At first glance, The Ides of March seems like a typical ambitious political drama. That certainly holds true for the first two acts, when the audience is presented with two candidates running for the Democratic Party presidential primaries in Ohio. The film deals mostly with one of these sides, Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), who, alongside both his senior campaign manager (Philip Seymour Hoffman) and his junior campaign manager (Ryan Gosling), battle against Ted Pullman (Michael Mantell) and his team, commanded by Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti). However, during the film’s final act, things take a turn for the personal when a sexy blond intern named Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) becomes the central piece in a spiral of lust, betrayal, and tragedy. With this turn of events and the inclusion of a soapy melodrama alongside a grandiose tale of power struggles in the high ranks of the political world, one can’t be blamed for being confused as to what exactly Clooney-as-director is trying to convey.
I wouldn’t be the first to point out that the underlying message in The Ides of March is terribly simplistic and doesn’t bring anything new to the table. Many reviews have stressed the film’s initial ambitious setup, only to later fall into the obvious: politics is a nasty, dirty, and corrupt business. However, when critics emphasize the obviousness of such an idea, they’re also buying into this tempting ideological pitfall. This discourse is not merely fallacious, but also dangerous; it’s the seed for every anti-democratic movement in history. Democracy and politics are, according to The Ides of March, spaces where idealism and naivety walk hand in hand, and those who thrive and succeed can only do so through cunning cynicism. Clooney may have attempted to show how complex and intricate the world of power can be, but by resorting to a commonplace definition of politics and a bleak nihilistic message for cheap shock value, he falls into the exact opposite of the spectrum: over-simplifying the whole democratic dispute to a mere game of corruption and thirst for power. One could argue that films rarely bring forth complex messages anyway — nor should they be required to — but there’s a larger problem at stake if all you can state is the “obvious” without being able to grasp the crypto-fascist undertones present in this discourse.
Alternatively, you could simply choose to ignore these larger implications and concentrate on what is directly on the screen. The melodramatic aspects present in The Ides of March make this perfectly possible, and one could merely see it as an individualized storyline that just happens to take place in the world of politics. To this end, the film is strongest when the excellent performances are showcased, especially by the supporting cast. While Gosling does a fine job as the captivating campaign manager, Hoffman and Giamatti steal the show every time they’re in the spotlight. Despite the fact that Hoffman conveys his usual larger-than-life performance, it fits him perfectly as the extremely ambitious, loyalty-obsessed, paranoid campaign manager. Likewise, Gosling’s charm serves him well, showing how charisma may be the most vital trait one can possess in the business of politics. Even the small screen time given to Marisa Tomei is enough for her to shine in the role of the pesky New York Times reporter, a position powerful enough to allow her to destroy political careers overnight
Perhaps Clooney’s vision could have worked better in a mini-series format, the place in contemporary media where acclaimed political dramas and overtly complex sagas seem to have found their place (The Wire, Brotherhood, Sopranos). At a mere 101 minutes, if feels like we’re not given enough time to both fully understand this complex world and comprehend the characters that battle in its arena. Still, The Ides of March is not a bad film, and it certainly appeals to those who (like myself) devour political dramas. I’d recommend it for the acting alone. Chances are, however, you’ll forget about it faster than you can say realpolitik.