Friday, October 14, 2011

The Ides of March

Toward the end of The Ides of March, Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), a presidential candidate maneuvering to win the Democratic primary, gains the crucial support of a powerful senator by promising to appoint him secretary of state if elected. It’s an important compromise that Morris earlier vowed not to make, since the senator “wants to cut the top 10 floors off the United Nations.”

Political protests are toppling governments around the world. In our own country, people on both the right (the Tea Party) and the left (Occupy Wall Street) are becoming increasing vocal about their disgust at the corporations and other unfielded players who call so many of the shots in our political system, controlling politicians mainly through financial contributions but also by delivering blocs of special-interest voters. The time seems ripe for a mainstream movie with the guts and the smarts to dramatize the pressures that make candidates speak in slogans and backtrack on important decisions, sometimes even betraying their own core principles. I had hoped that The Ides of March would be that movie—certainly Clooney, his frequent creative partner Grant Heslov, and the excellent case of this film would have been up to the challenge—but it turns out to be something much blander and less interesting.

The Ides of March is not about its leading candidate or the choices he makes. Morris is never even seen or heard from in Farragut North, the book on which Clooney and Heslov based their screenplay. He has a couple of brief but important scenes in the film, but for the most part he’s in the background if at all, a face on a heroic campaign poster, a body in a makeup chair, or an orator briefly glimpsed on a monitor or half-heard from backstage while making another in a series of plainspoken, left-of-center speeches.

In fact, this movie isn’t even about the political process. It’s just another coming-of-age story about an ambitious young man—in this case, media-handler prodigy Stephen Myer (Ryan Gosling, who goes from starry-eyed to dead-eyed without showing us much in between)—who gets a job in a cynical system that he fully intends to reform but gets corrupted by instead.

Stephen’s road to ruin passes through some pretty dirty double dealing, both by him and by his campaign-management colleagues. Rather than finding the fun in their one-upmanship, the way Duplicity did with corporate espionage, or locating an interesting middle ground between outrage and pathos, like Up in the Air or The Informant!, The Ides of March goes for a moralistic gravity that makes the film feel as na├»ve as crack reporter Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei) accuses Stephen of being before his change of heart.

The film’s relatively humorless authorial hand weighs even heavier when a pretty young intern (the always vivid and sympathetic Evan Rachel Wood) winds up in mortal danger after developing clandestine relationships with both Stephen and another key player. There are some good lines (after planting a rumor with the gullible media about Morris’ opponent, Stephen tells an assistant: “I don’t care if it’s true. I just want to see him spend a day denying it”), but at least as many feel scripted and glib. “Mark Morris is a politician…. He will let you down, sooner or later,” says Ida in a speech that might as well come packaged with a blinking neon sign that spells out “foreshadowing.”

Paul Giamatti and Philip Seymour Hoffman turn in rock-solid bookend performances as the former allies turned rivals who head up the competing campaigns. The film kicks into high gear whenever either or both of these grizzled pros is on screen, with Hoffman in particular giving it a much-needed jolt of rumpled realism.

But then Stephen gives the camera another long tragic stare or Morris delivers another liberal-wet-dream speech, making a clear, cogent, uncompromising and unapologetic case for secular humanism or abortion or higher taxes on the rich, and we’re reminded that The Ides of March is nothing more than a comfortingly familiar fable for fans of CNN. After all, no one who talked the way Morris does could remain a serious presidential candidate in this country for long.

Written for TimeOff

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