Though it works only as a middling thriller, The Ides of March is an improvement over George Clooney’s last outing as a director—Leatherheads failed to be anything more than a light goofy period comedy. But like its predecessor, Ides is entertaining but hardly memorable.
The Ides of March is about a presidential primary campaign. Early on, we learn from campaign advisor Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) that the winner of this primary will likely be the next president of the United States. And Paul believes he’s working for the man who can take it all the way. That man is Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney), a war veteran whose message is largely anti-mainstream but seems to resonate with voters. Ryan Gosling plays Morris’ media consultant, Stephen Meyers, a younger man who at the wee age of 30 has already amassed a long political résumé. But Stephen’s experience is not enough to protect him from becoming smitten with Morris and the ideals he represents. Stephen is a true believer, and that makes things personal and dangerous.
As one hard-fought primary battle rages in a key state, cracks in Morris’ impeccable facade become visible. The question is: what will Stephen and those around Morris do to win? It is a familiar tale that usually ends in a big mess or a tainted victory.
One of the main problems with The Ides of March is that George Clooney has cast himself in the prominent role of Gov. Morris—a populist Democrat presidential candidate. Shades of Gary Hart and John Edwards influence Clooney’s portrayal of the sincere-to-a-fault Morris, but it’s not easy to separate Clooney the fictitious candidate from Clooney the real-life movie star. This is a case where Clooney the director might have been better off casting Clooney the actor in a smaller role.
As for the other roles, Clooney has assembled a team of gifted actors, led by Gosling (who is everywhere these days), and like in his excellent 2005 film, Good Night, and Good Luck., Clooney’s made sure the bench is deep. In addition to Hoffman, Paul Giamatti is the advisor for the opposition. The two share a prickly on-screen personality, making them great choices for the men behind the politicians. But this is clearly a Gosling-heavy film, and as he’s already shown this year he can carry a picture, both in the weak Crazy, Stupid, Love. and the superior art-house crime thriller Drive. Unfortunately, The Ides of March itself has little weight worth lifting. As good as Gosling is, the movie is not a strong example of the political thriller genre. As a result, Gosling’s magnetic screen presence is wasted amidst a narrative conflict that seems contrived and manipulative.
The presidential campaign story was done well and better by Primary Colors, the movie that chronicled a Clinton-like candidate’s quest for the White House. With its use of composite characters influenced by their real-life counterparts, Primary Colors had a special contemporary relevance. By contrast, Ides seems dated. Issues are bandied around in debates with little impact, and the politics itself seems stale. But that’s to be expected, given that Ides is less a movie about politics than an exercise in style about the dangers of power. This is not a film that will provide insight into how presidential campaigns are waged.
Ultimately, The Ides of March is a familiar thriller with a good cast. It’s slick and entertaining, but nothing more. The writing by Clooney and screenwriters Grant Heslov, together with Beau Willimon (adapting his play Farragut North), has its moments, particularly in scenes where Hoffman and Giamatti explain the ins and outs of politics. But the context in which these knowing lectures are delivered is too contrived. Such easy-to-digest story-telling is what watered down Leatherheads; the attempt to make it more accessible to a wide audience ended up keeping them away. Granted, The Ides of March should play very well to that admittedly sizable demographic who want to see movie star George Clooney mix it up with the up-and-coming Ryan Gosling. For that match up alone, The Ides of March is hard not to recommend.
Still, if Clooney had cast some lesser known actor as Morris, as he had with casting of David Strathairn as Edward R. Murrow in Good Night, and Good Luck, then the release of this particular Ides might have earned a more auspicious date on the calendar.