George Clooney's new film, The Ides of March, is only obliquely connected to the mother of all tales of political skulduggery, Shakespeare's Julius Caesar. It does have a Brutus, however, in the form of a 30-year-old political operative named Stephen Myers, the media adviser to the presidential primary campaign of Mike Morris, ultra-liberal governor of Pennsylvania.
Buoyed by populist positions on the environment and America's oil dependency, Morris (played by Clooney) is the front-runner for the Democratic Party's nomination heading into the crucial Ohio primary in the month of March. (Morris' platform is a liberal's wet dream; given that he's also an avowed atheist, the film must be set sometime around the year, I dunno, Not in My Lifetime A.D.)
The script has characters constantly telling us that Stephen (played by the suddenly ubiquitous Ryan Gosling) is a political wunderkind. Still, the only proof provided of his genius is a cynical national service scheme for teenagers not yet able to vote. In the midst of the Ohio campaign, Stephen succumbs to the advances of Molly (Evan Rachel Wood), a fetching 20-year-old intern and daughter of the DNC's chairman. It is also around this time that he makes the ludicrously naive mistake of agreeing to a clandestine meeting with Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the campaign manager for Morris' opponent, a fact Stephen fails to promptly reveal to his boss and mentor, Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman). The series of betrayals and recriminations that follow push this potboiler through its suspenseful paces.
The Ides of March is an adaptation of Beau Willimon's 2008 play Farragut North, loosely based on the 2004 campaign of Howard Dean. Directed by Clooney from a screenplay he wrote with his Good Night, and Good Luck collaborator Grant Heslov, the film is a polished product that produces moments of brilliance—a scene in which Morris receives a call from a deceased character's cellphone during the press conference assembled to announce that person's death is a sequence that would do Hitchcock proud.
Otherwise, Clooney's films still have a tendency to lurch and discount nuance in a trite, often ham-fisted hunt for the big twist or big metaphor. Characters rendezvous at public park benches for top-secret meetings. Air turbulence during a plane flight is conjoined with the onset of trouble in the Morris campaign. At the conclusion of one scene, Clooney holds the image of Stephen's silhouette cast against the backdrop of a giant American flag a beat too long, to the point that any symbolism of the moment starts giving way to parody.
Nevertheless, Clooney's main asset as a director is his power to recruit a crackerjack cast. Hoffman and Giamatti are utterly at ease playing wily but burned-out politicos—I left wanting a movie that focused on them. Wood gives her best performance since The Wrestler, even if Molly is written as a two-note character who morphs from sassy, feckless sexpot into tortured innocent, despite the fact that the events that propel her character had already occurred when she meets Stephen. Meaty if underwritten roles are ably filled by Marisa Tomei, as a hard-bitten New York Times reporter, and Jeffrey Wright, playing an ambitious Southern senator with enough delegates in his back pocket to sway the election. Clooney himself wisely underplays his screen time, which heightens the impact of his charisma whenever he appears.
Gosling is capable as always, yet his performance is also undercut by the screenplay. Shakespeare's treatment of Julius Ceasar's trusted confidant-turned-assassin is a complex portrait of altruism tinged with naïveté. By contrast, Stephen proves an opportunist of jarring, disjointed absolutes, a loyal idealist who too easily casts aside his principles to keep his seat in the political game and, yes, further the filmmakers' agenda.
The Ides of March is part of a long lineage of behind-the-scenes political dramas, including State of the Union, All the King's Men, The Candidate and especially Primary Colors, Mike Nichols' adaptation of a roman à clef about Bill Clinton's 1992 run for the White House. However, Clooney's movie is intended for interpretation through a more contemporary prism. Three years into the Obama presidency, Clooney, long a poster child for limousine liberalism, makes a movie about a Democratic candidate whose high-minded oratory belies someone who, when pressed, surrenders his ideals for the sake of political expedience and self-preservation. It seems that leveling cynicism toward the current administration has become as fashionable for progressives as when they used to heap indignation onto the previous one. Beware The Ides of March, for scorned liberals, as Marc Antony might say, are all honorable men.