Film Rating: C–
About an hour into George Clooney’s new political thriller “The Ides of March,” I felt a strong urge to imitate Graham Chapman’s no-nonsense General from “Monty Python’s Flying Circus” by standing up and addressing the crowd thusly while the projection sputtered to a halt behind me:
“Right, right, stop it. This film's got silly. Started off with a nice little idea about politics making people do bad things, but now it's got silly. Evan Rachel Wood doesn’t even look like she’s a teenager. The whole thing is silly and it’s very badly written. So I’m stopping it.”
This was right around the time the film abandoned all pretense of nuance or subtlety by killing off a main character and hopping over the line into soap opera territory. Clooney – wearing the Director, co-writer, and co-star hats on this one – clearly has something to say about politics in this film. It’s the same thing we all have to say about politics: they suck. I am perfectly willing to sit through a film analyzing why politics suck, it’s a rather fascinating issue, but given my interest in the subject and the amount of time I spend digesting political information, I want something insightful. Clooney – who I have immense respect for as a filmmaker and actor – doesn’t have anything particularly revelatory to share with us here. I don’t know if he was let down by author Beau Willimon’s source material, Farragut North, or if he just chose to enter production with a half-baked script, but whatever the case, Clooney’s message about the nature of politics is laughably half baked: politics is dirty because everyone involved is in some way dirty or sinister themselves, and anyone wishing to get involved in politics without watching their morals take a bullet to the head better stop dreaming.
On the surface, that may seem fair. We all hate politicians. The phrase has developed a startlingly negative connotation; at this point, scandal and corruption seem to be the norm, rather than the exception. But there are two major problems with the message “The Ides of March” employs to explain this phenomenon: 1) It’s dramatically inert. If Clooney’s message is we hate politicians because most politicians are legitimately bad people, then Clooney is simply reinforcing the starting position of the audience without adding anything new to the discussion. Nobody leaves the theatre any wiser than they were before. That’s just not good drama. 2) The message makes very little sense. The American political system involves countless hundreds of individuals constantly swapping out with hundreds of new individuals. Logically speaking, the system can’t be broken simply because everyone who enters and exits is morally compromised. There must be something inherent in the system that makes people morally compromised, slows our progress, and destroys the collective conscience of our nation.
If one asked Clooney to describe the message of the film, I’m almost certain he’d provide this explanation, that “The Ides of March” is a parable for how the system inherently corrupts. I think it’s fairly clear that this is the message the film wants to send. Alas, it is not the ultimate message of the film, mostly due to a series of very silly narrative choices, contrivances, and over-simplifications, all designed to create artificial ‘thrills’ and spoon-feed a weak thesis to the audience.
The film takes place during the heated final days of a fictional Democratic Presidential primary election. Protagonist Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) is the Junior Campaign Manager for Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), an experienced, idealistic, and beloved candidate. Myers is a young political genius, and with a healthy lead in hand, the nomination seems to be a no-brainer. Then Myers gets a call from the opposing campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), and things quickly begin spiraling downhill: Duffy has some bad news in store for the Morris campaign, and meeting with Duffy proves even worse for Myers’ career. The campaign is suddenly in jeopardy, and it’s here where the film started to lose me. The first twenty minutes or so are far from perfect, but they hint at a very thoughtful, nuanced examination of American politics, how the relentless tug-of-war between media, public image, and ideals makes politics a no-win scenario. Myers’ fateful chat with Duffy, for example, only reinforces the ruthless nature of the game.
Then the film takes a silly turn. Myers uncovers a scandal involving Morris and an intern, and suddenly, the film becomes a lot less subtle. The ‘dramatic’ choices Myers has to make play like something out of a soap opera, while the people around him do increasingly sillier and sillier things. It’s hard to explain without spoiling the entire movie, but suffice to say, the mess that is created only exists because the characters in the film make a number of bad decisions, and because the script provides some very artificial plot contrivances. That makes it impossible to say anything substantive about the nature of American politics: if the plot is set in motion by a few misguided individuals, then no statement is being made about politics as a whole. Our protagonist Myers is certainly being manipulated by forces outside his control, but while the film wishes to explain how the system determines those forces, the forces are instead a small number of politicians in his immediate circle. That represents a microscopic problem with a few fictional characters, not the larger social issue the film wishes to tackle.
Once I realized this, the film completely lost my interest. I can go to the CNN website at any given minute on any given day to read more evidence about the broken nature of politics or the corruption of those in office. When it comes to narrative fiction on the issue, I want something that analyzes the underlying cause, something that strives to do more than reinforce what I already know with series of silly, lazy, and soapy ‘thriller’ tropes. That could be just me. Some Americans pay little attention to politics and will be shocked by what they see in “The Ides of March.” Good. The film is nothing if not provocative, and for those who enjoy it and find it revelatory, I hope it gets them thinking. We need as many people thinking as critically as possible if we are to set things straight, and “The Ides of March” is at least a conversation starter.
Many of the actual conversations in the film, though, need never have started, because while the message and intent of the movie may be debatable, I think one would be hard pressed to ignore some of the film’s stilted dialogue. Certain characters speak only in pointed, on-the-nose rhetoric, the kind that defeats the purpose of revealing a message through narrative, while other actors have to deliver the lion’s share of the exposition. As a visual medium, it is the filmmaker’s job to show, rather than tell, but much of the dialogue simply recaps things the audience has already gathered. Most of the dialogue moves pleasantly and naturalistically, but there are enough trouble spots to bog down the film.
Luckily, there is a saving grace: the tremendous performances delivered by the excellent cast. This is Ryan Gosling’s second Oscar-caliber performance in the span of a month, and if I wasn’t quite as impressed by his work here as I was in “Drive,” that’s only because this is an inferior film. As in “Drive,” it’s a largely internalized performance, with Gosling once again displaying his remarkable capacity for saying more without words than with them. Even when the film gets silly, Gosling keeps things grounded; the script doesn’t truly earn Myers’ idealistic journey, but Gosling sells the hell out of it. Gosling will almost certainly earn an Oscar nomination for either this or “Drive,” and I’d love to see him win a trophy this February: no other lead actor has delivered such consistently strong work in 2011.
Clooney’s role is actually very minor, with Morris mostly operating in the background; this isn’t a remarkable turn by Clooney – he more or less plays himself – but that’s what makes him the perfect man for the part. Clooney looks and sound Presidential, maintaining the dignified, intelligent presence that makes Morris such an irresistible candidate. Again, I really didn’t like where Morris’ story goes, but Clooney expertly synthesizes the two wildly divergent sides of the character. Phillip Seymour Hoffman seems a bit bored in his role as Morris’ Senior Campaign Advisor, but I can’t really blame him; there’s almost nothing to the character, and though Hoffman certainly isn’t bad, I don’t think he elevates the material in the way Gosling or Clooney do. Paul Giamatti, on the other hand, is wonderful, and though he’s saddled with some eye-rolling exposition at times, his character – a hauntingly human amalgamation of everything politics has become – also gets to deliver the film’s most thoughtful and provocative messages.
The only truly problematic piece of the ensemble is Evan Rachel Wood, though it’s certainly not her fault. Her character, an intern working on the Morris campaign, is supposed to be twenty; younger, probably, if we heed some of the film’s winking promptings. Wood is an absolutely beautiful woman, don’t get me wrong, but she doesn’t look twenty or younger, and more importantly, the inherent maturity she brings to all her roles is completely at odds with her character. This intern makes some bad decisions and is emotionally unstable; she may be successful, gaining a prestigious internship at this age, but the point of her character is that she’s not yet mature. That’s completely against type for Wood, who specializes in characters wise beyond their years, and her performance never suggests anything less than total maturity and stability. Since the entire plot revolves around her, it’s a suspension of disbelief that just doesn’t work, and accounts for a good 50% of the film’s rampant silliness.
Despite such absurdity, “The Ides of March” is not horrible. Far from it. It’s very well-acted, and there are moments when the script is thoughtful enough to truly deliver something substantive. Paul Giamatti has a speech about the political weaknesses of the Democratic Party that is simply fascinating; as a registered Democrat, I’m constantly pondering what it is about our party that is so ineffective, and this bit of dialogue takes an excellent stab at explaining why. There are other such moments scattered throughout, but they are few and far between. I appreciate the film’s effort to provoke, to start conversations about America’s broken political system. What I don’t have room for is the silliness, the story points that exist only to artificially strengthen a weak message. The film encounters a crossroads early on in the narrative where it could choose to walk a more complex – but also more rewarding – path, but like most politicians, it ultimately chooses to take the easy route, and as such, it accomplishes very little.