Ides of March
Directed by George Clooney
Starring: Ryan Gosling, Philip Seymour Hoffman, George Clooney, Evan Rachel Wood
Rated R for pervasive language
1 hr. 41 min.

This film’s premise is not new: Young political idealist discovers that elections are a dirty business — really dirty — gets his heart broken and becomes cynical.

What is new here is a story of how American politics have become integrated with our 24-hour news cycle. In this brave new broadcast world, spin is the medium and the news. Politicians and pundits play to the microphone, play to the camera, play fast and loose with the truth.

It’s a rough and tumble presidential election year. On the eve of the Ohio primary, Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) is the press secretary for Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), one of the leading Democratic candidates for president. He is running neck and neck with the opposing candidate, Senator Pullman from Ohio. Both sides need to win Ohio to have a shot at gaining the nomination for president.

Myers is a campaign veteran who knows how to play dirty. In this case, however, he’s convinced he doesn’t have to.

He believes that Morris the man can win the right way, with vision and integrity. As Myers soon learns, political integrity has its own sliding scale.

Myers receives a mysterious call from Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), Pullman’s campaign manager. After meeting secretly in a local Cincinnati bar, Duffy surprises Myers by offering him the job as Pullman’s press secretary. Myers turns down the job, then tells campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) what he’s done. Is Zara angry?

Yes, but Myers thinks that he’s smoothed things over. What he doesn’t know is that he is now on Zara’s hit list.

To make matters worse, Myers has a fling with beautiful campaign intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood). One night after they’ve gone at it in her hotel room, Molly receives a mysterious call on her cell phone. Since she’s asleep, Myers picks up her phone and hears a familiar voice. Waking up Stearns, he confronts her about who is calling at 2 a.m. The answer to that question tragically impacts everything Myers believes about this campaign.

There isn’t much in this film that we haven’t seen in other political movies. Backstabbing, spin, influence pedaling, campaign sex. It could just as well be a film about the Kennedy, Nixon, Clinton or George W. campaigns. Fortunately for director George Clooney, he has two things going for him: First, an excellent cast. All the leads (including Clooney) seem to relish their roles and visually transform into characters that exude that road-weary determination it takes to survive a presidential campaign. (In particular, Hoffman and Giamatti become dangerous political spiders who would readily bite and poison anyone if it meant picking up delegates. They’re not in this for the ideology. They get paid to win.) Second, despite the film’s standard plot, writers Clooney, Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon have sharply written this film, providing an insider’s perspective on how politics and passion boil up into a tsunami that is bigger than words, bigger than ideals. It’s as if someone secretly filmed campaign rhetoric and put it to paper.

Who knows? Maybe Willimon, who wrote the play Farragut North on which this film is based, has accurately captured what he learned from his days on the campaign trail. The dialogue feels that real.

This film is predictable and yet, its observations cut to the core of our assumed democratic ideals. It snarls and bites and chews up more than its pound of flesh. It’s unflinching and cynical, but who can argue with its premise? The politicians in this film. The politicians in real life. They look the same. They dress the same. They sound the same.

There’s a good reason for that. That’s because, as Ides amply demonstrates, they are the same.

 

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