by HELEN GEIB
A fashionable cynicism substitutes for nuance in George Clooney’s political drama The Ides of March. In addition to co-starring as the candidate du jour, a governor running for the Democrat nomination for president, Clooney directed and co-wrote the script (with Grant Heslov and Beau Willimon, from Willimon’s play Farragut North). Ryan Gosling has the lead role as a seasoned political operative whose idealism is crushed during the Ohio primary campaign.
To set the stage, a representative scene: Expository dialogue has firmly established that Gosling’s Stephen is the genius political mind of his generation and a master of media manipulation. The New York Times reporter (Marisa Tomei in a small role) who’s always hanging around asks for his comment on her next front-page scoop: He’s been seen having a beer in the middle of the day with the rival candidate’s campaign manager. Panicking while the world prepares to yawn, Stephen turns to her in his childlike hurt and says, “I thought you were my friend.”
Point #1: The Ides of March poses as a clear-eyed, hard-headed expose of the sordid reality of contemporary American politics. However, its substance is contrived situations, inconsistent characterization, and implausible plot twists. Clooney’s candidate hails from a neverland where 1) promising that in 10 years not a single car on America’s roads will run on an internal combustion engine and 2) pledging to institute two years of mandatory national service (community service, that is- he’s a Democrat don’t forget) for every 18-year-old followed by a free college education is 3) a winning platform.
Point #2: The languorous pacing creates ample space to contemplate the numbing familiarity of Stephen’s dilemma. He is shocked, shocked to discover that his personal savior is only human, after all. Evidently he has never read All the King’s Men (or any other political novel), watched Primary Colors (or any other political movie), or read a tell-all political memoir. He must be too young to remember Bill Clinton; he definitely is too young to remember Richard Nixon. This would also go far to explaining his unshakeable conviction that sleeping with the intern is the one and only thing a president can’t get away with.
Point #3: The intern at hand is two successive constructs, Nubile Sexpot giving way to Victimized Female Under Oppressive Patriarchy. The finger pointing ranges over the usual suspects of dad, the Catholic Church, and the Middle American puritanism that passes moral judgment on married middle-aged men who have sex with immature young women over whom they hold positions of authority.
Point #4: The film, also, spells everything out in bullet points, leaving nothing to inference or interpretation, emphasizing its brave revelations- politics is an ugly business, life requires compromise, and nobody’s perfect- with the cinematic equivalent of all caps, bold type, and double underlining. “Ironic shots of the Stars and Stripes” is drinking-game worthy. The “which path will he choose” shots of Stephen poised between light and shadow look pretty but get old.
Point #5: The acting is stellar. In addition to Gosling, Clooney, and Tomei, the principal cast includes Philip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Giamatti as the campaign managers.
Political movies to watch instead: The Best Man (1964), The Candidate (1972), and Wag the Dog (1997).