Based on Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North, which was loosely based on the 2004 Democratic primary campaign of Howard Dean, The Ides of March concerns a young press secretary’s education in the sort of compromise, corruption and throat-cutting that the weary sages tell us is essential to getting ahead in politics. But Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling) has it both ways—he’s simultaneously idealistic and shrewd—so when push comes to shove his fangs push their way out of his baby gums and he proves to be the all-too apt pupil of his immediate superior (Philip Seymour Hoffman), the opposition’s poacher (Paul Giamatti), the manipulative journalist (Marisa Tomei) he thought was his pal and, of course, the charismatic candidate he works for, Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (director and co-scripter George Clooney), who mostly stays in the film’s margins until its final act, until then entering the foreground only for a highly conspicuous, strategically placed scene of intimacy between he and his true-blue wife.
Much of the pleasure to be had in The Ides of March emerges from the initial buzz of the promise of victory emanating from Morris’ camp, of which Meyers is the behind-the-scenes star. A couple of beautifully realized scenes find Meyers flirting with a smart, lovely intern named Molly (Evan Rachel Wood). Clooney has assembled a magnificent cast and, with the help of cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, he crafts some superb flights of ping-pong dialogue in carefully composed close-ups. For much of the first half, there’s a slightly exposition-heavy quality to the dialogue that feels weirdly stagey yet gradually makes sense as you start to glean just how much of what we’re hearing and seeing is illusory or fundamentally full of shit. And herein lies the film’s weakness: it is precisely as cynical as you’d expect a movie about US politics from Clooney and his regular producer/collaborator Grant Heslov to be, while lacking in any specific or especially poignant revelations. Everything is tweaked to play neatly into the narrative schema, including an unexpected death that constitutes the limpest sort of plot twist (the reason it’s unexpected is because there’s no good reason to expect it). Clooney is a fine directorial talent, but the material—occasionally clever but never wise—is finally more shallow than it clearly wants to be. Still, worth checking out if you’re curious.