The source material for The Ides of March traces its roots to the 2004 election, but co-writer and director George Clooney has made a movie very much about life in 2011, with the shine off the presidential apple and people on both sides of the aisle wising up to the awful truth of political compromise. It was just a few years ago that he poured his heart into Good Night, and Good Luck, a gorgeous and searing indictment of small-minded politics that felt like a call to something greater in all of us. Yet The Ides of March is a much darker film, a sad and quiet reflection on the cost of doing business in a world guided by men willing to kill each other for the chance to lead whoever’s left. Clooney spoke out in summer 2006 about his hopes that Barack Obama would become president, saying, “If Senator Obama became ‘Presidential Candidate Obama,’ it would be the most electrifying thing to happen to the Democratic Party since [John F.] Kennedy.” Yet the grim realities of the past few years about the nature of the sausage factory have tempered that optimism for some, and Clooney’s film is a reflection of that journey from starry-eyed hope to a steely determination to survive. It’s a story about a politician who sounds blessedly different from everyone else but who turns out to have the same pathetic vices shared by everyone who ever ran for office, and it’s impossible not to feel as if Clooney’s working from a place of personal disappointment as much as (or more than) external analysis.
Which isn’t to say The Ides of March isn’t good. It’s actually very good, packed with a rich cast and fantastic performances that give it a smooth, lived-in feel. What makes it so notable is the way it defines itself through darkness and resignation, not through the sense of purpose that’s seemed to mark Clooney’s earlier turns behind the camera. (Even Confessions of a Dangerous Mind had a kind of wacky upbeat earnestness.) Clooney co-wrote the script with producing partner Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, working from Willimon’s 2008 play Farragut North that was based on Willimon’s experiences working for Democrats a few years earlier. The play’s title comes from a Washington Metro station in the lobby district, and it’s used throughout the film not merely as shorthand for a location or an industry but for the ultimate destination for all the politicians and players who have such high hopes for themselves. The narrative follows the campaign strategists for a pair of Democratic players gunning for the presidential nomination in the heat of the Ohio primary, and as a reporter character notes to one of them early on, it doesn’t really matter who wins the White House. Sooner or later, they’ll all wind up working some cushy consulting gig off Farragut North, clocking low seven figures and taking long lunches. Clooney’s message here isn’t some strident warning that all good men hide a secret evil. It’s that sooner or later, you go where the money is. Dreams don’t earn interest at the bank, and ideals don’t line your pockets.
Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) is locked into a battle for Ohio with Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell), but the real action of the film is the chess game between the respective campaign leaders. Morris’ camp is run by Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), aided by the impossibly cool and confident Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling). Stephen’s a true believer, too — he is, in the words of another, “all goosebumpy” about Morris — and he uses that genuine passion to stirring effect as he rallies various interns and staffers to working phones and press for the governor. In the other corner, there’s Pullman’s manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), as ruthless a strategist as Paul and just as fierce. Tom wants to hire Steve for himself, but Steve is loyal to Morris for all the big, noble reasons you know will become ground into dust before long.
What makes the film work is the utter conviction Gosling brings to his role and the stellar way he grows colder and more mature as he weathers a series of crises and scandals that change the way he views politics in general and Morris in particular. The film couldn’t be more different from Drive, but in both instances Gosling has demonstrated that he’s a modern master at playing men who are smart enough to keep their poker faces on when their worlds come crashing down. Morris makes a number of stupid mistakes as a man and a politician, but Steve never flies into a panic, never breaks, never cries. Even when his back’s against the wall, he never stops thinking, never stops trying to figure out how to solve whatever puzzle’s in front of him. The script is blessedly smart, and it treats its characters as real people trying to bring their intellect to bear on their situations. Even better, it talks up to its audience, not down. It’s always exhilarating to watch a movie about smart people whose brilliance isn’t a sin.
But I don’t want to make the film sound like it’s some academic exercise, either. In movies, it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it, and The Ides of March is a beautiful, clean, gorgeous-looking film. Cinematographer Phedon Papamichael makes wonderful use of rich colors, deep blacks, and crisp light and shadow. Maybe it’s a nod to the film’s origins as a play, but there’s a wonderful sense of the theatrical here, with every set-up framed to be just a little more grandiose than real life. While Morris is working over his opponent at a debate, Steve and Paul are frantically arguing behind the American flag that serves as the stage’s backdrop, their silhouettes popping against the stars and bars. Clooney works in little flourishes like these but doesn’t go out of his way to call attention to them. They color the tone, but never override it.
Clooney’s got that great cast, too. Hoffman and Giamatti tear at each other like wolves, and they’re both experts at only revealing certain layers of their personalities in a given situation. Evan Rachel Wood is magnetic as an intern in the Morris office who catches Steve’s eye, and Marisa Tomei makes a nice needling reporter whose pursuit of a story winds up teaching Steve a few brutal lessons, even if Tomei doesn’t look at all like she could be named “Ida Horowicz.” Jeffrey Wright’s equally engaging as a senator who carries enough delegates to put Morris or his opponent at the head of the race, and who finds himself courted by both men. Wright also gets one of the film’s best reversals, giving two different speeches that highlight his opportunism and speak to the story’s larger indictment of anyone waving a campaign button. In one moment, he punchily tells a campaign staffer that the only way he’ll budge is to be placed on the ticket as the vice presidential contender, but soon afterward he’s addressing a crowd of voters and speaking loftily of American exceptionalism. As he does in so many other moments, Clooney downplays the hypocrisy, letting the larger picture speak for itself. There might not be any shocking revelations about the way of the world here, but then, Clooney isn’t necessarily going for them. He’s just talking about disappointment, and the way we’re all doomed to forever forget and relearn the harsh truth about men who smile and shake our hands and ask for our vote. They ask for so much more, and we give it without thinking.
Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.