Political potboiler gets a 'no' vote
By Ann Hornaday
Friday, Oct 07, 2011
"The Ides of March" is based on Beau Willimon's 2008 play "Farragut North," but George Clooney - who directs and stars in this snappy, well-crafted but ultimately empty adaptation - changed the title, presumably in deference to viewers who may not be familiar with Washington's Metro system.
The new title also telegraphs that someone in this story of American realpolitik at its most cutthroat will get it in the end: Will it be Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), the gifted, cipher-like media consultant working for Democratic governor Mike Morris? Will it be Paul (Philip Seymour Hoffman), Steve's boss and seasoned political hack who, with his protege, is trying desperately to clinch the Ohio primary for Morris? Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the crafty operative working for Morris's opponent?
Or will it be Morris himself - portrayed by Clooney as a handsome, charismatic campaigner, who begins his stump speech with the stirring words, "I am not a Christian. I am not an atheist. . . . My religion is written on a piece of paper called the Constitution."
No wonder Steve is in a swoon. As he says to a political reporter Ida Horowitz (Marisa Tomei), he's a true believer, he's drunk the Kool-Aid, this time it's love: Asked if he really believes "all this take-back-the-country nonsense," Steve doesn't hesitate. Morris, he tells Ida, is "The One."
That rhetoric, combined with the Shepard Fairey-inspired graphics that are now required in every movie about politics in the 21st century, suggests that "The Ides of March" will offer fresh, of-the-moment commentary on post-Obama political culture. But viewers looking for penetrating insight - rather than a well-crafted political potboiler - will come away from "The Ides of March" sorely disappointed.
Granted, Clooney, who adapted Willimon's script with the playwright and his frequent collaborator Grant Heslov, exhibits a crisp, assured touch with arresting set pieces and vivid sequences of visual storytelling: The opening sequence, when the audience hears Morris's stump speech for the first time, flawlessly presages the film's essential question of just who is a proxy for whom in the parasitic relationship of candidates to their consultants. Later in the film, a pivotal blood-letting takes place entirely behind the darkened windows of an idling black SUV.
And Clooney keeps up the taut, propulsive pace throughout "The Ides of March," as a fatal misstep and a whopper of a coincidence threaten to unravel what was once a bright political future.
As he has done in his two previous directorial efforts, "Confessions of a Dangerous Mind" and "Good Night and Good Luck," Clooney elicits terrific performances from his players, gamely letting Hoffman (who between "The Ides of March" and "Moneyball" may be this movie season's MVP), Gosling and Giamatti take the lion's share of the film's most toothsome dialogue, brimming with the kind of political argot - with its clipped references to white paper, internals and opp research - that Aaron Sorkin turned into such soaring poetry in "The West Wing."
Indeed, "The Ides of March" is so well directed and acted that it's easy to overlook how dated and shallow it is; the climactic twist, when it arrives, feels plucked from another political era entirely: Their analogs today may be Axelrod and Plouffe, but Paul and Stephen are Carville and Begala. (In fact, Stephen is such a savvy operator that it's difficult to believe he wouldn't know the character played by Evan Rachel Wood before she introduces herself, just one of several implausibilities that Washington viewers may find fatally distracting.)
"The Ides of March" is cynical when, with political figures and institutions at all-time lows in public opinion, cynicism is the last thing we need; worse, that cynicism isn't spiked with any new or incisive insight.
Unlike such Great Rats of Cinema as Sidney Falco and Eve Harrington, the double-dealers and back-stabbers of "The Ides of March" possess nothing that lets viewers hitch a naughty vicarious ride; if Falco was the Boy With the Ice Cream Face, Stephen is the Boy With the Ice Cold Face, an impassive, unreadable mask that makes him good at poker but too withholding, finally, to care about.
Rather than probe the system it abhors, "The Ides of March" is content simply to reassure the audience that it's still rotting from within, the stench kept at bay by such spin-doctors as Stephen and the supine media he so expertly manipulates.
Clooney does a good job opening up the ideas Willimon first explored onstage, but the result is still a pessimistic truth so universally acknowledged that it doesn't bear repeating, however stylishly.
Put another way, the fault of "The Ides of March" lies not with its stars - or its smart, skillful director - but in its source material.
Contains pervasive profanity.