Stephen Myers (Ryan Gosling) — the precociously successful media consultant at the center of The Ides of March — knows how to handle his business. Sure, he might believe that the man he’s working for, Pennsylvania Gov. Mike Morris (George Clooney), is the best candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination, and the man who can do the most to make America better. But he’s also just fine with leaking a specious allegation about their opponent in order to waste their time, and with proposing mandatory national service for all 18-year-olds because “everyone who’s too old to be affected will love it … [and everyone else] can’t vote.” If you’re looking for a starry-eyed idealist, whose utopian dreams may be crushed by harsh reality in The Ides of March, it’s best to start your looking elsewhere.
In the abstract, director/co-writer Clooney and regular collaborator Grant Heslov — working from Beau Willimon’s play Farragut North — have an intriguing variation on surrendering-principles-to-the-dirty-game-of-politics narratives like The Candidate: What if the hero has very few principles to begin with? But it’s no small trick to bring an audience along on that kind of character arc, and The Ides of March can’t quite navigate the narrow channel between “calculating bastard” and “even more calculating bastard.”
The principal action takes place in the days leading up to a crucial Democratic primary in Ohio. Morris is leading his more liberal opponent, an Arkansas senator, in the polls, and a win in Ohio would give Morris enough delegates to put him nearly over the top. But there are plenty of complex details for Myers and Morris’ campaign manager, Paul Zara (Phillip Seymour Hoffman), to contend with. The crucial endorsement of another senator (Jeffrey Wright) requires careful negotiation. An open primary presents the possibility that Republicans will flood the Ohio polls to help take down Morris, the theoretically more “electable” moderate Democrat. And when Myers becomes aware of Morris’ involvement in a potentially devastating scandal, he’s forced to launch into rapid damage control.
Throughout the film’s first half, Clooney and company manage to keep it moving fast enough to avoid the danger facing any political drama: losing viewers in the midst of wonky, inside-the-Beltway chatter. It’s always clear what’s at stake, and the punchy script provides enough entertainment that following the bouncing ball isn’t a chore. Best of all, the film captures the manic energy of people trying to keep up with the 24-hour news cycle, monitoring blogs and polling data for vital information. Myers is so immersed in the campaign that even when he’s having sex with one of the campaign’s interns (Evan Rachel Wood), he’s got one eye on television coverage.
But everything in The Ides of March ultimately pivots around the way Myers reacts when cornered — by the need to clean up Morris’ mess, by rumors that he may have met with an opposing campaign manager (Paul Giamatti) — and that’s where the movie hits a wall. Gosling’s taciturn presence was perfect for roles like the mysterious protagonist in Drive or the stoic romantic lead in The Notebook. Here, we can never quite get behind Myers’ need to maintain a slick, unruffled exterior. Does he ever really believe in the man he’s working for? And if not, is there anything at stake here besides a cynical look at the petty interpersonal dramas that could help determine who we choose as our leader?
Clooney tries to add some directing flair to this adaptation, but many of his choices feel showy, like lingering on the exterior of an SUV where a political beheading is taking place rather than showing us the actual conversation. He also opts not to show us a crucial moment we only later hear about when Myers threatens revenge when he feels he’s being thrown to the wolves. Despite the Shakespearean overtones of the title, The Ides of March doesn’t focus its attentions where they seem to be most crucial — on whether Myers is about to make the choice to sell his soul, or whether he’s long since offered it up on the eBay of contemporary politics and is just waiting out the end of the auction.