The Ides of March, the new political thriller directed by and starring George Clooney, is ready-made for America's current political climate, with plenty of behind-the-scenes skulduggery and—as the title suggests—some serious betrayal.
Clooney stars as Mike Morris, a plain-spoken, liberal governor running for the highest office in the land. He pushes all the right buttons with voters: green energy, more jobs and no more tax cuts for the wealthy. With the help of his campaign manager, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and spokesman Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), he's surging in the polls and looks like he's got a good shot. Zara has been through it all before and is much more matter-of-fact than Meyers, who's got stars in his eyes and truly believes Morris will be able to make a difference.
Much of the first half of the film is spent showing the workings of Morris' campaign: debates with his main opponent, Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell), television interviews and various appearances across the battleground state of Ohio during the primaries.
Enter Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), Pullman's campaign manager, who likes what he sees in Meyers and offers him a job on his team. Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), the daughter of the chairman of the DNC and an intern on Morris' campaign, makes no bones about her sexual attraction to Meyers, and they fall into bed together. As a result, Meyers makes some bad decisions and engineers some cover-ups that come to the attention of Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei), a New York Times reporter who threatens to blackmail him unless he delivers the big scoop.
The screenplay (by Clooney, Grant Heslov and former aide to Hillary Clinton, Beau Willimon, whose play it is based upon) has a lot of choice material for the high-powered cast to sink its teeth into, but this is not a film packed with oversized dramatic incident. Quite the contrary—it's a quietly chilling look at the manipulation and corruption inherent in modern politics.
Clooney, who is well-known (and loathed by some) for his liberal leanings, crafts a bleakly cynical vision of the political system—liberals and conservatives alike. For example, when Morris refuses an important senator's endorsement in exchange for a high-level cabinet post, Duffy sees his opportunity to swoop in for the kill. And when Meyers finds out about a dalliance Morris had with Molly, he works furiously to hush it up. Corruption breeds corruption, and no one is left untainted.
As I mentioned earlier, the film features a real dream cast. Hoffman and Giamatti play well off each other as the world-weary Zara and the manipulative Duffy. Wood continues to impress me after roles in 2008's The Wrestler and last season's True Blood. Marisa Tomei is appropriately cold-blooded as the reporter, Clooney is smooth as silk as Morris, and Gosling, well...
This is my third review this year of a film featuring Gosling for which I must give his performance a thumbs-up. Like Leonardo DiCaprio, he's got that special presence that makes it easy for you to become totally invested in the character he's playing, and watching Meyers' transformation from idealistic supporter to cold-eyed Washington operative is a wonder to behold.
Thumbs up, too, for Alexandre Desplat's fine score, and Phedon Papamichael's cinematography gives the Midwestern locations caught in the grip of winter an appropriate chilliness. Understated and intelligent, The Ides of March is sophisticated entertainment for discriminating viewers.
Speaking of DiCaprio, I'll be seeing Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar later this month, for which I'm sure I'll also be offering a review.