‘The Ides of March’: Keeping it real

October 5, 2011

Political campaigns may attract idealists, but they don’t keep them for long. They either flee in disillusionment – or they figure out how the game is played and quickly become realists, and cynical ones, at that. But then, as Aldous Huxley once observed, “Idealism is the noble toga that political gentlemen drape over their will to power.”

So it is in “The Ides of March,” the film that director George Clooney and partner Grant Heslov adapted from Beau Willimon’s play, “Farragut North.” The story of a presidential campaign by a progressive governor, and his staff’s struggle to push him through the primaries to the nomination, it’s a suspenseful political drama about one man’s ideals and the choices he’s forced to make between them and the cold realities that go with winning a campaign.

The man is Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), the media supervisor for the presidential campaign of Gov. Mike Morris (Clooney). Working for veteran campaign strategist Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Stephen is in Ohio, a week away from the Democratic primary that could make or break Morris’ presidential hopes.

Stephen has a lot of balls in the air. He and Paul are about to meet with a powerful but conservative Democratic senator from the South (Jeffrey Wright), in hopes of convincing him to throw his support to Morris. But they’re also waiting for what they assume will be a nasty surprise in the final days before the primary from Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), chief campaign strategist to Morris’ opponent.

As a distraction, Stephen allows himself to be flirted with by an intern, Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), whose father happens to be chairman of the Democratic National Committee. One thing leads to another – but beside winding up in bed with her, Stephen discovers a secret that could rock the campaign itself.

Even as he does, he’s being wooed by Duffy, who tries to convince him to jump ship, telling him that there are unexploded bombshells on Morris’ path that will cut the campaign off at the knees. Ever the optimist, Stephen insists that Morris will win the nomination – only to be blindsided by the kind of dirty dealing he assumed he was too smart to fall prey to.

Which leads to the salient point of the film – and to the political reality of the world today: If you’re too high-minded to get down in the mud with your opponent – but your opponent can grab victory by playing dirty – who’s the winner? The one who can say, “Well, at least I took the high road”? Or the one who now has the office and can be The Decider? Swift Boats, anyone?

Hoffman’s character even comes out and says it: that Democrats are so worried about being accused of not playing fair that they inevitably lose to Republicans, who have no concerns about such matters. It’s why the Democrats perpetually have to play catch-up, to be on the defensive answering specious charges or explaining issues (gay marriage, school prayer) that rouse the base while having little or no impact on the national crises we face. The Republicans are masters of misdirection and disinformation; the Democrats never figure out how to counter that – or play the game themselves.

“The Ides of March” is about that electoral-year ground game: slugging it out in the trenches, against opponents who see idealism as weakness and truth as a weapon, to be bent and shaped in whatever way provides the greatest advantage.

Clooney keeps the tension high, focusing on Gosling’s Stephen, whose getting-of-wisdom is a fast and painful process. The melodramatics of it – the power shifts, the give-and-take, the clouding of the idea of good vs. evil – is handled with brisk intelligence, which assumes an audience’s ability to keep up with action that isn’t necessarily spelled out.

Gosling makes Stephen a steely, capable warrior who learns a few new tricks in the process of fighting for his political life. Gosling is exceptional at snapping shut our access to Stephen’s interior – and to letting us see his vulnerability.

He’s a good match for the blunt Hoffman, who blends a pile-driver’s power with a surgeon’s touch. Giamatti is his likable opposite: crafty, shifty, seductive – and cold-blooded. And Clooney captures the effortless charisma and short attention span of a man in demand, one who can turn up the high beams when it serves his interest, or close down when it isn’t.

“The Ides of March” is gripping stuff, a solid political drama with a rueful message, one that Democrats have sucked at learning for the last three years – or the past 30 years, really. It’s a welcome addition to the canon of essential political films.

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