Approval ratings for the President and Congress have plummeted. The Ides of March, George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, does nothing to restore faith in our political process. What the film provides is the opportunity to see Clooney and his fellow actors at the top of their game. The film should do well during awards season, perhaps better than incumbents fare during the 2012 elections.
Clooney said he was inspired to direct the film (based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon) after his father’s unsuccessful 2004 campaign to represent Kentucky’s 4th Congressional District. Nick Clooney lost that election and went back to writing. If the Clooney family’s experience was anything like what is shown in this film, we can easily understand that outcome.
Clooney plays Governor Mike Morris running for the Democratic Presidential nomination, his closest opponent, Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell, seen primarily on posters). The action focuses on the second level of power, those running the two campaigns who know that if their candidate loses, they will be out, the only option opening a consulting business on Farragut North, hence the name of the play.
Clooney’s Morris seems too good to be true, a liberal with movie star looks (it is Clooney, after all), who, whether facing questions from the press or the public, manages to turn even the nastiest splitter into a home run. He turns on fast ones about religion (Mitt Romney, are you watching?) pledging allegiance to the Constitution rather than God. The crowds eat it up.
Even this clever act is not enough to guarantee a win in Ohio. The senator from North Carolina, played by Jeffrey Wright, holds more than 300 delegates in his pocket, delegates being sought after by both candidates. There’s a catch. Thompson wants to be Secretary of State, something that Morris is loathe to promise even if it means he will lose the nomination. Morris’ campaign director, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his assistant, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), are unable to convince Morris to compromise. We suspect that the issue isn’t dead. Morris will be forced to take the deal tarnishing his squeaky clean image.
While Clooney stars as the president, the film belongs to Gosling, who is fast becoming his generation’s leading actor. (See our reviews of Blue Valentine and Drive, two films that also feature stellar performances by Gosling). He makes Meyers’ transformation from the cocky campaign worker to a young man fighting to save his career believable and wrenching to watch.
Hoffman is having a busy few months also playing the Oakland A’s manager Art Howe in Moneyball. As the gruff, unkempt, chain-smoking campaign manager, Hoffman’s Zara stands in stark contrast to Clooney’s impeccable Morris. What we see in public masks the less appealing work going on behind the scenes. Morris may be the face of the campaign, but Zara is the one rolling around in the muck.
Paul Giamatti is the opposing campaign manager, Tom Duffy, whose dirty tricks set in motion events that will change everyone’s life and alter the course of the primary. The scenes between Giamatti and Gosling are particularly fun to watch.
Evan Rachel Wood plays Molly Stearns, a campaign volunteer, who, despite her youth and inexperience attempts to deal with Meyers as an equal. (Her father is head of the Democratic National Committee). Molly’s cynical comments about the campaign, as well as her aggressive flirtations, lead Meyers to overestimate her maturity and her resilience, with devastating consequences. Marisa Tomei has a small role as an aggressive New York Times reporter, but manages to make the most of what she’s given.
At times the film can seem claustrophobic. Much of the action happens on small sets—campaign headquarters, a hotel room, a bar, a bus—with few extras, no surprise since the film began as a stage play. Yet this smallness somehow works. What happens on the big stage of a national campaign is less important than what happens in all those back rooms. A sobering thought for the months ahead.