What is it they said about politics and bedfellows?
The H-Bomb: It’s the Ohio Democratic Primary, and presidential hopeful Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney) is running neck-and-neck with his rival, Senator Pullman. Despite having one of the best campaign managers in the business, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), and Zara’s wunderkind No. 2 Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), heading his campaign, Morris is still trailing Pullman by a few points in the polls. A lot hinges on which candidate will receive the endorsement of Senator Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), whose recommendation will go to the highest bidder (meaning whoever promises him the best job in their administration).
Stephen is a 30-year-old idealist who has worked on more campaigns than most guys in their forties, and who earnestly believes in his Morris and all that he stands for. One day, Stephen is contacted by Pullman’s campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), who asks to meet him for a drink. After some finagling, Stephen agrees, against his better judgment, to meet with him. It’s during this friendly little talk that Duffy tries to convince Stephen that Morris is a lost cause and to jump ship and join the Pullman campaign. Although Stephen more or less tells Duffy to go suck a duck, if word ever got out that he had a one-on-one meeting with the opposition in secret, it could be very bad for him, career-wise.
To make matters even more complicated for Stephen, he has started a relationship with a young campaign intern named Molley (Evan Rachel Wood), who happens to be the daughter of the DNC Chairman. After answering an ill-timed phone call at two in the morning, Stephen finds out that Molley has a skeleton in her closet . . . a big one.
For spoilers sake, I’ll stop there, except to say that from there a whole lot of back stabbing, double dealing, and blackmailing ensues. The kind that could destroy Stephen’s idealism and force him to take actions that he never imagined he would be capable of taking.
The Ides of March, co-written and directed by George Clooney, is a sizzling, sharply penned thriller that has, above all else, reaffirmed my own feelings towards politicians: I don’t fucking trust them. Any of them. Democrat, Republican, it don’t matter, they are all about as straight as Quasimodo’s spinal chord. It’s a film that shows that almost everything that a candidate says publicly is scripted and rehearsed, even when they’re allegedly speaking off the cuff, and that winning elections isn’t all about how many votes you can get, but how many you can buy through backroom deals and shady power plays.
It’s fitting that the day before I screened The Ides of March, I watched, for the first time, Frank Capra’s, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. These are both films about naive young men who enter the political world in order to do some good and become disillusioned. But where Jimmy Stewart’s Mr. Smith managed to remain uncorrupted through it all (Jimmy Stewart cannot be corrupted), Gosling’s Stephen finds that he will have to “get down in the fuckin’ mud” if he wants to keep his career. And that’s what it’s all about, folks, that even those who go into the political arena with noble intentions will eventually go bad because that’s the way the system is. No one is immune.
This kind of cynical look at our political system is certainly nothing new, but this one does have an air of credibility to it in that it was adapted from the stage play, “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon, who worked on Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential campaign, and thus is savvy to the behind-the-scenes workings of a major political campaign in a way that your average writer is not. How much is truth, and how much is drama, I of course can’t say for sure, just that I, with one exception I’ll get to in a bit, did believe it all the way through.
The dialogue and the drama all felt authentic, and the characters all come to life through the work of a uniformly excellent cast firing on all cylinders. I was dumbfounded that Gosling wasn’t nominated for his incredible, understated turn in “Drive”, but after watching his powerhouse turn in this, where he’s actually allowed to speak, I’m convinced the Academy has something against the guy (maybe because he was once a Mouseketeer?). Most actors in his age bracket would have shriveled up while standing alongside the likes of Hoffman, Giamatti, and Clooney, but Gosling managed to carry the film marvelously. Oscar, dear boy, you are are this close to losing all credibility in my eyes.
As far the other names I mentioned go, they are all as brilliant as you would expect them to be, and since this is a true actor‘s piece, each and every one of them has copious moments to shine, be it Hoffman ranting about loyalty, or Giamatti warning Gosling to get out of the game before he ends up jaded just like him. Of the whole supporting cast, it is Clooney, as smoothly charismatic as ever as the Obama-like Morris, who shines the most. Watching him deliver a speech, I absolutely believe that he could run for office and win, if he so desired. He also delivers with his assured direction, which is up for an Oscar. His direction is slick but straightforward, focusing our attention right where it should be, on the actors and the story.
Which brings me back to that one thing I didn’t quite believe, the one aspect of the film that didn’t work; the fact that Gosling’s Stephen is pretty damn naive for a guy who’s allegedly worked on more campaigns than most guys a decade older than him. Every time someone figuratively sticks a knife in his back, he is genuinely shocked. He is thirty, not twenty, and one would think he would be considerably more wise to how ruthlessly cutthroat this business can be. Like he himself says to one of his underlings, “This is the big leagues. If you fuck up, you’re done.”
That one grievance aside, The Ides of March is a smart if surprisingly cynical drama that shows that there are no good guys in politics, there’s just the lesser of two evils, and good luck trying to figure out which one that is. It is a fascinating, fantastically written film by an actor/director who is improving with each project, that deserves to be seen by more people than it has been. Rent it today.