REVIEW: The Ides of March

8 10 2011

George Clooney’s “The Ides of March” makes plenty of references to the brokenness of the American political system, something you can observe by merely turning on the news nowadays.  But perhaps the most problematic indicator of the nation’s shortcomings is how easily the film can be read as a black comedy.  Clooney and co-writer Grant Heslov’s script is chock full of cruel ironies, many of which are veiled references to various political scandals.  And the very liberal Clooney is all too happy to throw Bill Clinton, and to some extent, Barack Obama, under the bus.

In an era where Congressmen send lewd pictures over Twitter, governors have foreign mistresses, and presidents act improperly with interns, is it possible that we’ve become so desensitized to scandal that we have just accepted that the system will fail us?  “The Ides of March,” with its grandiose plot of political intrigue, seems to imply yes by the lengths it has to go to shock us.  And in 2011, when public opinion seems to have turned against the establishment, this may be the movie people watch in the future to see American disillusionment and the failure of Obama’s hope and change rhetoric.

Based on “Farragut North,” which in turn was loosely based on Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign for the Oval Office, the film follows Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), a young, idealistic campaign manager for Governor Mike Morris (George Clooney), a candidate he truly believes in.  Yet even when things are looking up for his guy, he takes a meeting with Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the lead campaign manager for Morris’ rival in the Democratic primaries.  Merely by accepting the meeting invitation, Meyers puts himself into the Caesarean situation implied by the title: being threatened not only by one’s enemies but also by one’s friends.

Meyers also further mires himself by getting involved with Molly Stearns (Evan Rachel Wood), his intern who also happens to be the daughter of the DNC chairman.  The two of them have the ability to unravel Morris’ entire campaign, and the only way Meyers can hold it all together by sacrifice – either of himself or of his valued ideals.  Since “The Ides of March” is a movie, self-sacrifice wouldn’t sell tickets, so naturally Meyers begins to sell his soul to the Devil (or the political machine, whichever noun you please.)

Clooney and Heslov’s acrid, crisp dialogue so perfectly portrays the moral vapidity of American politics; every line feels memorable and worthy of closed reading.  It’s rare that a political movie feels like neither a civics lesson nor platitudinal, and Clooney’s remarkably neutral movie bypasses partisan guidelines.  Whether you support Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, or some other offshoot, you can’t help but be frustrated by the government right now.  And if it really is as lawless and corrupt as “The Ides of March” makes it out to be, maybe we should side with Clooney in saying that attempts to reform it are futile.

However, while it may capture the spirit of the time with shocking accuracy, I wish it could capture the tones of its own story with such dexterity.  Clooney mixes the political drama with the political thriller in an incredibly uneven fashion, and as a result, the movie doesn’t reach the heights it should be able to achieve.  Other elements suffer as well because of the movie’s indecision, namely the acting from Gosling and Wood, both fantastic performers who underwhelm here.  Their chemistry is cringe-worthy, and they both overact like they are trying to prove someone.  Meyers is a role written for Oscar glory, yet Gosling blows it by constantly making the most unnecessarily over-the-top facial expressions that were often ridiculous to the point of being laughable.

Yet George Clooney, one of the few celebrities who actually knows what he’s saying when he talks politics, somewhat bungling a message beats just about anything else at the multiplex nowadays, largely because those movies don’t have any sort of message.  The cynical undertones of “The Ides of March” make it tough to digest, yet digest it does.  I only wish he had made it a little more consistent so it would be easier to swallow as well.  B / 

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