest to him. That’s not to say there isn’t a firm political context to Ides, there is. In fact this picture has a great deal in common with contemporary American politics, in that it is exceptionally well crafted, extremely deliberate and precise in everything that it does, and yet slightly drunk on it’s own sense of self-importance, and never quite as deep or as visionary as it thinks it is.
In addition to directing duties, Clooney casts himself in the role of Mike Morris, Governor of Pennsylvania and frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. A man running on a platform of hope and change (sound familiar?), Gov. Morris finds himself blindsided by opposition political maneuvering and faced with an impossible choice; betray his ideals before he is even nominated by indulging in a little cronyism (but ensuring he will be nominated), or stand on principle, forsake a potentially powerful ally, and cripple his campaign in the process.
Stephen, too, has his own choice to make, his masterful media strategy having garnered him attention from the opposition camp resulting in an invitation to jump ship just as his candidate is at his most vulnerable. As Marissa Tomei’s feisty reporter puts it: “Win, and you got a job in the White House. Lose, and you’re back at a consulting firm on K Street.” Add in Evan Rachel Wood’s dangerously sexy intern, and Oh my, what are ambitious, deeply driven, but firmly principled folk to do? While Clooney, Heslov, and Willimon doubtlessly bleed blue come election night, there is enough here between interns, infighting, and incompetence to outline a mountain of resentment directed at three decades of ineptitude by the supposedly populist, increasingly corporate Democratic left.
Away from the soapboxing, Ides of March finds time to let in a little levity by getting down into the campaign trail mud and showing that politics is pettey, and often less about your guy winning than it is about making sure their guy doesn’t. What would donors say if they knew their hard earned dollars were going to book every van within a hundred miles, not because you need to bus in your supporters to a rally, but because you want to make sure your opponent can’t bus in his? Clooney’s direction at times betrays his inexperience, but is again much like politics itself – heavy on message and awash with symbolism. But, like any good politician, it’s built on a foundation of bold, brash confidence that’s highly alluring.
While not the star, Clooney – the indisputable Carey Grant of his generation – is still a magnetic presence as the impossibly suave, hopelessly sincere candidate. His policies might sound like abject nonsense (his plan to rid the would of radical Islam – just stop using oil), but his conviction draws you to him (again, sound familiar?). Still as reliable as Sarah Palin sounding stupid, Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman are still waiting for that breakout smash to put them over the top, and there is plenty here to further the campaign that one or both of them surely must sooner or later. While never quite managing to go toe-to-toe with his contemporaries here (to be fair, few could in this kind of company), Ryan Gosling still demonstrates why he is being touted as the next big thing, capping what has been a very impressive year for the young thesp.
Yet with all that is good about Ides of March – and there is much here to enjoy – it’s hard to escape the vague hint of elitist snobbery that pervades these characters and their various moral dilemmas. With recent figures now showing a record number of Americans living in poverty, it’s tough to shed much of a tear for guys who, even if they lose, still wind up with a booby prize of a consultancy gig to the tune of seven-figures-a-year. Doubtlessly Clooney and his people poured their heart and soul into this story, and the result is commendable. But, then again, it's still a product of the same kind of unimaginably affluent, deeply-removed, elitist bubble thinking that the picture is seemingly attempting to indict.
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