Movie Review – The Ides of March (2011)


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.

1 star


Political movies to watch instead: The Best Man (1964), The Candidate (1972), and Wag the Dog (1997).

20 responses to “Movie Review – The Ides of March (2011)

  1. Don’t think I’m going to see this one! But I’ll add to your excellent list of alternatives. For a look at real (if artfully edited) politics, see The War Room. A Face in the Crowd takes a tough look at media manipulation. Dave covers a lot of the same territory but manages to be funny and hopeful about it.

    • Thanks for reminding me of “The War Room”, that’s one I still need to see. “A Face in the Crowd” would make an excellent double feature with “Wag the Dog”.

  2. Richard Winters

    Another good film satirizing politics is ‘Bulworth’ with Warren Beatty. I’m glad you mentioned ‘The Best Man’, which stars Cliff Robertson who just recently passed away.

  3. Wag the Dog is a brilliant film. Well, what did you expect? It was written by David Mamet. And Bulworth was also excellent.

    And I’m still intrigued by this film [The Ides of March]. Helen, is it relevent at all to Macbeth?

    • I haven’t read “Julius Caesar” since high school (and have never seen it performed on stage), but that said I really don’t see any relevance to the movie. I tried to draw a parallel between Stephen and Brutus or Morris (the governor) and Caeasr, but didn’t get anywhere with it. Honestly I think the title was chosen because someone in marketing thought it sounded cool.

      • Why on earth did I think that it was from Macbeth?
        And I still hadn’t ever read Julius Cesar. Our grade 10 teacher had chosen Twelfth Night instead of Julius Cesar because she prefered that we read a comedy instead of another tragedy. Luckily, it was a good choice. :O)

  4. Though you may a plethora of clear eyed points, you’re entirely shortchanging Clooney’s storytelling techniques and how he’s able to create an erie, thrilling atmosphere.

  5. This is entertaining even if suspense barely builds and pay-off revelations come with little surprise. Clooney, as a director, is also able to draw-out amazing performances from this whole ensemble cast. Great review Helen.

  6. Just came back from watching this film and I found it to be rather fun. It was interesting, the first half slightly more interesting than the second because it dealt [only] with poilitics, and the second half was more melodramatic. I found very little implausible in this film, I even enjoyed how naive Stephen was. Just because he has a brilliant mind doesn’t mean that he must be corrupt. His character so pure that I found that what happened in the final 30 minutes was entirely intriguing and not contrived.

    • [this comment has spoilers]

      When Stephen says “I thought we were friends” to the NYT reporter, her reaction can be summarized as “Are you kidding me?” That’s how I felt about the character of Stephen as written. It’s fine to build up the tragic hero so his fall will be all the harder, and a “golden boy” type who discovers he doesn’t understand people can be the stuff of high drama, but the drama only works when the characterization is credible.

      We’re _told_ that he’s a political genius:

      – Duffy fawns over him in public and in private, and devises a Machiavellian scheme to get him off the campaign
      – “I’ve been on more campaigns than most people have by the time they’re 40”
      – the intern’s “you’re the hotshot rising star” speech

      What we _see_ is amateur hour:

      – days before a midseason swing state election he has to be educated by his rival about the significance of the open primary
      – he mistakes Beltway gossip for national frontpage news
      – he counsels the candidate to upgrade his “national [community] service in return for a free college education” program from voluntary to mandatory because everyone over 18 will love it, since they won’t have to do it themselves, and no one under 18 can vote*
      – he orders a flunky to steal from petty cash

      You can ask me to accept that Stephen believes Paul is his friend and is shocked when Paul turns on him; that was believable. Don’t ask me to accept that a man who does and says remarkably ignorant and foolish things ON THE JOB is a combination of experienced professional and political savant who inspires fear and admiration in all who know him.

      In summary: Loved the acting. Hated the script.

      *the stupidest thing I’ve heard [in a movie] all year

  7. I don’t know, everyone in the theatre liked the presentaton of the concept. Maybe just the presentaton of it… ;)

    I honestly didn’t understand half of what you wrote in the bullet points because 1) I’m not a politically minded person, and 2) I didn’t listen to every single word spoken in the first half of the film. The film was so light on actual politics (which I enjoyed but fealt that the film, after viewing was rather light) that I was only paying attention to the overall plot. A second viewing would clear everything up for me (characters’ personalities, etc.) but that won’t happen ’till it’s on video and probably not even then.

    I have never voted in my life and don’t plan on it, either. Having just worked for Elections Ontario has solidified my reasoning for not wanting to vote and guess what? Last election had the worst voter turnout in the history of the province. This year, we’ve managed to beat it. 49% of the citizens of Ontario had voted in the current Provintial election (the other 51% don’t even care) and in the district in which I’d worked only 44% had voted.

    The Ides of March took my mind off of the politics that I’d encountered at work, though. lol

    • Well, I vote; in my 18 years as a voter I’ve only missed two primary elections. I’ve worked the polls on election day a few times. My dad and brother have been on the campaign staff for congressional campaigns and I’ve heard their war stories. As an informed and engaged American voter, this movie’s pretense of revealing what goes on behind the curtain was an insult to my intelligence.

  8. More a question than a comment. SPOILER ALERT: What is the significance of the closing scene in which another intern identifies herself as “Morris, not related” and a “Buckeye” (as opposed to Wood, who was a Bearcat from Cincinnati). I have not found a review that even refers to something Clooney must have inserted in the film for a reason. Was this woman the “Morris” on the caller ID that Gosling saw in Wood’s cell phone at 2:30 in the morning earlier?

    • The governor Morris made the phone call. The intern Morris is a walk-on to emphasize the film’s message that interns / pretty young women / “all the little people” (choose your poison) are interchangeable cogs in the political system. Her self-introduction is just the writers being cute. At least that’s my read on it. She definitely isn’t part of the conspiracy plot.


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