‘Ides of March’ well-acted, lacks punch
UPDATED – The Ides of March” opens through the prism of a liberal’s desire: Mike Morris, the governor of Pennsylvania, is elegant and loquacious, stoking the passions of Democratic primary voters by espousing his environmental and secularist credentials, saying simply his religion is the United States Constitution. He’s pro-jobs and anti-war. And he’s played by George Clooney.
The political world showcased in “Ides” (directed by Clooney and based on the play “Farragut North” by Beau Willimon), though, is about as steeped in reality as “Jersey Shore.”
The primary race between Morris and his surprisingly reclusive opponent, Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell, “Ocean’s Thirteen”), is an entertaining display of political civility. The larger importance, the effect on the American people, is played down, resulting in a far more entertaining experience than the current bitter divide allows. Political charisma and integrity are currency, even as Clooney and Willimon seek to tear those ideals down.
It’s hard to connect on a personal level to such high standards. This type of political landscape does not exist, especially after a decade of brutal acrimony between the parties, where it’s more common to reflexively disagree than to work to find middle ground.
But as stated, the political battle really isn’t the issue in “Ides.” It’s less about who’s elected than about the loss of innocence. In particular, Stephen Meyers’s innocence, played by an emotive-eyed Ryan Gosling (“Drive”). Stephen, a prodigious campaign strategist, is what you’d call a true believer: He’s done drunk the Kool-Aid, and you won’t find a more fervent believer in Morris. He believes Morris is America’s last hope in rescuing it from its follies.
Stephen’s not alone in this campaign, however. He works for Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman, “The Big Lebowski”) and works against Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti, “Sideways”), who’s the Pullman campaign manager. The best scenes, the most natural and intriguing, transpire when these seasoned politicos battle it out, pulling naive Stephen along for the ride. And then there’s the journalist: Ida Horowicz (Marisa Tomei, “The Wrestler”), a New York Times reporter who seems to be the only one covering the primary.
There are layers of political intrigue. Though Morris is by far the more appealing candidate, his victory in the Ohio primary is still unsure. And he’s faced with back-room dealing before even reaching the White House, contemplating whether to cut a deal with a opportunistic North Carolina senator (Jeffrey Wright, “Casino Royale”), who commands a legion of loyal convention delegates.
But these issues are illusionary, playing second fiddle to more abstract matters: honor, integrity, character. “Ides’” dark score and matching cinematography elude drama worthy of such ideals, even if they elicit undue tension in comparison with what’s actually happening.
The personal intrigues, though, are captivating. Stephen’s high-flying trajectory veers off-course when he stumbles into a unseemly situation with Duffy, which neatly segues into sexual encounters with Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood, “The Wrestler”), an intern (surprise, surprise) with a powerful father and a dark secret capable of crashing the entire Morris campaign.
Director Clooney deftly handles the movie’s complications. Actor Clooney oozes equal measures charm and menace, a signature trademark. He gives a wide berth to other actors to play to their own strengths. And it’s in these scenes — the quiet meetings, the Sorkinesque banter — where the movie shines.
But there aren’t enough of these scenes, and “Ides” lacks gravitas. It has a message, which it makes without being too preachy, but it’s nothing you didn’t know before: Powerful men tend to treat women like objects; reporters aren’t infallible; politicians sometimes lie. But if that’s news to you, “Ides” may be the most sensational movie you see all year.
Three political stars out of five.