“There’s exceptions to every rule,” admits Ryan Gosling to George Clooney in political thriller The Ides of March. Well, if the film’s anything to go by, in the world of politics, there are no rules at all. Except of course that teeny and, for the most part, unspoken one about not fooling around with interns. But surely of all the heinous mistakes a politician can make, that’s not the vital thing that could potentially sabotage their campaign…or is it?
Much like the political world itself, the plot of The Ides of March is all intense undercurrent, wrapped in a simple storyline, as smooth on the surface as the clean-shaven face of presidential candidate Mike Morris, played by Clooney, who proves that being behind the camera doesn’t detract from his performance in front. Morris and his opponent Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell) are currently campaigning in Ohio, and it would appear Morris is a shoe-in. That is, until Pullman’s top advisor Duffy (Paul Giamatti) tries to convince Stephen Meyers, Morris’s determined, albeit cocky, junior advisor to play for his team instead.
Adapted from a play entitled Farragut North, Clooney (who also partly wrote the screenplay) changed the name to The Ides of March for the screen – a deliciously symbolic title. The favourite interpretation is the allusion to Julius Caesar, whose assassination on that day was, of course, led by none other than his praetor.
But the most brutal instance of backstabbing in the film isn’t endured by Morris, but by Meyers, who is effectively betrayed by the ethics of politics and transparency of the wholesome values that Morris seemed to be the embodiment of. Meyers takes on an almost a tragic hero stature: his fall from grace only redeems himself part-way, and is sadly driven by the two motivations he thought, like the “real deal” Morris, he’d have: success and revenge.
If Clooney has indeed set out to create a somewhat Shakespearian character study of politicians, he has not been unsuccessful. Indeed, the film is more admirable when viewed this way, as opposed to being seen as a straightforward political thriller. For the film, though beautifully shot and acted, isn’t groundbreaking: it doesn’t give us a harrowing insight into American politics and conspiracies. Rather, very general political issues are addressed and Morris doesn’t appear to be a caricature of any specific politician. What it does do is highlight the shallowness and fakery of the campaigning process that accompanies an election in a way that applies to politics internationally.
It is Gosling and Clooney who are receiving the most kudos for their performances, and the praise is deserved. Even at Meyers’s most morally low moments, Gosling retains a trace of sympathy. And Clooney slips into his role as comfortably as Morris fastens his suit, showing yet again that no one can play “suave” quite like him. But recognition should also go to Philip Seymour Hoffman, Morris’s highly-strung lead campaign advisor, who places loyalty above all other traits (seemingly the second most heinous mistake one can make in the political world.) Evan Rachel Wood also turns in a solid performance as the promiscuous intern with a big secret.
Clooney once said of directing: “It’s more fun to be the painter than the paint.” In 2005, he proved that he could use a camera like Michelangelo could a brush with Good Night, and Good Luck. Though the academy gave him a best directing Oscar nod that year, he lost out. But who knows? The Ides of March may just be Clooney’s David, and gain him his own little statue of the golden variety. Is it a jaw-dropping, outrageous examination of politics at their most controversial? No. Is it slick, thought-provoking film making? Yes. Is it deserving of the numerous accolades it will undoubtedly receive? Certainly. Simple as first-past-the-post.