Ambition’s debt is paid: The Ides of March **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on October 8, 2011)

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In the decidedly theatrical opener of George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, The Ides of March, a well-attired young man with a lean and hungry look emerges from backstage shadows, steps up to a podium and begins to address an empty hall. After muttering some standard-issue mike check gibberish, he begins to recite snippets of what sounds like some tried-and-true, audience-rousing political campaign rhetoric.

His tone becomes so assured and impassioned, you find yourself wondering if he is the one running for office. He’s not, actually. But he is playing to win. He’s a hotshot campaign advisor named Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling), a Ninja spin doctor (or, “Spinja” if you like) who also possesses something relatively rare in the cynical and duplicitous profession he has chosen to work in. He actually believes in the candidate he is working to put into office.

That candidate is Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), making a first-time bid for the presidency. The charismatic and straight-talking Morris is in a fierce fight to win the Ohio primary, which should cinch him as the Dem’s nominee. Stephen isn’t the only weapon in his arsenal; his campaign manager is Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) a seasoned veteran with an impressive track record. In the pecking order, Stephen answers to Paul. The one thing that Paul values above all is loyalty, and he makes no bones about it.

That is why Stephen is torn when approached by Paul’s competition, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti) who manages the rival campaign. After the obligatory “You should be working for the winning team, kid” pitch, Tom gives Stephen a “hot tip” that his camp has been assured a key endorsement from a senator (Jeffrey Wright) which will give Tom’s guy the win. Why is he telling Stephen this? Is it a trick? Then again, it’s nice to be wooed. In the meantime, Stephen does some wooing of his own, with an intern (Evan Rachael Wood). You would think that this sharp young man would know the pitfalls of office romance. This leads a huge pitfall…one that could sink the campaign.

I suppose that is the message of this film (politics is all awash in the wooing). The art of seduction and the art of politicking are one and the same; not exactly a new revelation (a narrative that goes back at least as far as, I don’t know, Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar). The politician is seduced by power. However, the politician first must seduce the voter. A pleasing narrative is spun and polished, promises are made, sweet nothings whispered in the ear, and the voter caves.

But once your candidate is ensconced in their shiny new office, well…about that diamond ring? It turns out to be cubic zirconium. Then it’s all about the complacency, the lying, the psychodramas, and the traumas. While a lot of folks do end up getting ‘screwed’, it is not necessarily in the most desirable and fun way. But I digress.

If you would indulge me my prurient analogy a wee bit more, Clooney’s film, while competently made and well-acted, could have used a little Viagra (or something). The TV ad campaign spins it as a political thriller, but while it involves politics, and does feature some intrigue, it’s not really that thrilling. I would classify as more of a political potboiler, simmering on medium high all of the way through.

The screenplay is by-the-numbers (Clooney co-adapted from Beau Willimon’s play, Farragut North with Willimon and Grant Heslov). Clooney is believable as presidential material (duh), Gosling continues to impress with his chameleon skills, and there are fine moments with Marisa Tomei (as well as Hoffman and Giamatti), but if you assemble this much potentially explosive talent, don’t just give ‘em caps and a hammer to play with. That’s free campaign advice.

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