Politics can be a noble art. It can advance worthy causes, promote capable and sincere men and women to Office and help make the World a more civilised place. But, and these are the central themes of ‘The Ides of March’, it can also be a brutal, dirty business where loyalties are routinely discarded, ideals frequently betrayed and where the whole trade resembles a form of civic espionage, where ‘truth’ is subjective and the game itself takes over. The US electoral cycle has long been a mix of profound and profane and George Clooney’s film captures this dichotomy with grace and style.
The plot is Shakespearean in its consideration of love, passion, betrayal and ambition (the film is based on the stage play, ‘Farragut North’). Ryan Gosling plays an idealistic, young, senior campaign wonk for George Clooney’s charismatic, liberal, Governor Mike Morris. They’re on the campaign trail in Ohio, a make-or-break state for Morris to win the Democratic Nomination for President where he’s facing Ted Pullman, a Senator from Arkansas. The rival campaign managers become embroiled in a powerplay at Gosling’s expense. There’s a love interest which goes tragically wrong and the film turns on a phone call when we find out Clooney’s character isn’t as perfect as he seems.
‘The Ides of March’ nods to previous political thrillers and has been compared to ‘The Candidate’; the main characters are the backroom players, the spindoctors, those who want no more in life than to be the guy behind the guy. There are ‘West Wing’ references too; the idealism of a campaign team in thrall to the just ruler, the exhilaration of the Primary seasons highs and lows, the chance to make history. There’s at least one scene which pays overt homage to ‘All the President’s Men’. In short, it’s impossible to see this film without comparing it to other works on large and small screen about politics. Yet the ‘Ides of March’ succeeds on its own merits.
The acting is superb. Clooney is on autopilot for much of the film but pulls out all the stops later in the movie. Gosling is perfect as the callow youth and innocent abroad who will have to fight against his ambition and the corrupting influence of power. Marisa Tomei gets it spot on as a duplicitous reporter, Evan Rachel Wood is a rising, hot, star. But, if there’s any justice in the World (and after seeing ‘Ides of March’ it’s a justified question) there should be a ferocious Oscar duel-off between Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Both wear the characters of hard-bitten, cynical, amoral political operatives with an ease that displays their skills as two of the greatest character actors of their generation.
Is it the system,/process itself that corrupts or does it attract potentially corrupt people? Human nature, our capacity for pettiness, greed, treachery is, in this milieu anyway, as strong as our propensity for nobility, fairness and service to others. We decry electoral, democratic politics and politicians from the sidelines; we’re content to let others do the dirty, messy work for us (or,as Homer Simpson would say, ‘Can’t someone else do it?’).With most of the West in Recession and with warnings that we’ve already passed the point of no-return into Depression, politics, leadership and democratic participation are called into doubt when, it appears to Left and Right, that the system isn’t working.
‘The Ides of March’ focuses on the gap between political rhetoric and human failings, the role ambition plays in a political contests and how hopes and expectations fall foul to the lust for power. There are better movies about the political process out there but Clooney should be commended for making this fine, smart, and always topical film. One for the geeks and mainstream too, it deserves to be seen by a wide audience.