Alexander Payne’s The Descendants has been earning George Clooney a lot of praise (and an Oscar nomination) this awards season, but the star is just as good – if not better – in the political thriller The Ides of March, which he also directed.
Based on Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North, the film stars Clooney as Democratic presidential candidate Mike Morris, a level-headed, straight-shooting, smooth-talking Senator who is unwilling to compromise his ideals to gain political endorsement. If this kind of mythical creature existed, we’d all vote for him. Maybe we already have.
The Ides of March focuses more on Morris’ campaign team than Morris, but the candidate – and Clooney, in a role few others could play with such ease – leave an indelible impression on the film and its characters.
Chief among those is Morris’ press secretary, Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), the film’s protagonist, who works under campaign manager Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman).
Morris is in a tight race against Ted Pullman for the Democratic nomination, and Meyers and Zara are seeking the support of Senator Franklin Thompson (Jeffrey Wright), which would all but seal a win. Their only hurdle: convincing Morris to play Thompson’s game.
Meanwhile, Meyers is (seemingly) being wooed by Pullman’s campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), to come work for the other side. He also begins a relationship with intern Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), and gets wind of a possible scandal that could have large repercussions on the race.
With a plot driven by long, sustained conversations, this is very much an actor’s film, and the cast is up to task.
Hoffman and Giamatti are terrific as the embittered, seasoned pros, Marisa Tomei is effective in a small role as a canny reporter, and Gosling is perfectly cast as the young idealist who slowly turns. But it’s Clooney, in a role left unseen in the play, whose presence looms largest.
At a time when many Democrats feel disillusioned by the lack of progress under the Obama administration, The Ides of March feels particularly relevant. Only some small contrivances in the climatic wheelings and dealings keep this from hitting as hard as it should.
The Ides of March was greeted by an appreciative, if lukewarm, critical reception when it opened in the US last October. It may not tell us anything new, but this cynical, pessimistic tale is an all-too pertinent reminder of the state of the political game.