Movie Review: “The Ides of March” – Et tu, George Clooney?

By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic

Along the way to reaffirming your worst fears about our current state of affairs in the U.S., George Clooney’s “The Ides of March” smartly reminds that things really haven’t changed since the days of Caesar. Heck…it goes back further than the Sumerians, maybe even before Alley Oop first wrote bad things about Barney Rubble on the cave wall.

But irony of ironies, as it is astutely outlined in Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon’s screenplay, our governmental road to perdition is very often paved with the best of intentions. In this intelligent allegory, Ryan Gosling’s Stephen Meyers, though a political wunderkind everyone wants working on his campaign, is essentially an unsullied idealist.

Surely he couldn’t employ his full intellect and cunning if he didn’t truly believe George Clooney’s Governor Mike Morris was the Democratic Party’s best choice to win the White House and set the country right. He’s got that great moral imperative mojo going for him. Remember it? Well, suffice it to note Stephen is about to enter the crucible.

Though his film is in color, Clooney the director captures a stark realism that reminds of a style when only black and white was used for films with something of gravity to say. After all, this is serious stuff. Gosh knows what’ll happen to us if Morris doesn’t win. Oh, sure, it’ll be a challenge. But remember, Stephen is the best media mind in the country.

All of which makes it hard to believe that he accedes to a secret meeting with Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the opposition’s chief campaign guru. Skip the details. Just be informed that for Stephen it’s the official beginning of his innocence lost, and for this tautly entertaining movie it’s the kickoff of an intriguing ride through the political funhouse.

We join the campaign in the swing state of Ohio, where all the colorful characters are in place. Seeking the truth for The New York Times is Marisa Tomei as savvy Ida Horowicz; Philip Seymour Hoffman is Stephen’s boss, Paul Zara, the battle-scarred veteran; and Evan Rachel Wood is Molly Stearns, the pretty, impressionable intern. Yep, you’re right.

This bodes trouble and makes for the soap opera thread that runs through the story. But let’s face it, that’s the way it is, from Delilah to Monica, which suggests that, conversely, maybe everything is really a big soap opera, but with a little real life running through it. Still, while we’ve seen this scenario before, here it is nicely updated to reflect the times.

In our present condition, when not only has the concept of a loyal opposition virtually disappeared, but is routinely scoffed by ideologues and mini megalomaniacs, Clooney’s conscientious look into the ship of state is welcome. Pardon the optimism, but surely the folks who pulled together to defeat the Axis powers can emerge from this ugly miasma.

So it is no wonder we have high hopes for Governor Morris. He certainly looks good on paper. And, we sure like his gutsy candor. Addressing his random birth to Catholic parents, the candidate notes that he is not Catholic, Jewish or Muslim. Rather, his religion is the Constitution of the United States. Hmm…I’ve been saying that all along. I like him.

Then again, considering the recent landscape in the U.S. of A., the cynic in us fears there is something wrong with this picture. Stephen’s indiscretion is just the tip of the iceberg. Get ready to get your hands dirty. Right again, Signor Machiavelli. For even allegedly squeaky clean Mike Morris’s campaign operation has its share of backroom dealings.

Shaken to its roots, this is essentially a tale of survival, how our basic instincts have adapted language, psychology and other human abilities acquired during the last 30,000 years or so to ensure our perceived well-being in the group. Scratch the surface of any political campaign just a tad and the full-fanged primitiveness will stare right back at you.

All the same, many of us—especially the folks on my side of the aisle—like to think that the answer to the question, “After all, what are we, barbarians?” is an unequivocating “Well, not really. We’re working on it. It’s those other guys holding us back.” But while similarly subjective, “The Ides of March” does wag a decrying finger at both camps.

This is in essence a feature length iteration of that great bit of punditry Walt Kelly coined in his Pogo comic strip when he opined, “We have met the enemy and he is us.” Hence, while done better in “The Best Man” (1964) and “The Candidate” (1972), rarely has the time been more right for this earnest reminder to beware “The Ides of March.”

“The Ides of March,” rated R, is a Columbia Pictures release directed by George Clooney and stars Ryan Gosling, George Clooney and Philip Seymour Hoffman. Running time: 101 minutes

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