An argument could be made for The Ides of March being the least-political political film of all time. Though the story concerns a presidential candidate and his campaign team, there is only a minute amount of politics discussed in film. This is no accident and George Clooney, who co-wrote, directed and stars in the film, is smart to approach the material that way as the events that unfold could take place in any number of arenas; it just happens to take place during a race for the White House.
In the film, Governor Mike Morris (Clooney) is seeking the Democratic Party’s nomination for President of the United States. His campaign is led by longtime ally Paul Zara (Philip Seymour Hoffman) who is assisted, and often overshadowed, by Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) whose charm, good looks and intelligence makes him a key asset for Governor Morris’ team. As so many races do, the outcome has come down to the always important state of Ohio where Morris’ opponent, Senator Pullman (Michael Mantell), and his campaign manager, Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), are doing everything they can to win.
The numerous ethical dilemmas that will be faced by the characters are set up early in the film. Duffy makes it no secret that he wants Stephen on his team working for Pullman. Stephen believes in Morris and his chances to win, so he initially rebuffs the offers. Soon, though, Duffy plants the seed of doubt in Stephen’s mind when he informs the young go-getter about Morris’ real chances. Stephen also becomes entwined with Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood) with whom he knows he should not get involved. Very quickly, Stephen’s confidence (or is it hubris?) leads to his entire world crashing down around him.
The film moves at a brisk, yet even, pace. Though Clooney is directing, he smartly refrains from imposing any deliberate visual style on the film. That is not to say The Ides of March does not look good; Clooney and cinematographer Phedon Papamichael (W., Sideways) give the film a very clean and polished look which reflects the superficial appeal of Governor Morris. What it means is that Clooney realizes that the story, which is based on the play Farragut North by Beau Willimon, is so tremendous that any attempt to distract from it would be an insult.
This is a movie in which the script is the star, not the director and not the actors. Written by Clooney, Grant Heslov and Willimon, The Ides of March is one of the most intelligent scripts in recent memory. The only other title with as much confidence that comes to mind is Michael Clayton, which starred Clooney. Perhaps he learned a few tips from writer/director Tony Gilroy. The script for The Ides of March is practically flawless as the story seamlessly unfolds around the characters. The film is set up like a chess match between a novice and a master where some characters can see four and five moves ahead and some can only see the their chance to take a pawn.
Almost as good as the screenplay are the performances given by the cast. Gosling proves yet again why his career is in overdrive right now. He plays Stephen with such depth and certainty that an Oscar nomination is almost certain. Hoffman and Giamatti are as good as ever, playing the two least likable characters, but the ones who are always right. Marisa Tomei, whose career has made a complete 180, gives a solid performance as a despicable journalist who is only out for herself. Wood gives one of her best performances as an outwardly confident young woman who gets in way over her head. And, of course, Clooney, who takes a backseat on this ride, is terrific and shows off a dark side we rarely see from him.
The Ides of March is a film that brilliantly examines ethical challenges not just in politics, but in life. With an amazing script and wonderful performances, there is very little to not like about this film.
The Ides of March runs 101 minutes and is rated R.