It seems that politics, more than any other subject, is absolute fodder for filmmakers who want to critique culture or create some sort of relevant commentary. From The Manchurian Candidate to The Great Dictator to Wag the Dog, directors not only love to look at the corrupt state of government by imbuing its characters with absurd stereotypes but they also love to expose the cunning wit that politicians have. They’re smooth talkers and they’re supposed to be. Just take a look at the iconic speech that Chaplin gives at the end of The Great Dictator, lampooning Hitler a couple years before World War II had actually begun.
George Clooney joins the band of merry satirists in a darker fashion, trying to create and emulate suspense more along the lines of The Manchurian Candidate, and, to some extent, Coppola’s The Conversation. Playing a governor and almost presidential candidate just prior to a Democratic Primary in Ohio, Clooney, who directed and co-wrote The Ides of March, isn’t even at the front line of the film. It’s Ryan Gosling, the debonair, smart, young, and very qualified campaign advisor Stephen Meyers, working separate but next to Mike Morris’ (Clooney) official campaign manager Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman).
The competition between Mike Morris and Arkansas Senator Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell) is close and tense, and throughout the film, you’re never quite sure who’s leading. Logistically, it only matters insofar that we know that Morris is a nice guy, just like Clooney, and we root for him initially. We want him to win, just like Clooney, were he to run for President. He’s a swell, logical guy.
Gosling’s Stephen is just as swell, but he’s harder on the outside and more ambiguous. He makes the statement that, despite whatever the statistics of Morris’ campaign, he will do what he does if he believes in it, not merely to win, in comparison to Zara. We can thus assume that, regardless of how many campaigns he’s actually been a part of, he’s rather naïve. He’s slightly disillusioned about Marisa Tomei’s New York Times correspondent Ida and whether or not she’s an actual “friend”. To what extent can he trust her is something that pops up throughout the film every so often. He plays the character well, with finesse, like he has with his previous roles in Crazy, Stupid, Love and Drive. He uses that same charm, but he knows, and we know, that it’s not the same character.
The point of this morality play, which is based on co-screenwriter Beau Willimon’s Farragut North, is to observe the moral ambiguity in politics. The idea is nothing new. Even the aspect of the character study is not new. Maybe that’s the problem with the film. It’s not new or fresh, despite the very contemporary setting and the feeling that Barack Obama is watching behind you and will resent you if you don’t like it. Moral ambiguity is usually a key point in political thrillers. What one candidate will do or not do to win or get the advantage is the drama, and here it plays very predictably. The center though, is not the candidate himself, but the advisor.
Meyers, while doggedly “married” to the campaign makes the dangerous mistake of acting on a phone call from the opposing team and visiting the opposing side’s own campaign manager Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). From there, you have your drama. To what extent is Stephen Meyers still that honest, likable, charming guy; the one who can easily bed the sexy intern Molly (Evan Rachel Wood) and still be seen as the cool guy on campus. But his weakness is ambition. His ambition is his downfall, as, typically, he’s not as honest as he presents himself. It’s his ambition that propels him to see Giamatti, just to see if they can pay better, if the payoff allows for more power.
Its direction is fine, but the dialogue is, thankfully, interesting. If anything, it does make one wonder why the screenwriters and playwrights who pen these contemplative and methodical works don’t run for office themselves. They seem to have a good grip on what’s going on and can articulate the solutions well enough to sound convincing coming from the mouth of an actor playing a candidate. What the characters say, primarily the political ones spark the ongoing debate within the audience’s mind about the honesty of politics or lack thereof.
The title is reminiscent of those tragic Greek plays, but most reminiscent of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar. The voting day for the Democratic Primary is, you guessed it March 15th, otherwise known as the Ides of March, the same day that Caesar was so iconically betrayed and murdered by Brutus and 60 other co-conspirators. Metaphorically, Meyers is, of course, Brutus with Morris as Caesar. However, perhaps to the disappointment of Clooney, it never seems as tragic as the play. It’s a bummer, somewhat of an accident on Meyers’ part, but it’s not tragic.
The screenplay is strong, but this is one of the few films that I would have preferred seeing on the stage. The characters are far more important and the constant switch in setting, as contemporary and “relevant” as they seem is actually distracting. It’s trying to be directed more like a film than like a stage play, but there’s no balance between the transition from one medium to the other. The politics are interesting, but the moral ambiguity of its characters is less interesting than you would think, even with Clooney at the head. You walk out with your mental ballot only being half punched through.